OXFORD – There was no second-half lull to threaten a possible victory for Ole Miss on Saturday afternoon. By the time crunch time arrived, Vanderbilt was firmly in control.
The Commodores limited mistakes and made the Rebels pay for theirs, snapping a 10-game SEC losing streak and delivering their down-home coach a 28-14 road win, his first regardless of venue.
To the dismay of a Vaught-Hemingway Stadium crowd of 51,667, the Rebels were unable to establish a traditional run game against, statistically, the league’s weakest run defense. They left touchdowns on the table with dropped passes, pumped up the Commodores when turnovers turned into points and gave up a crushing big play on defense in a tie game in the third quarter.
“We wasted away so many opportunities with dropped passes, a missed field goal, then we get momentum, and they go 80 yards,” Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. “You can’t play like that in the SEC.”
Caldwell was named interim head coach after Bobby Johnson retired abruptly in the summer, then the interim tag was quickly dropped. He gained fame at SEC Media Days with an “aw shucks” and honest approach to answering the program’s difficult questions.
Vanderbilt had not won an SEC game since beating Kentucky in 2008. Caldwell’s players presented him the game ball.
“It is a very emotional time. It was the first time my wife and daughter went to an away game. It was a great time, but it’s not about me,” Caldwell said. “It is all about the young men on the football team. I’m so thrilled they tasted victory.”
From the what-might-have been department, Ole Miss (1-2, 0-1 SEC) had three different receivers drop – or fail to make the catch – on sure touchdowns. Drops by tight end Ferbia Allen in the first quarter and Brandon Bolden in the third were more obvious than when quarterback Jeremiah Masoli found Lionel Breaux coming across the back of the end zone in the second quarter.
A defender was giving chase. Breaux made a long run but got his hands on the ball. Breaux’s missed opportunity was the only drive that ended with Ole Miss points as Masoli scrambled 28 yards for a score with 4 minutes, 12 seconds left in the third quarter to tie the game at 14.
Vanderbilt (1-2, 1-0) had gone ahead by capping a 13-play, 96-yard drive with Zac Stacy’s 35-yard run off the left side.
Vandy led 7-0 with 7:14 left in the second, and minutes later cornerback Eddie Foster picked off a Masoli pass and ran 21 yards to the end zone.
“They were jumping on our quick routes pretty much the whole game, and he made a good break on it,” Masoli said.
The Rebels got on the board with 2:11 left in the second quarter, a 4-yard run by Korvic Neat – who would later fumble to set up the Commodores’ last touchdown in the middle of the fourth quarter – capping a 63-yard drive. The score was set up by Masoli’s 31-yard completion to Jesse Grandy to the Vanderbilt 3.
Masoli was the Rebels’ leading rusher with 104 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.
With a different starter at right guard for the third-straight week, the going was much tougher between the tackles. Brandon Bolden finished with 46 yards, Enrique Davis with 17.
Masoli’s touchdown run pumped life into the crowd, but on the next play from scrimmage, Warren Norman took advantage of a missed assignment by an Ole Miss defensive tackle, and quieted the crowd with an 80-yard touchdown run.
“We tried to create some confusion with movement. They made a mistake, and that’s what you hope happens,” Caldwell said.
“The SEC is the best conference in America, and if you do that stuff you’re asking to lose,” Ole Miss linebacker D.T. Shackelford said.
The Commodores went up 28-14 with 8:04 remaining when quarterback Larry Smith ran 15 yards for a touchdown on the first play after Neat’s fumble.
Ole Miss was minus-3 in turnover ratio.
“With a couple of scores, those running plays would have gotten easier,” Nutt said. “We were hoping to get up 14 points and let Enrique and Brandon run downhill. We never got to that point.”
PARRISH ALFORD / NEMS Daily Journal