The Vanderbilt defense did just about everything on Monday. Except score.
Jared Morse kept that from happening.
The 295-pound defensive tackle knocked down his own teammate, Trey Wilson, during a 65-yard interception return. Wilson looked determined to find the end zone in the third quarter after he stole a touchdown from North Carolina State.
But the ill-timed collision turned out to be a comical footnote in what was a banner day for the Commodores, who forced a season-high five turnovers in a 38-24 victory over N.C. State in the Music City Bowl at LP Field.
Coach James Franklin immediately greeted Morse with a raised voice and an earful but the blooper was meaningless by the postgame festivities. Vanderbilt (9-4) was all smiles – and some joyous tears – after tying the school record for wins and locking up its first nine-win season since 1915.
“Not the best moment in my Vanderbilt career,” Morse said with a grin, adding that Franklin later returned in a happier mood. “I don’t know if it was a hug [from Franklin]. But it was probably a handshake or a nice high five. It’s all fun, especially when you win.”
The Commodores did plenty of that the second half of the season and finished on a seven-game winning streak. It marked their longest streak since eight wins in a row to end 1948.
“When you get in the nine-game category it is a completely different conversation you’re in,” Franklin said. “When you’re throwing out dates like 1915 that is a very, very long time ago. We’re talking about these guys’ great, great, great grandparents. ... A lot of really significant things we were able to accomplish this year.”
They never trailed in securing that ninth victory, which was fueled by big plays on defense. Vanderbilt matched a season-high with three interceptions and forced two fumbles. The takeaways led to 17 points and helped the Commodores to their highest point total in a bowl. The previous high was 28 in the 1982 Hall of Fame Bowl.
Turnovers helped neutralize N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon, who threw for 383 yards but just one touchdown.
“They moved the ball on us but the turnovers were great erasers,” Franklin said.
Wilson, Kenny Ladler and Eric Samuels each snagged an interception. Johnell Thomas and Darreon Herring also forced fumbles as N.C. State (7-6) had four giveaways by halftime.
The last turnover of the opening half was crucial.
Trailing 21-14, the Wolfpack started at their 12 with 1:04 before halftime. The drive ended abruptly when Samuels turned his head just at the right time to pick off a pass from Glennon. Two plays later, Jordan Rodgers hit Jordan Matthews on a short pass for an 18-yard catch-and-run touchdown for a 14-point halftime lead.
“Against a [Southeastern] Conference team, [Southeastern] Conference talent, we weren’t going to play it safe,” N.C. State interim coach Dana Bible said. “We weren’t going to play back on this team. We were going to be attacking on it, and if they made a play on it more power to them.’”
To complement the defense, a fair share of offensive standouts delivered clutch plays.
Zac Stacy added a touchdown and 107 rushing yards on 25 carries en route to being named the MVP.
Rodgers redeemed himself one year after a dismal Liberty Bowl performance that resulted in him being benched. Against N.C. State, he completed 16 of 25 passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns, including a five-yard pass that Chris Boyd caught with one hand for a touchdown to cap off the game’s opening drive.
Rodgers also ran for a 15-yard touchdown to seal the win with 5:11 remaining. That came just three plays after he took a shot that left him with a bloody mouth while extending the drive with a 14-yard fourth-down connection to Matthews.
“I know there was a lot of talk about Mike [Glennon] coming into this game,” Matthews said. “But anybody could see Jordan was the best quarterback on the field.”
Of course, Vanderbilt’s defense had a lot to do with that.
The Commodores sacked Glennon three times and kept the 6-foot-6 senior, who has been called the best quarterback available in the upcoming draft, from igniting a comeback.
“We wanted respect too,” Ladler said. “We decided we were going to step up and make a lot of plays.”