NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As the clock struck midnight locally, Ole Miss would steal away with a victory over Vanderbilt that, seconds earlier, seemed unlikely.
Vanderbilt had seemingly done enough to win the game just a few seconds earlier Thursday night. Tight end Steven Scheu found himself all alone along the left sideline and strolled in on a 34-yard scoring pass from Commodores quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels for a 35-32 lead with just 1:30 to play.
“That should have been the game-winning play,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said of the go-ahead touchdown.
But Jeff Scott would break around the left side, delivering a 75-yard touchdown jaunt with just 67 seconds remaining as the Rebels won 39-35 in a clash of SEC programs looking to take the next step.
Vanderbilt wants to kick their unprecedented ascent into a third stage of afterburner after coming off its best season in nearly a century. The bowl berth of two seasons ago in coach James Franklin’s first season laid the foundation for the nine-win season and ultimate bowl victory last year.
In nearly the same fashion but a year behind, it had been much the same for Ole Miss as it entered a second season under coach Hugh Freeze. He had given the Rebels more than a glimmer of hope with a winning record and bowl victory in his first season at the helm.
Thursday night, Ole Miss had the last volley in the wild finish, avenging a one-point home loss to the Commodores from last season in front of a raucous and sold-out crowd of 40,350 at Vanderbilt Stadium. It was the first home-opening sell-out for Vanderbilt since Notre Dame visited to start the 1996 season.
Ole Miss junior quarterback Bo Wallace completed 31-of-47 passes for 283 yards and also rushed for two touchdowns. His counterpart, Vanderbilt senior quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, completed 21-of-36 passes for 300 yards and two touchdowns, including 10 receptions by senior receiver Jordan Matthews for 178 yards.
“We just have to finish,” said Franklin, whose team gave up 29 points in the second half. “I think it’s a little bit of immaturity. I think we sensed that the game was over. It wasn’t.”
After watching Vanderbilt score 21 unanswered points after staking an early 10-0 lead, Ole Miss came out blazing in the second half. The Rebels’ first drive after intermission stalled after at the Vanderbilt 27 before an errant field goal attempt, but they made good on their second possession of the second half, driving 66 yards in only seven plays. The final three yards came on a keeper from backup quarterback Barry Brunetti.
But the Commodores answered with a scoring drive of their own, going 12 plays on 75 yards, with only two of the plays of the drive coming through the air. Lining up behind center in the shotgun, running back Wesley Tate plowed the last three yards up the middle to put Vanderbilt ahead at 28-17.
Not to be outdone, the Rebels came right back on the next possession and marched 75 yards on 15 plays. Wallace ran the final three yards on a keeper off the right side for the touchdown, and then connected with receiver Laquon Treadwell on a two-point conversion to pull the Rebels within 28-25 late in the third quarter.
And then the Rebels seemingly took the lead for good on their next possession, marching 86 yards in 11 plays in less than 3 minutes. Wallace again did the honors to cap the drive, this time bulling over from 1 yard out to give Ole Miss a 32-28 lead with 9:05 remaining.
“Give all the credit to them,” said Franklin, whose team led 21-10 at halftime. “We didn’t win the second half. We win the second half, we win the game.”
On the first possession of the game, Vanderbilt turned the ball over when Carta-Samuels was intercepted at the Vanderbilt 31-yard line by Rebels cornerback Tony Conner on a pass over the middle intended for Commodores tight end Kris Kentera. Despite getting to the Vanderbilt 13-yard line, Ole Miss had to settle for a 30-yard field goal by Andrew Ritter for an early 3-0 lead.
After Vanderbilt went three-and-out on its next possession and got only a 16-yard punt from Taylor Hudson, the Rebels wasted no time in taking a 10-0 lead, driving 42 yards in nine plays. Backup quarterback Barry Brunetti pushed through up the middle for the final yard from the shotgun formation.
The Commodores finally got the offense going early in the second quarter when Carta-Samuels directed a 12-play, 71-yard drive to pull within a field goal at 10-7. The big plays of the drive was Carta-Samuels hooking up with Matthews on a 28-yard strike across the middle and an 11-yard gainer down the left sideline. The final three yards of the drive came on a keeper by senior running back Wesley Tate out of the shotgun formation.
And after the Rebels were held on three downs and out on their next possession, the Commodores were off to the races. Carta-Samuels connected with Matthews again, this time on a 55-yard scoring strike that saw the star receiver race down the right sideline to put Vanderbilt up 14-10.
The Commodores then stretched the lead to 21-10 with the third of three unanswered touchdowns, this this time going 80 yards in only seven plays. The drive started with Carta-Samuels hooking up with senior receiver Jonathan Krause on a 33-yard reception to start the drive, and it ended with Seymour going the last three yards on a cutback run to the right side.