Vandy's success in non-conference games is building the needed confidence to play in the SEC.
By GREG POGUEFS Tennessee
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- As James Franklin began the building process for a Vanderbilt football program long considered the Southeastern Conference doormat, the
Commodores’ coach professed several key components for success.
First came recruiting, followed closely by scheduling. And if the Commodores were to become perennial bowl participants, they had to successfully negotiate their four non-conference games against the backdrop of playing eight Southeastern Conference games each year.
Consider the out-of-league portion of that equation a success thus far, including Saturday night's 52-24 win over UAB in front of 32,467 at Vanderbilt Stadium. In beating the Conference USA member, the Commodores (3-2) have now won eight straight non-SEC games.
"Scheduling and recruiting are the two biggest ways to turn a program around and build a program for the long term," said third-year coach James Franklin, whose Commodores gained consecutive bowl games for the first time and won nine games, most in nearly a century, last season.
"Being able to go out and play well in non-conference games, you know how difficult the SEC is," he added. "It is a brutal conference. So, being able to be competitive in your out-of-conference games builds confidence going into SEC play."
Since losing at Northwestern early last season, the Commodores have beaten non-league opponents North Carolina State in the Music City Bowl, UMass twice, Presbyterian, Wake Forest, Austin Peay and now UAB. Under Franklin in two-plus seasons, Vanderbilt is 11-2, including splitting bowl games, against non-SEC teams.
The Commodores return to the SEC gauntlet next Saturday with consecutive home games against Missouri (Oct. 5) and Georgia (Oct. 19) before traveling to Texas A&M (Oct. 26) and Florida (Nov. 9).
But before that, Vanderbilt put together its most complete game of the season in methodically beating the Blazers (1-3), who could only manage a field goal in each of the first three quarters as the Commodores opened a 38-9 advantage heading into the final stanza.
In all, Vanderbilt amassed a season-high 540 yards of total offense, including 334 passing by senior quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels on 23-of-29 passing, and 206 rushing, led by a career-high 109 yards by sophomore running back Jerron Seymour.
On top of that, the Commodores had two receivers eclipse the century mark in receiving yards. Senior Jordan Matthews had 115 yards on eight catches with one touchdown, the 21st of his career to tie the program career TD mark, while fellow senior Jonathan Krause had 104 yards on just four catches.
"Defensively, I thought we did a really good job of holding a high-powered offense to field goals early in the game," Franklin said. " … We rushed for over 200 yards and threw for 334.
"The biggest difference was just playing more aggressive. I felt like so far this season looking back at it that we weren't playing aggressive. We weren’t taking calculated risks. We weren't calling the game aggressive."
Consecutive Vanderbilt touchdowns -- an eight-yard run by running back Wesley Tate late in the third quarter and a one-yard pass from quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels to fullback Fitz Lassing early in the fourth -- blew the game open.
"The biggest difference in this game to previous games was that we were able to establish the running game," Franklin said. "When you are able to establish the running game, and then you go play-action pass, you have the chance to create some chunk plays."
Leading by a shaky 10-6 early in the second quarter, the Commodores started to open the game up when Seymour took the direct snap from center in the wildcat formation and raced 58 yards straight up the middle untouched for a touchdown.
And to close the half, Carta-Samuels directed a nine-play, 68-yard scoring drive to give the Commodores a 24-6 halftime bulge. On the drive, Carta-Samuels completed all five of his pass attempts, including consecutive passes to running backs Wesley Tate of 18 yards and Seymour of 22 yards to start the drive. He capped the drive with a one-yard plunge.
"On offense, I think we got our swagger back," Carta-Samuels said. "It felt good out there."
UAB kicker Ty Long made his third field goal kick in as many tries, this one from 37 yards, to pull the Blazers to 31-9 heading into the fourth quarter. Each team scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, including Commodores backup quarterback Patton Robinette, a redshirt freshman, scoring on an eight-yard run for his first career touchdown.
"You have to try to make it an everyday thing," Commodores redshirt freshman defensive tackle Adam Butler said of the renewed emphasis on the team playing aggressively. His two tackles were both for lost yardage.
"It has to become a routine," he added. "And I feel like we played with that aggression today. That’s what allowed us to be successful."
UAB did manage 362 yards of total offense behind the two-quarterback rotation of Jonathan Perry, who completed 9-of-16 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns; and Austin Brown, who went 10-20 for 51 yards. Freshman running back Jordan Howard led the Blazers’ rushing attack with 92 yards on nine carries.
The Commodores opened the scoring on their second offensive possession, marching 80 yards on seven plays in just under three minutes. The final seven yards of the scoring drive came on a run up the gut by Seymour. The big play was Carta-Samuels connecting with Krause on a 39-yard pass that took the ball from Vandy's own 36 to the UAB 25.
But on the first play from scrimmage on the ensuing possession, Howard took a pitch around the right side and raced 52 yards from the Blazers' 25 to the Commodores' 23. But a pair of penalties after that hurt UAB, which had to settle for a 33-yard field goal by Ty Long to pull within 7-3.
Not to be outdone, Vanderbilt senior kicker Carey Spear nailed a 50-yard field goal on the next possession to push the Commodores back up by 10-3. That made him at the time 3-for-4 on field goal tries this season, including a career long of 54 yards two weeks ago in the loss at South Carolina.