Defense puts Vandy in rare elite company
Posted: Monday, September 22, 2008 5:58 pm
By: By CHRIS TALBOTT, Associated Press Writer
OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — Vanderbilt players wanted to set an early wakeup call Sunday morning.
The Associated Press Top 25 came out on Sunday and the Commodores were ranked No. 21 after Ryan Hamilton tied a school record with three interceptions and a gritty Vanderbilt defense turned in another signature performance Saturday in a 23-17 win over Mississippi.
“It feels great,” linebacker Chris Marve said. “We’ve been working hard since last season and it feels like our hard work is paying off.”
The Commodores are 4-0 for just the fourth time since World War II after intercepting four Jevan Snead passes and likely will be ranked for the first time since 1984 when another 4-0 start led to a No. 19 placing.
There was room for them in the poll after West Virginia and Florida State lost.
If ranked, Vanderbilt would be the sixth Southeastern Conference team in the poll and the eighth to be ranked this season.
“It means a lot of the team, the coaches and the Nashville community,” Hamilton said. “5-0 is looking good too. Hopefully we can do that and keep this momentum going.”
Hamilton and the defense of the Commodores (2-0 SEC) came up big again and again, making two second-half Bryant Hahnfeldt field goals stand up with a pair of goal-line stands and a final interception as time expired.
Vanderbilt continues to win by pulling away in the second half, outscoring opponents 51-10 in the final two quarters this season.
“Every game so far this season we’ve proved that we are a second-half team,” Hamilton said. “We keep emphasizing that and we take a lot of pride in that.”
The Rebels (2-2, 0-1) appeared as if they might run away early after forcing a fumble deep in Vanderbilt territory with a 10-0 lead.
But Hamilton stepped in front of Snead’s pass on the next play and returned it 79 yards for a score.
His second interception of Snead and 23-yard return helped set up a field goal that rallied Vanderbilt to a 17-17 halftime tie.
Hamilton made a crucial tackle on Ole Miss’ first series of the second half, when he caught running back Cordera Eason from behind on fourth-and-inches at the goal line.
Hamilton later recovered a fumble on a punt return to negate another Ole Miss drive and finished the game off with a pick on Snead’s pass around the Vanderbilt 10.
Hamilton also recovered a fumble, but wasn’t the only playmaker on the Commodores defense. Reshard Langford killed another drive with a bobbling interception of Snead at midfield, then Marve finished off a second Rebels’ goal-line chance for a rally when he forced Dexter McCluster to fumble into the end zone with one of his game-high 11 tackles. D.J. Moore fell on the loose ball with 2:40 left.
Hahnfeldt tied a career high with three field goals, hitting from 34, 31 and 40 yards.
Defense and special teams were crucial as the Vanderbilt offense struggled against Ole Miss. The Rebels held the Commodores to 202 total yards and were making the plays early.
They looked as if they would run away with the program’s 600th victory after taking a quick 17-7 lead in the first quarter on a 13-yard fumble return by Peria Jerry and a 98-yard kickoff return by Mike Wallace, who set a school record with 202 yards on kick returns and is fourth in SEC history.
Things began to go awry early, however. Snead was out of sync the entire game.
He finished 12-of-25 for 184 yards in his first bad game, but the Rebels’ troubles were a team effort.
Along with the six turnovers, there were seven poorly timed penalties for 82 yards that helped them lose their ninth straight SEC game and 13 of the last 14.
“It just makes you sick,” Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said of the miscues.
Otherwise in the AP Top 25, No. 3 Georgia and No. 4 Florida held their spots and LSU moved up one place after a 26-21 victory at Auburn, giving the SEC three teams in the top five.
Last week the SEC became the first league to have five teams in the AP top 10, but Auburn dropped five spots from No. 10 to 15th this week, leaving the SEC with four in the top 10, including No. 8 Alabama.
The Big 12 also has four top-10 teams with Oklahoma joined by No. 6 Missouri, No. 7 Texas and No. 10 Texas Tech.
But with Vanderbilt entering the rankings, the SEC still leads all conferences with six ranked teams.
Wisconsin is No. 9.
No. 11 BYU is one of three Mountain West Conference teams in the latest Top 25, a first for that league, along with No. 17 Utah and No. 24 TCU.
The Western Athletic Conference has two teams in the latest rankings — Boise and Fresno State, which stayed at No. 25.
Penn State is No. 12, followed by South Florida (the only ranked Big East team), Ohio State and Auburn.
Wake Forest is 16th, followed by Utah, Kansas, Boise State and Clemson.
The final five are Illinois, Vanderbilt, East Carolina, TCU and Fresno State. Falling out after losses were Florida State, Oregon and West Virginia.