OXFORD, Miss. — It was a clutch moment that has so often flummoxed Vanderbilt’s football program for the better part of its history.
But in yet another piece of mounting evidence that the Commodores aren’t a Southeastern Conference doormat anymore, Jordan Rodgers calmly surveyed the field and found Chris Boyd wide open for a 26-yard touchdown pass with 52 seconds remaining to give Vanderbilt a 27-26 victory over Ole Miss on Saturday night.
It ended a thrilling comeback for the Commodores (6-4, 3-3 SEC), who trailed 23-6 early in the third quarter but rallied for their fourth straight victory.
Now, the postseason is in Vanderbilt’s future — again. The Commodores are bowl-eligible for the second straight season for the first time in school history.
Second-year coach James Franklin has engineered the quick turnaround, turning Vanderbilt into an SEC threat nearly overnight.
“I’m looking forward to the day when I don’t have to say first ever, because we want this to be the culture at Vanderbilt. A culture of winning,” Franklin said. “Our coaches and players believe it.”
Rodgers completed 20 of 35 passes for 267 yards and two touchdowns. Jordan Matthews caught nine passes for 153 yards and a touchdown, including a 52-yard touchdown grab in the third quarter that pulled the Commodores within 23-13 and sparked their second-half rally.
Vanderbilt has won six out of eight games in the series. Franklin said there wouldn’t be too much celebration, especially with rival Tennessee coming up on the schedule next week.
“I’m not trying to be rude, but we’re consistent with this approach,” Franklin said. “We’re 1-0 after this game. I know it drives everybody crazy, because they want to look at the big picture, but we’re 1-0. We will enjoy this for 40 more minutes.”
It was a devastating loss for Ole Miss, which also blew a 10-point fourth-quarter lead against Texas A&M earlier this season in a loss.
The Rebels never trailed in this one until the final 52 seconds.
“The bottom line is, they scored touchdowns, and we scored field goals,” Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said. “They’re a good football team. They didn’t quit. They didn’t panic so give them credit, but we have to score touchdowns when we get in the red zone and we just didn’t.”
Now, the Rebels (5-5, 2-4) must beat either LSU or Mississippi State in the final two weeks to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2009.
Ole Miss wasted a terrific performance from Bo Wallace, who completed 31 of 49 passes for 403 yards and a touchdown. It’s only the fifth time in school history a quarterback has thrown for more than 400 yards. Ja-Mes Logan caught eight passes for 160 yards.
The Rebels looked like they might hang on for the win after Bryson Rose kicked a 27-yard field goal to push them ahead 26-20 with 2:43 remaining.
But Vanderbilt drove the field in less than two minutes on nine plays, showing a moxie rarely seen from the Commodores before the arrival of Franklin two years ago.
Boyd was wide open down the sideline on the game-winning play, catching Rodgers’ perfectly thrown ball and jogging into the end zone untouched.
“There was never any doubt at all,” Boyd said. “It was just a matter of not giving up and playing every play.”
It was a stunning conclusion considering nothing went right for Vanderbilt early in the game.
Zac Stacy — who is the school’s all-time leading rusher and came into the game with 752 rushing yards and six touchdowns this season — was injured on his second carry and had to be helped off the field. He didn’t return, and the Commodores struggled to find any early rhythm without him.
Ole Miss scored first on a 9-yard pass from Wallace to Vincent Sanders, before Vanderbilt started a parade of field goals with a 22-yarder to pull within 7-3.
The Rebels moved the ball well in the second quarter, but had to settle for three field goals from Rose. The senior hit them from 22, 28 and 41 yards to push the Rebels’ lead to 16-3 by late in the second quarter.
Carey Spear hit a 44-yard field goal late in the second quarter to pull Vanderbilt within 16-6 at halftime.
Ole Miss jumped ahead 23-6 early in the third quarter on a 1-yard touchdown run by Wallace.
In the second half, Rodgers hit Matthews in stride for the 52-yard TD pass and then the Commodores finished an 11-play drive with a 1-yard touchdown run by Wesley Tate to pull within 23-20 with 2:33 remaining in the third quarter.