ATHENS, Ga.-- The dream of bowl eligibility will have to wait at least one more week for Vanderbilt. The No. 22 Commodores had designs on cracking the five-win glass ceiling in style Saturday, by spoiling Georgia's Homecoming before a regional TV audience.
But it wasn't to be. Before a festive early afternoon crowd of 92,476, the No. 10 Bulldogs outlasted Vandy to earn a 24-14 SEC win. In dropping their second straight game after starting the season 5-0, the Commodores took the fight to Georgia for the better part of four quarters but ultimately came up short.
Georgia tailback Knowshon Moreno turned in a 172-yard rushing day to lead the Bulldogs, and Matthew Stafford threw for 194 yards and a pair of scores. Georgia took a 14-0 lead late in the first half and never trailed. The Commodores twice cut the lead to seven points and kept the crowd of mostly red-wearing onlookers on edge for most of the day, but couldn't take advantage on its four second-half offensive opportunities to close the gap.
"This was a tough game and a tough place to play against a tough team," said VU head coach Bobby Johnson. "We gave them too many opportunities on offense, and we didn't make enough plays defensively."
In the end the Commodores were dominated in most statistical categories, as has been the trend in recent games. But as has also been the case, the Commodores were still hanging around in the fourth quarter with a chance to win or tie the score.
Trailing 21-14 late in the fourth after a Georgia field goal attempt bounced off the upright, the Commodores took over on their own 20. But the Georgia defense held, and a fourth-down Mackenzi Adams pass to Jamie Graham came up less than a yard short of the first down marker-- enabling the Bulldogs to tack on a field goal with 0:17 left.
"I thought when the ball hit the upright and it came back that it was a good omen for us," said Johnson. "Our guys didn't quit, and I don't even have to worry about them. I think we played better this week than last [in a loss to Mississippi State]."
Indeed, there were positives for a Vanderbilt team that had accomplished little on offense the previous week. The rushing game managed 114 yards against a rugged Georgia defense that had allowed only a single rushing yard the previous week against Tennessee.
Adams, named Monday as starting quarterback to replace the struggling Chris Nickson, went the whole way, completing 16 of 32 passes (both season highs) for 131 yards and both of Vandy's touchdowns. He was intercepted twice. Graham turned in his best day as a receiver, catching four passes including the two that went for scores.
Georgia took the lead late in the first quarter on a 17-yard pass from Stafford to the sensational freshman receiver A.J. Green. The Bulldogs kept Vandy backed up through most of the second quarter and took a 14-0 lead with 2:45 left, on a 9-yard pass from Stafford to Mohammed Massaquoi.
But the Commodores would cut into that lead before halftime. Adams led the team on its only long drive of the day, a 75-yard march aided by a pair of pass interference penalties. Adams capped it off with an 18-yard aerial to Graham in the corner of the end zone, cutting the halftime score to 14-7.
Georgia took the second-half kickoff and marched 73 yards early in the third quarter. After an officials' review erased an 11-yard Moreno touchdown run on first down (cameras showed his knee had touched the ground back at the line of scrimmage), Moreno methodically took it to the house again on second down to put the Bulldogs up 21-7.
But the Vanderbilt defense, strong all year in the second half, buckled down from that point. A Myron Lewis interception of a tipped pass put Vandy in business at the Georgia 26. Graham used his athletic ability to make a leaping catch of a perfectly thrown Adams fade pass to record his second touchdown catch of the day.
"We prepared all week for this," said Graham, a redshirt freshman. "We knew they were suspect in the red zone. We knew once we could get behind them we would score. We work on the routes all the time in practice."
The teams traded punts for most of the rest of the half. Georgia finally got its offense uncorked for a long drive midway through the fourth, but Blair Walsh's 37-yard field goal attempt was no good, keeping Vandy alive for its last offensive opportunity.
Georgia's win vaulted the Bulldogs into a tie with Florida atop the SEC's Eastern Division. Both the Bulldogs and Gators have conference records of 3-1. Vanderbilt (3-2 SEC) hosts Florida Nov. 8, but no longer controls its destiny and will need help to beat out Georgia for the title.
"I would love to think we could have separated from them, but Vanderbilt has a lot of heart and fight and discipline," said Georgia head coach Mark Richt. "You have to give them credit, but you have to give our guys credit too. Our guys just beat an SEC Eastern Division team and a team that wouldn't die easily."
At 5-2, the Commodores still have five more cracks at that elusive sixth win which would assure bowl eligibility and the first non-losing season in 26 years. They return home next week for a non-conference contest against Duke. The Blue Devils fell to 3-3 after Saturday's Atlantic Coast Conference loss to Miami.
"We know we have Duke next week, and you don't think much about the wins and losses right after it happens," said Graham. "You're always focused on the next game."
After gaining a meager 45 yards on the ground against Mississippi State, the Commodores tried two new starters on the offensive line. Promising redshirt freshman Kyle Fischer played at left tackle, and junior Eric Hensley got the start at right guard. "We were determined to run the ball today," Johnson said. "We have guys on the offensive line who are realizing what we are trying to do to run the ball. We are looking for people who want to be out there and follow the coaching."
Chris Nickson entered the game for a single play in the third quarter, a third-and-one play at midfield. Nickson bobbled the snap, and had to fall on it for a 5-yard loss.
D.J. Moore, Vanderbilt's Mr. Everything, was used on several series as a receiver on offense. He touched the ball twice, both times on runs, gaining 7 yards on each carry. On defense Moore had an interception, his third of the season. But was stymied on punt returns, with a total of -3 yards on two chances.