NASHVILLE, Tenn.-A combination of Northwestern Dan Persa's athleticism, Vanderbilt's self-inflicted mistakes on point-after plays, and a controversial end-game call helped spoil Robbie Caldwell's head coaching debut, as NU knocked off the Commodores, 23-21 at Dudley Field on Saturday evening.
A near-capacity crowd saw Persa ran for 82 net yards, and completed 19-of-21 passes for 222 yards and three scores, including a scoring pass to Josh Rooks with 4:39 left that put Northwestern up 23-15.
The Commodores crept back on a Zac Stacy 33-yard touchdown scamper with 2:25 left, but a botched snap on a 2-point conversion doomed Vandy's chance to tie.
Still, the 'Dores weren't done. After first- and second-down stops, VU's Jay Fullam stopped Persa a yard short of a first down near the Northwestern sideline on a third-and-6 play from the Wildcat 33.
But officials threw a personal foul on what was announced as a "high hit" on Fullman's part, as the freshman safety collided with Persa and knocked him out of bounds. The penalty awarded the Wildcats a first down, allowing them to run out the clock with the Commodores out of time outs and searching for answers as the Big Ten officials sprinted from the field to a chorus of loud boos and debris thrown in their direction from Vanderbilt fans.
"I didn't see it, but I'm very anxious to see it on tape. They said it was a high hit. The boy was a foot off the ground," Caldwell said. "What's a high hit? We were just trying to stop him from getting a first down."
It was one of many "what-might-have-been" moments for Vanderbilt, which lost its ninth-straight game despite out-gaining Northwestern 432-365. The Commodores probably wouldn't have been in position to need a 2-point conversion following Stacy's score had Ryan Fowler not missed an extra point in the first half and a 46-yard field goal in the second half.
The 'Dores also failed on another 2-point conversion when Larry Smith's quarterback draw with 1:51 left in the third quarter went nowhere.
At the conclusion of the first quarter, it didn't look as if Persa would allow the Commodores to hang around, anyway. He led the Wildcats on an 11-play, 80-yard drive on their first possession, with 54 of those yards coming on the ground from Persa.
That drive ended with a Stefan Demos field goal at the 8:47 mark, and he added a 33-yard scoring toss to Jeremy Ebert on the next possession.
VU's offense moved the ball, but stalled repeatedly as it got into NU territory. The 'Dores finally got some momentum from their defense, when Tim Fugger knocked the ball loose from behind on a second-quarter scramble.
A Warren Norman 4-yard touchdown run, followed by Fowler's PAT miss, brought VU within four. After NU's three-and-out, Smith led VU down the field (with the help of a personal foul penalty on the Wildcats) and put Fowler in position to convert a 30-yard field goal as time expired in the first half.
Persa found Drake Dunsmore, who slipped behind safety Sean Richardson, in the right corner of the end zone to start the second half.
But VU moved back within two when Smith threw a perfect pass to a streaking Brandon Barden, who corralled it in traffic just behind the goal line with 1:51 left in the third, for a 36-yard touchdown.
After Persa's final touchdown pass, Smith and Vandy got the ball back at the Commodore 31. A14-yard completion to Jonathan Krause and two Smith runs for 15 yards moved the ball to the NU 40, where a 7-yard pass to Stacy set up Stacy's touchdown run around the right side on the following play.
NU's Jacob Schmidt ran for seven yards on the first play, and Persa fed him the ball again the next play. A Fullam hit jarred the ball loose on the next play, but Schmidt fell on the ball for a 3-yard loss.
That set up the evening's most controversial moment, as Persa broke free for a moment on a third-and-6 before Fullam closed quickly.
"He's trying to get that first down, and he's diving for it, so I hit where I could, but apparently, I did it wrong. I thought I was leading with my shoulder, but it was going so fast, and I didn't feel anything hit me in the head too hard," Fullam said.
"The ref didn't say anything about head-to-head contact, just that I hit him in the head."
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, who more than once ran on the field to lobby for calls on the evening, saw it differently.
"It was a helmet-to-helmet call. It's an emphasis. We went over it last week with a representative from the Big Ten, and they do everything they can to take the helmet-to-helmet contact out, and it was the right call," Fitzgerald said.
"It shows young people playing football right now that using your headgear, or aiming for someone's head, is not the way to play this game."
"I thought [the call] was appropriate," Persa said. "He hit me in the head."
The Commodores have now lost nine straight games, but there were some bright spots offensively. The yardage output was the highest since the 484 against Rice in last season's fourth game, and Smith's 240 yards passing were the second-most in his career.
The junior quarterback completed 19-of-33 passing, and also ran for a net of 48 yards, after a slow start.
"[Smith] struggled a little bit in the beginning, but he's a good leader. I think sometimes he presses too hard. All we can tell him to do is relax and play. He's going to be a fine player for us," Caldwell said.