Tech went to Nashville on Saturday night and defeated their second SEC team this season, pulling away in a shootout to defeat the Vanderbilt Commodores 56-31. The victory was the Jackets’ eighth of the season, and they are off to their best start since their National Championship season in 1990. The win also gave the Jackets their fourth road win of the season, something they had not achieved since 2000.
Tech gained a season-high 597 yards of total offense against the Commodores with a great running game and a much-improved passing game. Vanderbilt came into the game with the 34th-ranked defense in the nation, but Tech was able to hold onto the ball and wear the Commodores down.
The Jackets’ offense came out firing after receiving the game’s opening kickoff. Junior quarterback Josh Nesbitt handed the ball off to junior B-back Jonathan Dwyer twice to start the game. After a seven-yard run on first down, Dwyer took the second handoff and raced to his right, bounced off tacklers, and gained 38 yards. After three more plays, Nesbitt kept the ball himself on the option and scored the Jackets’ first touchdown from four yards out.
It did not take long for the Commodores to answer. Vanderbilt quarterback Larry Smith completed all of his passes on a 71-yard drive in which the Commodores’ spread offense seemed to confuse the Jackets’ defense. Vanderbilt’s freshman running back Warren Norman had three carries during the possession, and he finished the drive by catching an eleven-yard touchdown from Smith to tie the game at seven.
The Jackets got off to a quick start on their second drive thanks to a 23-yard run by sophomore A-back Roddy Jones. However, an incomplete pass from Nesbitt to sophomore receiver Tyler Melton on third down forced the Jackets to punt.
Smith and the Commodores capitalized, as on the first play of the drive Smith ran it himself for a 35-yard gain. He suffered a hamstring injury at the end of the play, though, and was forced to leave the game. Redshirt senior Mackenzi Adams took over for Smith and was able to complete a pass to running back Zac Stacy for 47-yards. Vanderbilt opted to rush Stacey two times near the goal line and he found his way into the end zone from three yards away to give the Commodores the lead 14-7.
Tech elected to try and pass the ball to tie the game. On the drive’s first play, Nesbitt completed a screen pass to junior receiver Demaryius Thomas for a 21-yard gain. After two runs, Nesbitt dropped back again and had sophomore A-back Embry Peeples wide open thirty yards downfield, but Peeples could not haul in the pass. Still, the Jackets continued to attack the Commodore defense on the ground, and a one-yard Nesbitt touchdown run—his second of the day—ended a 12-play drive and tied the game at 14.
Tech’s defense finally forced a three-and-out, and the Jackets took over on their own 11-yard line after a punt. Dwyer was able to give the Jackets’ offense some room with two carries for eleven yards. Nesbitt then dropped back and found Peeples for a 30-yard gain through the air. After a few more running plays, Nesbitt threw a deep pass to Thomas for a 35-yard touchdown. It was the first of two passing touchdowns for Nesbitt, who finished the day with six completions on 13 attempts for 193 yards and two touchdowns.
“[The offensive line] did a great job of giving me time to throw the ball,” Nesbitt said.
Vanderbilt started their next drive on their own 19-yard line and after a first down. Adams tried to run up the middle but redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Logan Walls stripped him of the ball. Tech recovered the fumble deep in Vanderbilt territory and needed only two Dwyer runs to score another touchdown. Up 28-14, Tech appeared to be on the verge of pulling away, but Norman took the ensuing kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown and Vanderbilt narrowed the gap to 28-21.
The Commodores then held the Jackets to a three-and-out and forced another Tech punt. On the third play of the drive, Stacy broke into the open field and ran 62 yards for a touchdown, and Vanderbilt tied the game at 28. The Jackets tried to answer before half time but were unable, and the first half ended with the score tied at 28.
The Commodores started the second half with an efficient drive backed by five Norman runs. Adams completed four of six passes on the drive, including a pass that was tipped by junior linebacker Brad Jefferson but caught by sophomore receiver Udom Umoh and resulted in a 42-yard gain. Tech’s defense tightened up in the red zone and Vanderbilt was unable to reach the end zone, settling for a field goal to pull ahead 31-28.
“It started to feel like one of those nights, but we stopped them on the three yard line, and it was a turning point in the game,” said Defensive Coordinator Dave Wommack.
The Jackets started their first drive of the second half with a 41-yard run from Dwyer. Tech closed in on the end zone and it looked as though Nesbitt would add a third touchdown run, but he fumbled on the Vanderbilt three-yard line and the Commodores recovered the ball.
The Jackets held Vanderbilt to just three yards on the ensuing drive and forced a punt. Tech took over at Vanderbilt’s 40-yard line and turned in a 10-play drive that included Peeples, Nesbitt, Jones, and Thomas each touching the ball. Dwyer capped it with a three-yard touchdown, and the Jackets took the lead 35-31.
Vanderbilt receiver Jamie Graham fumbled on the first play of the next drive, and the Jackets took over on the Vanderbilt 19-yard line. Jones took a pitch for 16 yards and was tackled at the Vanderbilt three-yard line. Dwyer then punched it into the end zone for his third touchdown of the game, giving the Jackets a more comfortable 42-31 lead. Dwyer would finish the game with a career-high 186 yards on 22 carries and the three touchdowns.
“I think I’m running with a purpose. Ever since last week, a couple guys on the team challenged me to run the way they know I can run. Every time I touch the ball I just try to make plays,” Dwyer said after the game.
Tech rebounded after allowing a 28-yard run to Norman and forced Vanderbilt to punt. The Jackets took over on their own 13-yard line, and Head Coach Paul Johnson elected to throw deep on the drive’s first play. Nesbitt found Peeples running a seam route down the right sideline, and Peeples ran the remainder of the way for an 87-yard touchdown that gave the Jackets a 49-31 lead.
“We put that play in on the sideline. We felt like [Peeples] might be wide open and he was,” Johnson said after the game.
Norman then fumbled on the ensuing kickoff and the Jackets recovered deep in Vanderbilt territory. Dwyer, Peeples, and Jones all got carries on the 32-yard drive, and Jones ran the ball into the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown. Jones finished the game with 80 yards on nine carries and a touchdown.
“It was good to finally get Roddy into the endzone. He has been kind of a blocker lately,” said Johnson.
Jones’ touchdown put the Jackets ahead 56-31, and that would be the final score. Vanderbilt struggled offensively once again and punted, and Johnson brought in Tech’s reserves on offense. Five players carried the ball on the drive, and Tech took up the final 7:38 of the game clock and completed the victory.
The Jackets hope to carry the momentum of the win over a non-conference opponent into their game against ACC rival Wake Forest on Saturday afternoon.