October 5, 2008

Vanderbilt's Johnson calm amid sea of jubilation

Vanderbilt 14, Auburn 13: Recap | Box score

NASHVILLE, Tenn. When pausing to take breaths between euphoric cheers Saturday night, Vanderbilt fans celebrating a 14-13 victory over Auburn might have felt a sense of confusion.

They'd never seen this before. And yet, they're seeing it seemingly every week now.

Once again, the upstart Commodores made clutch plays when it mattered most and for the third consecutive week did not surrender any points in the second half. By doing so, Vanderbilt knocked down a list of dubious barriers that extend back more than half a century.

The Commodores are 5-0 for the first time since 1943, 3-0 in the Southeastern Conference for the first time since 1950, one victory away from being eligible for their first bowl appearance since 1984 and can celebrate a win over Auburn for the first time since 1955. And they did it with backup quarterback Mackenzi Adams leading them back from an early 13-point deficit.

This victory might have been the biggest in Vanderbilt's football history.

"I don't know where this one ranks," coach Bobby Johnson said. "Back when Dan McGugin was the coach (1919-1934) his teams beat teams 50-0.

We'll gather all of that information at the end of the season, and see how we do. We still have a lot of work."

Typical Johnson. He remains stoic when everyone else is going bananas.

"I'm excited," he said in a monotone voice that did not indicate much emotion. "This is what coaches live for. You live for walking into the dressing room after the game and see how happy the players are. That makes me emotional."

No. 19 Vanderbilt rallied from an early two-touchdown deficit to take a 14-13 victory over No. 13 Auburn. Backup quarterback Mackenzi Adams threw two touchdown passes and the Vanderbilt defense shut down Auburn in the second half. The Commodores did not allow any points in the second half for the third consecutive game.
That was Adams without a doubt. He completed 13 of 23 passes for 153 yards and threw touchdown tosses to Justin Wheeler and Brandon Barden. He also rushed for 54 yards.
Picking one is a tough choice, but linebacker Patrick Benoist posted a game-high 13 tackles with two for losses and broke up a pass. Safety Ryan Hamilton had 10 tackles and cornerback Myron Lewis had a game-clinching interception. Punter Brett Upson also killed four punts inside the 20, including one at the 3-yard line with a little more than two minutes remaining.
Adams hit Wheeler with a 15-yard touchdown pass on third-and-goal with 15 seconds left in the first half. That gave Vanderbilt momentum going into intermission and the Commodores dominated the second half.
Vanderbilt starting quarterback Chris Nickson apparently aggravated a right (throwing) shoulder injury on a 17-yard run midway through the second quarter. Two plays later, Nickson bounced a short pass to receiver Udom Umoh and then left the game. He did not return. Nickson separated his shoulder against Ole Miss two weeks ago.
Vanderbilt is the first team to score a touchdown in the first half against Auburn this season. Auburn had allowed just three field goals in the first half this season. Receiver Rodgeriqus Smith became the seventh player in Auburn history to accumulate 100 career receptions. He now has 103 catches, which ranks sixth in school history. Vanderbilt has outscored opponents 58-10 in the second half. Wheeler had a career-high with five catches for 52 yards and his first touchdown catch of the season. Benoist posted his third double-digit tackle total this year.
While Johnson kept his cool, no one else associated with Vanderbilt did. Even when Auburn scored two touchdowns in one minute in the first quarter, the Commodores played with the steadiness and intensity that's expected from a top-20 team.

"We were playing with a lot of confidence, a lot of swagger and a lot of heart," safety Reshard Langford said. "That's why we didn't give up."

In previous seasons, the Commodores teased their fans with solid first-half performances and then collapsed in the second half. But this is a new era on West End.

This time, Vanderbilt made the plays that nationally ranked teams are supposed to.

Adams, who came on when Chris Nickson re-injured his right shoulder in the second quarter, threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Justin Wheeler on third-and-goal with 39 seconds left in the second quarter to give the Commodores momentum going into halftime.

He hit 6-foot-5 tight end Brandon Barden, who was surrounded by three defenders, in the back of the end zone for a 14-13 lead midway through the third quarter.

"I got a lot of reps in practice this week," Adams said. "We split it about 50-50, so I felt I was real familiar with the game plan. When I got thrown in there, I felt pretty confident in the plays they were going to call."

Just as it has done so routinely this year, the Vanderbilt defense took over from there.

Auburn netted 4 yards rushing in the second half, even though coach Tommy Tuberville sent in backup quarterback Kodi Burns to try to jump start the offense. Auburn gained just 57 total yards in the second half.

"We really needed to calm down because they ran it right down our throats (in the first half)," Vanderbilt linebacker Patrick Benoist said. "We made a few tweaks here and there, but everyone was excited. We had to settle down and play our game.

"We've always preached playing the whole game. Once we adjust and play our game we're able to fly around and make plays."

The final play they made was an interception by Myron Lewis that clinched the victory, sent the crowd into a frenzy and gave Vandy a measure of validation.

Sure, Vandy was unbeaten, ranked 19th and on national TV, but previous victories were over Miami University, Rice, South Carolina and Ole Miss hardly national powers. Auburn has won SEC championships and contended for national titles. Beating Auburn, ranked 13th, means more.

"I feel that within our team we knew what we could do," Benoist said. "But to the outside world, maybe this validated things."

It should. The Commodores are doing things they've never done before again.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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