For Jay Fullam, the fact that he was penalized for a blow to the head of Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa was … well, a head-scratcher.
“I asked the ref about it after it happened, and I was just like, ‘Sir, could you please explain this call to me,’” the Vanderbilt freshman safety said. “He just looked at me and said, ‘You hit him in the head.
“I didn’t think I did anything wrong.”
Right or wrong, the call was made with just fewer than two minutes to play and guaranteed that Vanderbilt would come out on the losing end of its season-opener Saturday against Northwestern. What would have been a fourth-and-short for the Wildcats instead became a first down and left the Commodores helpless to stop the clock or get the ball back in a 23-21 defeat Saturday at Vanderbilt Stadium in Robbie Caldwell’s first game as head coach.
“I’m anxious to see it on tape,” Caldwell said immediately following the contest. “They said it was a ‘high hit.’ … I guess they meant helmet-to-helmet. They didn’t give me any explanation.”
The penalty was the ninth of the night against Vanderbilt, and hardly the first that came at an inopportune moment.
Two of Northwestern’s scoring drives were aided by Commodores’ violations.
The Wildcats took an early 3-0 lead with an 80-yard march that included a 15-yard penalty against Fullam for a late hit out of bounds. They made it 23-15 with a fourth-quarter touchdown two plays after defensive tackle T.J. Greenstone jumped offside on third-and-1.
“Penalties came at a bad time, but a lot of it was on us,” Greenstone said. “Myself, I jumped offside and screwed that up. … They weren’t penalties that we couldn’t have prevented. It was just discipline problems on our side.”
That was not necessarily the case with the final call. In television replays, it appeared Fullam delivered a shoulder-to-shoulder blow to Persa as he scrambled right on third-and-6 with a 1:53 to play. The ball was spotted at the Northwestern 38 – one yard short of a first down – but then advanced 15 yards because of the ruling.
Vanderbilt had no timeouts remaining.
“(Persa) is trying to get that first down and he’s diving for it,” Fullam said. “I hit him where I could. Evidently I did it wrong.”
• Coaching calls: Caldwell’s debut included several moments that demanded decisions on his part.
Vanderbilt trailed by two, 17-15, with roughly 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter when he elected to go for it on fourth-and-2 from the Northwestern 41. The Commodores’ converted with a 10-yard run by Warren Norman, but missed an opportunity to go ahead when kicker Ryan Fowler missed a 46-yard field goal attempt four plays later.
“I just decided to go for it,” Caldwell said. “I felt like we had a good play called. Coach (Jimmy) Kiser, (the offensive coordinator) suggested we run, and I liked it. We went and executed it very well.”
He also elected to try for a two-point conversion with 1:51 to play in the third quarter. At the time his team trailed 17-15 following a 36-yard touchdown reception by tight end Brandon Barden.
“It was (easy) for me,” he said. “The way the score sorted out right there it was the perfect thing to do.”
They failed to convert and ultimately never pulled even or took the lead throughout the remainder of the contest.
• Quick healer: Sophomore running back Warren Norman started the game and carried on two of the Commodores’ first three offensive plays despite the fact that he had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee on Aug. 25.
“He’s a very tough individual,” Caldwell said. “The doctors approved him (last week) and we just wanted to make sure the swelling stayed out and it did.”
Norman, the 2009 SEC Freshman of the Year, finished with 46 rushing yards and one touchdown on 10 carries. He also caught two passes for 32 yards and returned two kickoffs for an average of 29 yards.
“He did extremely well,” Norman said. “We didn’t give him as many carries (Saturday) night as we’d probably like to, but we want to give (the knee) a chance to strengthen.”
• Fullam and linebacker Chris Marve had 12 tackles each, which tied them with Northwestern’s Nate Williams for the game high. For Marve, it was his third straight contest – and eighth in the last 13 – with at least 10 stops.
• Norman and Zac Stacy each scored at least one rushing touchdown in the opener for second straight season. Norman had two and Stacy had one last season against Western Carolina.
• Vanderbilt outgained Northwestern 432-365 and averaged 6.1 yards per play to the Wildcats’ 5.4.