Trailing 31-28, Georgia Tech roared back with 28 unanswered points in the final 17 minutes to defeat the Commodores 56-31. Bolstered by Jonathan Dwyer's 186 rushing yards and three touchdowns, the Yellow Jackets of the Atlantic Coast Conference continued a magical season, improving to 8-1.
Along with Vandy's lost lead disappeared any chance the Commodores (2-7, 0-5 SEC) had for a second consecutive winning season. But the performance kept the home crowd highly entertained for three quarters, and considering the team's recent offensive struggles, offered renewed hopes for the upcoming stretch run.
"Coach Johnson told us he was proud of our effort tonight," said Zac Stacy, who accounted for two of Vandy's four touchdowns. "Mental mistakes hurt us. The game probably would have been a lot closer if not for those turnovers."
Ultimately it was three lost fumbles, along with eight penalties for 67 yards, that contributed to the Commodores' doom. But give credit to an impressive Georgia Tech team as well-- when the dust had settled, the Jackets had rambled for 597 yards and held the ball for 39:45.
"We felt we could move the ball against them," said head coach Bobby Johnson. "But you have to get the ball away from them, and you have to move it when you get it."
Vanderbilt's offense, mostly AWOL since the Rice game, suddenly exploded for 28 points and 257 yards in the first half. What made the difference?
"We were able to run the ball some and pass it some," said Johnson. "We weren't having to convert on third and long all the time. And we caught them on some big plays."
The Commodores lost starting quarterback Larry Smith, who went down with a hamstring injury after a 35-yard run in the first quarter and did not return. Senior backup Mackenzi Adams did well in relief, completing 12-of-22 passes for 152 yards.
"Mackenzi came in and did a good job," Johnson said. "He has done great things for this program and he will continue to step up. Our offense needed this success tonight, and it was good to get the production we've been looking for."
The first half was full of offensive highlights for both squads. After the VU defense surrendered a touchdown on Georgia Tech's first possession, Larry Smith directed Vandy on a crisp 71-yard drive, hitting Warren Norman out of the backfield for a 13-yard scoring play to knot the score at 7-7.
It was on Vandy's next possession that Smith pulled a hamstring and left the game. Filling in for Smith, Mackenzi Adams hit Zac Stacy for a 47-yard gainer on a swing pass to the Tech 5. Stacy gave Vandy a 14-7 lead on a 3-yard dive to the pylon.
Operating like a well-oiled machine, Tech's offense reeled off three touchdowns on its next three possessions to give the Yellow Jackets a 28-14 lead. It was then that Warren Norman fielded a squib kick at the 20, burst through a hole and returned it to the house.
"I just took the kick and ran through the hole I saw open up," said Norman. "They tried not to kick it to me on several occasions. I try to run straight ahead and not try to do too much."
Perhaps sparked by Norman's big return, Vanderbilt's defense suddenly came to life, stopping Georgia Tech on its final two possessions of the half. Meanwhile lightning struck again when Stacy took a handoff around right tackle and scored on a 62-yard run, Vandy's longest of the season. The wild first half ended 28-28.
"Georgia Tech brought an outside blitz, and we ran an outside zone play," said Stacy of his long run. "It was the right play call at the right time."
"We caught them on a blitz," said Johnson. "Brandon Barden put a good block on the blitzer, and Zac went down the field on them."
Vandy grabbed a 31-28 lead in the third quarter on a 22-yard Ryan Fowler field goal, set up by a 42-yard reception by Udom Umoh. When Greg Billinger stymied a long Georgia Tech drive by forcing a fumble at the Vandy 3, things seemed to be going Vandy's way.
But the game turned shortly afterwards, when Vandy gave Georgia Tech the ball back at the Commodore 40. The Jackets drove for a score, aided by a critical offsides penalty on fourth-and-one at Vandy's 6.
"[The penalty] was important," said Tech coach Paul Johnson. "It kept me from having to go for it."
Jonathan Dwyer's three-yard run put Tech ahead to stay, 35-31. Vandy coughed up the football on the first play of its next possession, and Dwyer scored again on another three-yard run. Tech was off to the races.
The final back-breaker was a perfectly thrown 87-yard bomb from Josh Nesbitt to Embry Peeples. The 56 points was the most given up in the Bobby Johnson era at Vandy.
"[The turnovers] were just demoralizing," said Johnson. "They're very, very good on offense. You try to give the defense every advantage, and we did a good job stopping them three or four times.
"But when you give them the ball on a short field, it takes away all the momentum for your offense, and your confidence. After those turnovers, the air just seemed to go out of the bubble."
The Commodores face the nation's top-ranked team, Florida, next Saturday in Gainesville at 7:15 pm ET (ESPN or ESPN2). The Gators (8-0, 6-0 SEC) stayed undefeated by downing Georgia Saturday, 41-17. That win, combined with South Carolina's loss, clinched the SEC Eastern Division championship for Florida.
The announced attendance, 30,262, was the smallest home crowd of the season.
Warren Norman, who had already set a Vanderbilt school record with two kickoff returns for touchdowns, returned a third one for a TD in the second quarter. Only one other player in SEC history has ever returned three kickoffs for touchdown in a season: Tennessee's Willie Gault (1980).
Norman also set a new school record for kickoff return yardage in a season, surpassing D.J. Moore's record set in 2008.