NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Big plays from the Vanderbilt offense was the story on Saturday night as the Commodores scored eight touchdowns in the team's first preseason scrimmage inside Vanderbilt Stadium.
Playing on the newly laid FieldTurf surface, the offense actually started off slow with just one first down through the first four possessions, all starting from its own 5-yard line. When the ball was moved out to the new 25-yard line starting point, the Commodores began to click in the running game.
Senior tailback Zac Stacy gained 34 yards during the 9-play drive and quarterback Jordan Rodgers connected with fellow running back Warren Norman on a pair of passes to set the ball just outside the defense's 25-yard line. Norman, who's returning from a redshirt season in 2011, rushed for 26 yards and the day's first touchdown a few plays later.
The offense's next two possessions stalled but did include first down runs by true freshman tailback Brian Kimbrow and a 21-yard pass from freshman quarterback Patton Robinette to senior receiver John Cole. The duo also connected on a 15-yard pass before Robinette's long third down pass to receiver Wesley Tate fell harmlessly into the end zone.
Starting from the 50-yard line, the Commodores put together another 9-play drive that was capped by a 7-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers to tight end Kris Kentera. Rodgers connected on passes to Stacy, Jordan Matthews and Norman during the drive, including a 18-yard screen pass to Norman on the play prior to the Kentera touchdown.
Vanderbilt's ground game continued to pick up yardage a few possessions later as Kimbrow gained eight yards on first down and Jerron Seymour rubbed off a blocker for a 15-yard gain before running out of bounds. The drive stalled however after Eric Samuels broke up a pass at the line of scrimmage and Vince Taylor registered a sack on quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels. Kicker Carey Spear was short on a 51-yard field goal attempt.
"If you compare this scrimmage to the first scrimmage of camp last year to this year, it's not even close," head coach James Franklin said after the scrimmage. "We stayed healthy, we flew around, we made plays on offense and defense, it's going to be great tape for us to learn from, so I was pleased with everything."
Vanderbilt converted on 8-of-14 plays during the team's third down situation portion of the scrimmage, accounting for 169 yards including a 40-yard touchdown run by Stacy on a 3rd and 2 situation. Other big plays included a 41-yard pass from Rodgers to junior receiver Jonathan Krause on a 3rd and 10 situation, a 35-yard pass from Carta-Samuels to Krause on a 3rd and 4 situation and a pair of Carta-Samuels passes to Dillon van der Wal and Trent Pruitt resulting in 35 combined yards.
The Commodore defense did create the day's lone turnover during the 3rd down situation portion, stripping Brian Kimbrow after the young back had picked up a first down on a 3rd and 1 situation. Kenny Ladler also caused a Rodgers incompletion to Jordan Matthews with a near sack during a 3rd and 10. Defensive tackles Jared Morse and Ladarius Banks also made stops to prevent third down conversions.
The offense returned to its scoring ways when the unit started at the defense's 25-yard line, but not without some early resistance from the men in black. Senior Johnell Thomas appeared to sack Jordan Rodgers on the very first play but the defense was flagged for an offsides. Thomas was in the backfield once again to stop Stacy for a 1-yard loss, after Jared Morse disrupted the running play.
Rodgers then rolled out of the pocket to hit sophomore Chris Boyd for 21 yards and to put the ball on the one-yard line. Stacy followed with a leap over the line and into the end zone for the touchdown.
The Commodores next possession looked like it would result in another score as Carta-Samuels found Kris Kentera for a 11-yard gain and first down and Warren Norman gained 7 yards on back-to-back carries. However, Rob Lohr got penetration and slowed down Brian Kimbrow, allowing Kyle Woestmann to finish off a tackle on third down and Johnell Thomas stopped Kimbrow for a loss of two yards on 4th down.
Robinette and crew would find the end zone during the next possession as the former Maryville standout rushed for 13 yards on a pair of carries and Kimbrow scored from nine yards out.
Stacy and Norman each scored during two goal line possessions before the Commodores moved to two-minute situational challenge starting at the offense's 30-yard line.
The defense won the first challenge, stopping the offense on third down when linebacker Kellen Williams stopped Stacy on a 3rd and short run in a series between the projected first team.
The reserves started the second and final challenge from the 40-yard line with Coach Franklin setting the clock at 1:45 to go and with the offense ahead 24-22. Kimbrow gained five yards on the first play but on cut through the heart of the defense on second down, turned on the jets and flew for a 55-yard score.
The running game accounted for more than 270 yards on the night and scored seven of the offense's eight touchdowns. Kimbrow topped all the backs with 112 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries. Stacy gained 98 yards and three touchdowns on 15 carries while Warren Norman gained 41 yards and a pair of touchdowns on seven carries. Jerron Seymour gained 24 yards on four carries.
"I liked to see Brian there at the end, he made that play, which was good cause he was bouncing everything [earlier]. It's what a lot of young backs do, but he trusted it and stuck it up in there and had a big play," Franklin said. "Warren looks like he's almost back, Zac looks like he's ready to go and Jerron looks like he's almost back as well, so I'm pleased with those guys, I really am. But I think the line is the thing that really stands out. Again, you compare the line to this time last year to where we're at now, it's not even close."
Jordan Rodgers completed 12-of-16 for 153 yards and one touchdown. Carta-Samuels completed 6-of-9 passes for 77 yards.
Jonathan Krause led all receivers with 66 yards while Norman posted 42 yards receiving.
The defense was led by Eric Samuels, who registered several tackles throughout the practice, including a quarterback hurry and two tackles for loss. Johnell Thomas posted a sack and two tackles for loss as well while freshman sensation Darreon Herring accounted for a sack and three tackles. Redshirt freshman Andrew Williamson broke up a pair of passes and defensive tackle Barron Dixon batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage. He also stopped several inside runs for no gain.
Several key players were held out of Saturday's action due to injury precautions including projected starting fullback Fitz Lassing, starting defensive tackle Colt Nichter, and starting linebackers Archibald Barnes and Chase Garnham.
The Commodores also announced on Saturday that senior linebacker Tristan Strong has left the team over personal reasons. The fifth-year veteran has dealt with multiple knee injuries during his career including a season-ending injury last season against South Carolina after making three starts to open the season. He had been limited to just position drills for most of this month's camp, rarely participating in scrimmage type drills.
Franklin said he will always be considered a member of the Commodore team and he is on course to graduate this fall.
Vanderbilt will take Sunday off and return to the practice field on Monday for a pair of practices.
The Commodores open the season against Top 10 ranked South Carolina on Thursday, August 30th inside Vanderbilt Stadium.