September 5, 2008

Vanderbilt senses change of fortune after win

Vanderbilt 24, South Carolina 17: Box score | Recap | More photos

NASHVILLE The longest run of futility in Southeastern Conference history could end at a most unexpected time.

Vanderbilt has suffered 25 consecutive losing seasons, three shy of the dubious NCAA record held by Oregon State, which finished below .500 every season from 1971-98. But as we head into the second weekend of the season, the Commodores already are one-third of the way toward ending a quarter-century of frustration.

They're silencing their critics and themselves.

"I'm speechless right now," Vanderbilt defensive tackle Greg Billinger said Thursday after the Commodores' 24-17 upset of South Carolina.

Who could blame him?

Vanderbilt (2-0) earned its first home victory over a ranked team since a 31-9 triumph over No. 25 Ole Miss in 1992. The Commodores pulled it off despite being outgained by 100 yards. They scored all 24 of their points after turnovers or special-teams breakdowns by South Carolina.

This unlikely victory moved Vanderbilt one step closer to earning its first bowl bid since 1982, the year before the notorious streak began.

"We're trying to let people know we're not a blow-off game and we're not a blow-off team," said Vanderbilt tailback Jared Hawkins, who rushed for a game-high 84 yards on 17 carries. "We're going to come out and we're going to hit you in the mouth."

The streak was supposed to end in 2005, when the Jay Cutler-led Commodores opened 4-0. But Vandy lost six of its final seven games.

Then it was expected to happen last season. Vanderbilt had the SEC's most prolific receiver (Earl Bennett), one of the league's top linebackers (Jonathan Goff) and a first-round pick at offensive tackle (Chris Williams). The Commodores instead dropped their last four games to finish 5-7.

Chris Nickson ran for one touchdown and threw for another as host Vanderbilt capitalized on South Carolina's mistakes to upset the Gamecocks. All of Vandy's points came after turnovers or botched field-goal attempts by South Carolina. Vanderbilt scored three touchdowns in the second half after gaining just 50 yards of total offense in the first half.
South Carolina junior tight end Jared Cook caught eight passes for 111 yards to set career highs in both categories. The Gamecocks continually went to Cook after star wide receiver Kenny McKinley suffered a leg injury in the first half. Honorable mention goes to Vanderbilt running back Jared Hawkins, who toughed out a game-high 84 yards rushing. Hawkins' running was the reason Vandy was able to run out the clock in the fourth quarter.
Vanderbilt defensive end Greg Billinger had six tackles and two sacks, and he also blocked a field-goal attempt to set up the Commodores' go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter. Vanderbilt linebacker Patrick Benoist recorded a game-high 15 tackles two for loss and one sack.
Vanderbilt trailed 10-3 and had struggled to do anything on offense when it punted the ball away early in the third quarter. South Carolina cornerback Addison Williams was lining up to block on the return and never saw the ball until it glanced off his leg. Vanderbilt's Ryan Hamilton pounced on the loose ball at South Carolina's 31. On the next play, Nickson found tight end Brandon Barden for a game-tying touchdown.
McKinley scored the game's first touchdown on a 19-yard catch in the first quarter, but he injured his right leg later in the first half and never returned. Vanderbilt cornerback Darlron Spead hurt his leg at the end of a 41-yard interception return in the second quarter. Vanderbilt wide receiver Chris Reinert was carted off the field in the fourth quarter.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier lived up to his word. Spurrier had said he would replace the first South Carolina player who committed a false start Thursday. Sure enough, Cook went to the sideline after he jumped offside with the Gamecocks facing third-and-goal from the 14 in the first quarter. The Gamecocks went on to score the game's first touchdown on the next play. Vanderbilt has beaten South Carolina two consecutive times for the first time since 1998-99. South Carolina won a total of one game in those two seasons. South Carolina sophomore quarterback Chris Smelley went 23 of 39 to set career highs in both categories. McKinley caught a pass in his 35th consecutive game to set a school record. Vanderbilt won an SEC home opener for the first time since a 24-21 victory over LSU in 1990.
The streak certainly wasn't supposed to end this season. All the stars had moved on, and Vandy doesn't have a returning starter on the offensive line. Things looked so bleak that Vanderbilt opened the season as an underdog to Miami Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio. Vanderbilt instead won that game 34-13 and fooled the oddsmakers again Thursday.

Vanderbilt has gained enough confidence that Commodores coach Bobby Johnson wondered Thursday night why nobody seemed to think his team could beat South Carolina. After all, the Commodores had beaten a sixth-ranked South Carolina team 17-6 on the road last season.

"I was surprised so many people thought it would be real hard for us to beat them," Johnson said. "We beat them last year, and I don't know why everybody thought they got so much better than we were getting."

Still, there's no question South Carolina lost this game as much as Vanderbilt won it. Quarterback Chris Smelley lived up to his surname by throwing two first-half interceptions. Vanderbilt scored the tying touchdown after a punt glanced off the leg of South Carolina cornerback Addison Williams, giving the Commodores the ball at the Gamecocks' 31. And Vandy's final two touchdowns came after a blocked field goal and a missed field-goal attempt by Ryan Succop.

"We were ready to play," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. "We just got our butts kicked. I'm sure those Vanderbilt players are wondering what kind of excuse the South Carolina guys have now. We don't have any excuses. They just beat us."

South Carolina also suffered a major blow when preseason All-SEC receiver Kenny McKinley suffered a first-half leg injury and sat out the rest of the game. McKinley had scored South Carolina's first touchdown on a 19-yard reception.

Then again, Vanderbilt fans might argue a night like this was long overdue after all the near-misses that marked the 2007 season. Vandy was driving for a tie-breaking score late in the fourth quarter against Georgia when it fumbled at the Bulldogs' 7. Georgia's Brandon Coutu then kicked a 37-yard field goal as time expired to give Georgia a 20-17 victory. Tennessee eked out a 25-24 victory after Vandy's Bryan Hahnfeldt barely missed a 49-yard field goal with 33 seconds remaining. And Vandy missed two field goals and an extra-point attempt in a 27-20 loss to Kentucky.

"You kind of feel like you catch a lot of bad breaks here at Vanderbilt," defensive end Steven Stone said. "We kind of feel we made our own good breaks this game."

The Commodores seized the moment whenever South Carolina made a mistake. They didn't come up small when the plays got bigger. The last five minutes underscored Vanderbilt's new attitude.

South Carolina had cut a 14-point deficit in half when the Gamecocks moved into Vandy territory. Smelley finally was starting to find his rhythm, and the Commodores seemed on the verge of allowing a victory to slip through their grasp once again.

But Vanderbilt responded by delivering back-to-back sacks that pushed South Carolina to the Commodores' 42 with about 2 1/2 minutes remaining. Spurrier chose to punt, assuming his defense would force the Commodores into a three-and-out. Vanderbilt instead ran out the clock.

"We're a new Vanderbilt," junior center Bradley Vierling said. "We're ready to go and ready to win big games."

Vanderbilt fans shouldn't order their bowl tickets just yet. This team still has many more flaws than victories. Quarterback Chris Nickson hasn't thrown for more than 91 yards this season. Nobody has stepped forward to replace Bennett as the Commodores' go-to receiver. And the 'Dores still must prove they can play well late in the season after staggering down the stretch the past few seasons.

"This, I think, ups the ante a little bit," Johnson said. "We've got a responsibility now to keep playing this way."

Then again, that we're even questioning how the Commodores can handle prosperity shows how much things have changed.

"There are a lot of exciting things happening here at Vanderbilt," Nickson said. "I think everyone saw that."

Steve Megargee is a national writer for He can be reached at

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