NASHVILLE-- Shortly before the opening game of the season, 1,650 new Vanderbilt freshmen exuberantly ran the length of the field, a custom that has become a school tradition. Once the game was underway, a couple of promising young running backs continued the wild parade by running all over Western Carolina.
To the delight of a gold-and-black-attired crowd of 36,350, the Commodores rode a surprisingly robust running game Saturday evening to cruise to a 45-0 victory in their season opener against its outmanned foe, the Catamounts of Cullowhee, N.C.
Yes, they were feasting against inferior FCS competition in a game that served as a virtual preseason exhibition game for upcoming Southeastern Conference games (in college, of course, these games count in the record). And yes, there were a few negligible kinks that need to be worked out in coming weeks.
But the gaudy numbers on the final stat sheet brought smiles to all Vandy's partisan observers, not to mention head coach Bobby Johnson.
"We were able to take control of the game early," said Johnson. "We had some lulls that we will need to clean up, but this gave us a good chance to run our offense and try different things."
Even with its much-ballyhooed no-huddle offense occasionally sputtering, Vanderbilt rolled up 620 yards of offense, a staggering 433 of it on the ground. With starting tailback Jared Hawkins sidelined with a bad foot, the Commodores unleashed a pair of true freshman tailbacks, Zac Stacy and Warren Norman, who together combined for 240 yards. It was the first time in school history that two freshmen had ever rushed for over 100 yards in the same game.
Stacy's total of 135 yards was a school record for a freshman. Norman, alternating series with Stacy, also went over the century mark with 105. Even Kennard Reeves and Jermaine Doster were impressive in limited relief duty in the fourth quarter.
"They're cool customers and can handle the pressure," Johnson said of his running backs. "They've done a good job of learning the offense and were able to run through some big holes."
As dominating was the offensive performance, the Commodore defense, which hold the Catamounts to four first downs, was even moreso. The shutout was the first for Vanderbilt since 1999. WCU was simply unable to produce much of anything against Vandy's stifling stop corps, which forced four turnovers.
"On offense I felt like it was three plays and out almost every series," said Catamount coach Dennis Wagner. "The inability to move the football kept our defense on the field way too much."
Sophomore quarterback Larry Smith, whose only previous start had come in last year's Music City Bowl victory, accounted for 219 total yards and a touchdown pass before leaving the game in the third quarter with an injury. Senior Mackenzi Adams relieved Smith the rest of the way, giving way to third-stringer Jared Funk on the final series.
On the team's first drive, inches from scoring his first career rushing touchdown, Smith coughed up the football diving for the goal line and came up empty. But he redeemed himself two series later, throwing a 46-yard strike to receiver Justin Green for the Commodores' first touchdown of the season.
Utilizing the no-huddle, Vanderbilt produced two more long first-half drives to take a 21-0 halftime lead, with Norman and Stacy getting their first career touchdowns.
Norman added another touchdown to cap off a 43-yard drive in the third quarter that essentially put the game on ice. Commodore coaches emptied the bench in the fourth quarter. Kennard Reeves scored on a 7-yard run, and little-used Ryan van Rensburg bulled in for a 2-yard score to make the score 42-0.
It wasn't all pretty. Punter Brett Upson had a couple of bad-looking punts, and freshman Ryan Fowler missed the first two of his three field goal attempts, before connecting on a meaningless attempt with 45 seconds left in the game.
But few could have asked for a more satisfying performance in an opener. The Commodores were 6-of-8 in the red zone, and committed only three penalties.
The going gets much tougher next week, when the Commodores open SEC play at No. 9 LSU. The Tigers played a late game Saturday on the west coast vs. Washington from the Pac-10.
- How good is this Vanderbilt secondary? Jamie Graham didn't even start. The Dores' all-purpose sophomore athlete played considerably on defense as a nickel back, but wasn't in the starting lineup for offense or defense.
- Freshman Eric Samuels had both a fumble recovery and an interception in mop-up duty in the fourth quarter.
- Zac Stacy was often utilized in the "Stallion" formation, running a direct snap from center. The formation produced a 9-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
- Vanderbilt won its season opener for the third straight season.