By Ron Wynn
During his two years at Vanderbilt coach James Franklin has been seeking a breakout win in SEC competition. He may have gotten it Saturday night as the Vanderbilt Commodores upset Missouri 19-15 in Columbia. It was the Commodores’ first SEC road win under Franklin, and improved their league record to 1-2 (2-3 overall). It was also the first time in the past seven games where they’ve won in a close contest (seven points or less).
Vanderbilt outscored Missouri 10-6 in the fourth quarter, scoring a touchdown at the 13:32 mark, then getting a field goal with 4:45 remaining to provide the final margin. They survived Missouri getting an 85-yard TD after a defensive back gambled and missed a pass from Corbin Berkstresser to Bud Sasser.
Missouri’s starter James Franklin had to leave the game early with an injury, and the Commodores’ did an excellent defensive job on Berkstresser and the Missouri offense. He completed only nine of 30 passes for 189 yards. Other than one long bomb, he was eight of 29. Franklin completed five of nine during his short stay, with one long gain of 58. His departure severely crippled Missouri’s run option game, making it easier for Vanderbilt to defend against the pass. Franklin had one dynamic run of 23 yards, while Berkstresser had only six yards rushing in seven carries, and posed neither the ballhandling nor running threat Franklin did.
Vanderbilt also turned to the rushing game, even though it didn’t generate enormous yardage. They ran the ball 43 times, led by Zac Stacy’s 29 carries for 72 yards and two touchdowns. After employing a rush by committee the first four games, Stacy was the dominant ballcarrier against Missouri.
Jordan Rodgers had a solid game, completing 14 of 24 passes for 182 yards and one interception. Jordan Matthews continued his outstanding play, with nine receptions for 91 yards. He also had an 18-yard on an end-around reverse.
Vanderbilt employed some successful gimmick plays as well. One involved Stacy throwing to Rodgers for 24 yards that helped keep the fourth quarter touchdown drive alive. Another halfback pass by Stacy just missed tight end Kris Kentera. The one interception ended Rodgers’ streak of 69 consecutive passes without an interception.
The kicking game was a friend to Vanderbilt and a problem for Missouri. Richard Kent had two punts downed inside the 20 and also had punts of 59 and 54 yards. He averaged 43.4 yards per kick. Carey Spear had a 21-yard field goal and a 47-yarder that was negated by a penalty. He also had a 33-yard short punt downed at Missouri’s two-yard line. That turned into a safety and two critical points for the Commodores.
Missouri missed the extra point on its last score, which enabled Vanderbilt’s last field goal to put them ahead by four. It also forced them into going for a touchdown on the final drive, which the Commodores’ defense stopped. Missouri reached the Vanderbilt 24, but the defensive line pressured Berkstresser into two final incompletions, preserving the victory.
The loss of Franklin certainly limited what Missouri could do for the bulk of the game. He sprained his left knee at the end of the first quarter, right after his spectacular 24-yard scamper. He went to the locker room, and was later ruled out for this game and next Saturday’s Missouri contest against Alabama. No one knows when he would return. Coach Gary Pinkel only said he would “miss a few games.”
Vanderbilt now has its last game against a Top 10 opponent, as undefeated Florida comes to Nashville Saturday. Florida is coming off a home win against LSU, and will be the third top-ranked team the Commodores have faced in 2012. But things get easier after that, with home games against Auburn (who lost to Arkansas Saturday) and then a homecoming contest with UMass.
Keys for Vanderbilt Saturday will be avoiding turnovers and also trying to cope with Florida’s tremendous team speed. But the Missouri win not only helped them bounce back from the 48-3 drubbing they suffered at Georgia, it gives them confidence that they can hold their own against SEC teams with equal talent. Now they’ll discover what happens when they go against one with superior athletes.