By Ron Wynn
It was a historic occasion Saturday at Dudley Stadium, and not just because Vanderbilt defeated Kentucky 38-8, putting themselves in position for their first bowl bid since 2008. What really made the day special was the first SEC meeting between two schools with Black head coaches. James Franklin, in his first year with Vanderbilt, evened his record at 5-5 with two road contests remaining. Joker Phillips, in his second season at Kentucky, saw his team dip to 4-6. Their streak of bowl games is definitely in jeopardy. Both men acknowledged the game’s significance, though many students on both campuses had no memories of the decades when the SEC was an all-White league. It also continued a string of firsts for Vanderbilt. They also had the SEC’s first Black basketball player (Perry Wallace) and first Black man in charge of an SEC athletic program (David Williams). Franklin is one of five new Black head coaches in the FBS division this season.
Only three tough SEC losses by a combined 13 points have kept the Commodores from having an even better mark, and their 2-5 SEC slate is deceptive. Only South Carolina and Alabama have outclassed Vanderbilt this season. Both Georgia and Arkansas at home and Florida on the road were competitive contests. Vanderbilt lead much of the game against the Razorbacks, and nearly came back to beat the Bulldogs and Gators.
Vanderbilt didn’t give the Kentucky Wildcats any time to even consider upsetting them. They raced out to a 24-0 halftime lead. The only issue late in the game concerned whether the Commodores would get their first shutout over Kentucky in over 40 years. Kentucky averted that embarrassment with a third quarter touchdown and two-point conversion, but were otherwise completely outplayed on Senior Day by a Vanderbilt team determined not to lose a game where they were a prohibitive favorite.
The Commodores’ defensive line totally shut down Kentucky’s running game. The Wildcats gained only 32 yards total and didn’t convert a single third down (0 for 12). The only area where Kentucky had an advantage was in penalty yards, where they got 105, much of that due to frustration with late hits and jumping offsides. Vanderbilt had only 25. The Commodores’ offensive star was junior tailback Zac Stacy, who gained 135 yards on 28 carries and scored three touchdowns. He helped Vandy capitalize on an early Kentucky mistake. Pumter Ryan Tydlacka couldn’t hold an ankle-high snap and was tackled on his three yard line by Udom Umoh. Stacy easily scored on the next play. On his final touchdown he carried a pile of eight would-be tacklers into the end zone, refusing to go down. The Kentucky faithful among the crowd of 33, 718 started filing out midway through the third quarter. By the game’s conclusion there were virtually no Kentucky supporters in the seats.
Vandy’s season began to turn around when Franklin made the decision to replace senior QB starter Larry Smith with Jordan Rodgers. Though he’s had some accuracy problems, Rodgers has provided the Commodores with more steadiness, and proven a capable runner as well as passer. Rodgers had 207 yards passing and two touchdowns, while wide receiver Jordan Matthews continued to show why his return has elevated the Commodores passing game. He had six catches for 131 yards and a touchdown, his third straight 100-yard receiving game. The victory game Vanderbilt a 5-2 home record for 2011.
Smith did get into the game later, taking the field to a host of cheers. As fans chanted “Larry, Larry,” he moved the Commodores down field with a pair of dashing QB keepers. They ultimately failed to score, but Smith demonstrated he hadn’t lost his enthusiasm despite being supplanted by Rodgers. He maintained his role as a team captain, and continues to be encouraging and supportive on the bench.
Although he downplayed the game’s historical significanc afterwards, Franklin did not devalue what it would mean for Vanderbilt to defeat Tennessee next week in Knoxville. “That would give us one more win than what we have right now,” Franklin said on radio. “I understand the importance of that game, especially to the people in Nashville and our alumni. “But I’m going to stick to our plan.”
Vanderbilt’s last win over UT was a 28-24 victory in 2005. That team included future NFL starters Jay Cutler and Earl Bennett. On this team, the most likely future pro is cornerback Casey Hayward, whose games have been followed this season by scouts from Minnesota, Oakland, St. Louis and Kansas City among others.
Since the first game, fans have carefully studied Vanderbilt’s schedule, projecting at least a 6-6, possibly 7-5 final record. Things have worked out exactly as predicted, with the Commodores winning every home game where they were favored, and narrowly missing on a couple of others. Now they face a Tennessee team that was blown out 49-7 by Arkansas and is facing a potentially winless SEC season. That’s followed by a finale against a Wake Forest squad who narrowly lost to ACC champion Clemson last week in overtime. Neither is going to be an easy contest, though it helps that Tennessee may still be without ace quarterback Tyler Bray and will definitely be without their best receiver Justin Hunter.
Still, Saturday’s Vanderbilt win was more than just another defeat of the Wildcats. It was another step forward in a long march for equality and justice, both on and off the athletic field.