This time Larry Smith didn’t drop the pass.
As such, Vanderbilt’s Black and Gold Spring Game ended with a bang, which was fitting considering the postgame fireworks over Vanderbilt Stadium on Sunday night.
Smith, who has been the Commodores’ starting quarterback the last two seasons, caught a 10-yard halfback pass from Zac Stacy for a touchdown for the Black squad. The play put an exclamation point on a 19-7 victory over the Gold in front of an announced crowd of 7,500.
A week ago, in a spring scrimmage, Smith was wide-open on the same trick play but couldn’t corral the touchdown pass, lying down on the ground in disbelief for several seconds. On Sunday, though, in a crowded end zone, he made a leaping catch over safety Archibald Barnes for the score.
“I had to redeem myself,” Smith said. “I guess the difficulty kind of made me raise my level a little bit, made it easier for me. That was fun.”
It was one of a few big offensive plays in what was a game that was otherwise heavy on defense. The teams combined for eight sacks and just 82 rushing yards. But first-year head coach James Franklin didn’t see those numbers as negatives.
“Vanderbilt won [Sunday],” Franklin said. “We won. I don’t care what anybody says. ... Overall, I was impressed. From top to bottom, I was pleased. I know from my offensive background and from the fan’s perspective, you would love for it to be 52-49. On the same end, I think we did some good things on defense. And the defense is usually a little further ahead than the offense in spring ball and early in [summer] camp. But I’m excited and encouraged in the direction we are going.”
The Gold team scored first, as quarterback Charlie Goro capped an eight-play, 73-yard drive that took more than four minutes when he scrambled from 15 yards out for a touchdown.
There seemed to be some confusion on the play — and on the next possession — about if the quarterback could be tackled, though, as cornerback Trey Simmons and safety Andre Simmons both pulled up on hitting Goro.
“That was my fault,” Franklin said. “We hadn’t hit the quarterbacks all spring. I wasn’t clear on that. I said, ‘Look, you guys go after the quarterbacks unless I blow the whistle. Early on, I think that caused some confusion.”
Once the memo was out that the quarterbacks were fair game, all bets were off as Colt Nichter and a slew of others collected sacks.
Nichter, a junior defensive tackle for the Gold team, got to Smith twice, had three tackles — including two for a loss of 12 yards. He defended two passes, including knocking down a pass in the end zone in the first half.
“The new coaches and the new style we have it is a lot of more penetrating than we used to do,” Nichter said. “There is a lot more pressure and both defenses tore up.”
Redshirt-freshman linebacker Andrew East also had two sacks and Tim Fugger, Taylor Loftley, Kyle Woestmann and Johnell Thomas each had one. Vanderbilt had only 20 sacks last season.
“There is a big emphasis on getting to the quarterback,” Nichter said. “We have been running a lot of blitzes and just all kind of stuff to better our defense.”
After getting inside the 20-yard line twice and settling for two Carey Spear field goals, the Black squad finally punched in a touchdown late in the first half.
They made it to the 8-yard line, but a bad snap and a sack by Gold’s Taylor Loftley, pushed the Black back 15 yards. After a timeout, however, on third down, Smith hooked up with Jordan Matthews over the middle for a 23-yard touchdown. This gave the Black a 13-7 lead with 27 seconds left in the half.
“That is where our sloppiness showed up a little bit — fumbled snaps, jumping offsides,” Franklin said. “When you get down in the red zone, you have to score. You can’t settle for field goals.”
The offense showed plenty of positive glimpses, though. In the second quarter, on a third-and-one, Smith went long on a play-action-pass. He threaded the ball between two defenders, right into the hands of wide receiver Jonathan Krause, who caught the ball at the 3-yard line as he snatched it from Reggie Ford.
Krause finished with four catches for 85 yards and Matthews had seven grabs for 103 yards, including a 31-yard gain that helped set up the final touchdown.
It not only ended the game on a positive note but it allowed Smith to make up for his play in the scrimmage that none of his teammates or coaches forgot about.
“Our quarterbacks coach [Ricky Rahne] told him before that scrimmage, ‘We are going to run that play and if you drop the ball, we are going to remind you every single practice,’” Matthews said. “I take that personally. I am going to remind him every day in practice because Larry gets on me about everything. If I can find any ammo, I am going to use it. But [Sunday] he showed some athleticism right there.
“I don’t know if he played wide receiver in Pee-Wee or something, but he went up and got that ball. That just adds more plays into offense that we can use.”
• Due to a lack of depth, Vanderbilt had just nine offensive linemen available. So the unit wore white jerseys and played for both teams. Center Logan Stewart was out with an injury and guard/center James Kittredge has been out all spring and will not play in the fall due to violating university rules. He is not enrolled at Vanderbilt right now but could return to the school team next January.
Therefore, tackles Wesley Johnson and Caleb Welchans took turns snapping the ball on Sunday.
• Smith, a senior-to-be, finished with 233 yards on 16-of-26 passing, with one touchdown and one interception — a pass he overshot Krause on. Safety Kenny Ladler made a diving catch toward the far sideline for the pick.
Goro was 5-for-8 for 36 yards with one interception — by Woestmann in the first half that set up the Gold’s first field goal. Redshirt sophomore John Townsley backed up Goro and completed three of seven passes for 14 yards. The lefty from Ohio was one of six students to make the team after Franklin’s open tryouts to student a couple months ago.
• Franklin surveyed the game from 10 yards behind the quarterback the entirety of the game, letting offensive coordinator John Donovan coach the Black and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop lead the Gold.
• Both teams had several local celebrities as honorary coaches. Sports anchors Hope Hines (Channel 5) and Rudy Kalis (Channel 4) were the head coaches of the Black and Gold, respectively. Nashville-based actress/singer Jenna Kramer, who has been in shows such as One Tree Hill, was an honorary coordinator, along with radio personalities Mac McIntyre and Kenny Smoov.