NASHVILLE, Tenn.-- Vanderbilt put together its finest defensive effort of the season against Rex Grossman and Florida's high-powered passing attack, and shut out the Gators in the second half-- but it wasn't enough. The No. 23 Gators escaped with a 21-17 victory Saturday on a windy afternoon at Vanderbilt Stadium.
The victory kept alive the Gators' (7-3, 4-2) faint hopes for an SEC East title. For Vanderbilt (2-8, 0-6), it was another frustrating, close-but-no-cigar loss to a heavily favored opponent.
"[Our defense] battled all day," said Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson. "We gave 'em one touchdown with the interception down on the one-inch line. I was very proud of their effort."
Indeed, the defense's effort was remarkable-- especially when considering the number of players lost to injury, and the fact that Florida scored 71 points on Vanderbilt last year. Bruce Fowler's defense mixed in a variety of coverages and blitzes that kept Grossman off balance much of the afternoon and kept the powerful Gators out of the end zone in the second half.
Vanderbilt's offense, on the other hand, never quite got in synch other than during a time-consuming touchdown drive to begin the second half. Four times in the second half the Commodores had the ball with a chance to take the lead upon completion of a successful drive-- but each time they were stifled by the Florida defense. Vandy's offense was held to only two first downs in the game's final 22 minutes.
"[Florida's defense] got good pressure on us," explained Johnson. "Any time the quarterback gets rushed out of the pocket, it's going to be tough to be consistent. Jay hung in there and hit Dan [Stricker] on a couple. But we do have to get more consistent in our passing game."
On Vandy's final possession the Commodores rolled the dice and went for it on fourth-and-1 from their own 17 with 3:37 left-- and converted. But immediately afterwards, an illegal substitution penalty, followed by a holding penalty which negated a good first-down running play, put the Commodores right back into a hole. The game effectively ended four plays later when, with 1:36 left, a scrambling Jay Cutler was tackled just short of the first-down marker, and Florida took over on downs.
Last year Florida had defeated Vanderbilt 71-13 in Gainesville, but one short year later-- with both teams under new management-- Vanderbilt managed to keep the game exciting and the visiting Gator fans on edge. Under Steve Spurrier the Gators became known for a swashbuckling passing attack, but on this day Ron Zook's Gators had better success on the ground. Tailback Earnest Graham rushed for 124 yards, and the Gators ran 44 running plays and threw only 32 passes.
"You have to give Vanderbilt credit-- they hung in there and did the things that they felt like they had to do to win it," said Zook. "Vanderbilt may have played their best game and I'm proud of the way our team hung in there."
The Gator defense intercepted Jay Cutler twice in the first half, and converted both turnovers into scores. Cutler finished the day 10-of-24 passing for a meager 94 yards, but led the team in rushing with 84 yards. Kwane Doster added 72 yards, and in the process broke the all-time season rushing record for a Vanderbilt freshman.
Vanderbilt's offense stumbled out of the gate, as the Gators deflected a pass and intercepted Cutler on the Commodores' first offensive play. Cory Bailey returned the interception to the Commodore one-foot line, and Graham bulled over the goal line on the next play to give Florida a 7-0 lead less than three minutes into the first quarter.
The Commodores answered with a 40-yard Greg Johnson field goal, and the first quarter ended 7-3. After Guss Scott picked off another Jay Cutler pass, Florida marched 64 yards to take a 14-3 lead, with the touchdown coming on a 1-yard Ran Carthon run over left tackle with 13:45 left in the second quarter.
Vanderbilt's lone touchdown of the first half was set up by a spectacular 65-yard punt return by Brandon Smith-- his first-ever punt return as a Commodore. It put Vandy on the Gators' 10-yard line, and it took the Commodores just three plays to score. Fullback Matthew Tant hit paydirt on a one-yard run, and Greg Johnson's extra point cut the Gators' lead to 14-10.
Florida answered with an 80-yard touchdown drive. The Gators took a 21-10 lead when Grossman snuck over from the 1 with 5:30 left in the half. The Gators threatened again, but Vanderbilt caught a break just before halftime when a 27-yard touchdown pass from Grossman to Aaron Walker was nullified by an illegal procedure penalty.
Vanderbilt got the ball to open the second half, and suddenly the offense began to click. Behind the running of Doster and some skillful work on the option by Cutler, the Commodores moved 80 yards on 15 plays on a drive that consumed exactly half of the third quarter. Cutler scored the touchdown himself on a one-yard option keeper-- with a nifty (albeit probably illegal) push forward by Bara Cola. Vandy trailed 21-17 with 7:30 left in the third.
At this point in the game, the defenses took command. The Commodore 'D' stopped one Florida drive on downs when Florida went for it on fourth-and-5, and stopped another when a 47-yard Matt Leach field goal went wide left.
But the sputtering Commodore offense never again made it into Florida territory, and never seriously threatened to score. In the game's final, fateful 22 minutes, Vanderbilt managed only two first downs. The Commodores were penalized only six times on the day, but two of them came on the critical last possession, and effectively wiped out any chance the offense had to move into scoring position.
The Commodores (2-8, 0-6 in the SEC) have now lost 15 straight SEC games. Next week Vanderbilt travels the site of its last SEC victory, as the Commodores take on the Kentucky Wildcats (6-4, 2-4) in an untelevised 12:30 p.m. game in Lexington, Ky. The Wildcats lost 33-30 to LSU on Saturday.
Before the game 25 seniors were recognized in their last game of the season at Vanderbilt Stadium. (The Nov. 23 finale against Tennessee will be played at Nashville's downtown Coliseum, the home of the NFL Tennessee Titans.)
Kwane Doster's 72 rushing yards made him Vanderbilt's all-time freshman rushing leader. With 687 yards this season, Doster surpassed Carl "Goo Baby" Woods, who had 644 yards in 1983.
The Commodores played without injured players Robert Dinwiddie, Cheron Thompson, and Dominique Morris and Erik Davis. Linebacker Moses Osemwegie saw limited action. Two other defensive players, Antoine Morgan and Chuck Losey, suffered injuries Saturday, but later returned to action.