NASHVILLE-- On one sideline, Mississippi State first-year head coach Dan Mullen was getting a Gatorade shower upon the occasion of his first Southeastern Conference win. Across the way, a humbled Vanderbilt squad, which had come looking for its first SEC win of the season, was still looking.
On a wet night at Vanderbilt Stadium, behind a 123-yard rushing performance by Anthony Dixon, the Bulldogs (2-1, 1-1 SEC) escaped Music City with a 15-3 win over Vanderbilt (1-2, 0-2 SEC). Coming as it did to a team projected to finish at the bottom of the SEC West, the loss put a serious gash in the Commodores' hopes for a second straight winning season.
The weather was nearly as miserable as Vanderbilt's offensive performance. Finishing with an anemic 157 total yards against a team that had surrendered 589 yards to Auburn one week earlier, the VU offense suffered through its most disappointing performance since, well, a 17-14 loss to Mississippi State in 2008.
The Commodores' only score, a 20-yard Ryan Fowler field goal in the second quarter, came after Tim Fugger recovered a fumble at the Mississippi State 6-yard line. Vandy had to settle for the three-pointer after the offense failed in three downs to produce a touchdown.
Turns out, it would be the only time Vanderbilt would sniff the red zone all night.
"Either we threw it poorly, or threw it well and dropped it," said Coach Bobby Johnson. "The rest of the time on offense, they were sacking us. We couldn't get the run going and couldn't pass to get us out of it.
"We played great defense in the first quarter and had the ball around the 50-yard line several times and didn't capitalize at all. We just couldn't get it in the end zone."
Strong-armed sophomore Larry Smith, making only his fourth start as a Commodore, suffered through his worst outing and never seemed to find a rhythm with his receivers. He finished 12-of-32 passing with one interception. As was the case a week earlier against LSU, a number of his passes were dropped by receivers.
Mississippi State's defense held Vandy's rushing game to a meager 33 yards on 29 attempts, an average of 1.1 yards per carry. For the second straight week the Vanderbilt defense probably played well enough to win, but was left on the field way too long. The Bulldogs' time-of-possession was 38:09.
State staked out a 6-3 lead at halftime on a pair of second-quarter Sean Brauchle field goals. Brauchle's third field goal of the night came in the third quarter from 49 yards out, after Vandy's Alex Washington fumbled while fair-catching a punt.
State quarterback Tyson Lee scored on a 22-yard run with 3:20 left in the game, but the Bulldogs failed to convert on a two-point attempt, leaving the score 15-3. The Commodores put together one frantic final drive-- their best drive of the night-- but were stymied when Damein Anderson picked off a Larry Smith pass at the State 5-yard-line with 2:33 left.
After suffering through the 2008 season with a mostly unproductive offense, the Vanderbilt staff thought it had made strides by implementing a no-huddle approach and installing Smith as field general. But as Saturday night clearly demonstrated, the new scheme is still a work in progress.
"We have a lot of soul searching to do, but we're not going to give up," said Johnson. "We have a lot of football to play. Nobody in our locker room is going to give up. There are some low guys in there right now and they're going to come out of this and learn from tonight."
The Commodores travel to Houston, Texas next Saturday to face Rice in a CSS-regionally televised game. The Owls fell to 0-3 after losing 41-24 to Oklahoma State Saturday. Last year, Vanderbilt defeated the Owls in Nashville, 38-21.
Sophomore cornerback Casey Hayward missed the second half with an unspecified injury, and was replaced by Jamie Graham and Eddie Foster.
Vanderbilt was without the services of senior safety and captain Ryan Hamilton, who had started 34 consecutive games at free safety. His season was ended last week when he suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the loss to LSU.
Punter Brett Upson, who punted a career-high 11 times, had an outstanding night. Included among his punts were a 63-yarder and a 61-yarder.
Mississippi State took a 12-7-2 lead in the sparsely played series. The two schools are not scheduled to meet again until 2013.