Zac Stacy was the starter, but he wasn’t the only Vanderbilt freshman running back who made a big splash in the season opener against Western Carolina Saturday night.
Stacy, who replaced injured senior Jared Hawkins, and fellow freshman Warren Norman combined for 240 yards on the ground and three touchdowns in the Commodores’ 45-0 victory over the Catamounts.
“It was a good experience,” Stacy said. “As the game went on, the speed of the game slowed down a little bit for us. (The offensive line) opened up some good holes, and I was able to see them.”
Vanderbilt (1-0) won its second straight, going back to last year’s 16-14 win over Boston College in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl. It also marks the first time since 1975 that Vandy won its season opener the year after appearing in a bowl game.
“I was very pleased our team played hard at the first of the game and took control fairly early,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you just want to make sure you come out and take care of business. We had some lulls and some bad spots … but it gave us a chance to run our offense and try some different things.”
Both backs topped the century mark — Stacy with 133 yards and Norman with 105 — making it the first time two true freshman backs have gone over 100 yards in the same game. For both, it was all about stepping up to the challenge.
“I thought they could handle it,” Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said. “They did a good job of learning the offense and knowing what to do. We had some big holes in there, and they ran through them. I was pleased with the way they executed.”
The offense sputtered early but found its groove and never looked back, while defensively the Commodores never allowed Western Carolina to gain any kind of momentum. The Catamounts were held to just four first downs for the game and 115 yards of total offense.
“Defensively I thought we played good the whole night, got after it and stayed aggressive,” Johnson said. “That’s what we really like about our defense.”
Two Catamount turnovers on their first two possessions of the game resulted in no Vandy points, but the ‘Dores finally cashed in with 7:19 left in the first quarter on a 46-yard Larry Smith-to-Justin Green touchdown pass, with Ryan Fowler’s point after making it 7-0.
Norman scored the first of his two TDs with 4:04 left in the first on a 7-yard run, and Stacy had his 9-yard TD run at the start of the second quarter to give Vandy a 21-0 halftime advantage.
Norman, Kennard Reeves and Ryan van Rensburg had TD runs in the second half, and Fowler’s 25-yard field goal capped off the scoring for the Commodores with 54 seconds left in the game.
Fowler had missed his two previous attempts, so Johnson wanted to get him some confidence going forward.
“I wanted to get Ryan in there with a chance to make a field goal, so hopefully that will help us down the road,” he said.
Vandy enters Southeastern Conference play next week when it travels to Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge to face LSU, certainly a vastly different team than the ‘Dores faced Saturday, Johnson said.
“We will have a slight increase in the talent level of the opposition, so we’ve got to improve,” he said. “But we’re not going to be scared to go down there. It’s just an opportunity to do something big for our program.”
Saturday was the first time since Norval McKenzie and Kwane Doster in 2002 that two Vanderbilt backs went over the 100-yard mark in a game. It also was the first time two true freshmen accomplished the feat.
With 620 yards of total offense, Vanderbilt topped the 600-yard plateau for the first time since 2006 against Kentucky (621), and its 433 rushing yards is the most since the ‘Dores had 415 yards against Georgia in 1994.