NASHVILLE, Tenn. Chris Nickson threw for a touchdown and ran for another and Vanderbilt finally beat a ranked opponent on its own field Thursday night, upsetting No. 24 South Carolina 24-17 in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.
Vanderbilt (2-0) had made it a habit of knocking off SEC teams on the road with victories at Arkansas and Tennessee in 2005, an upset of then-No. 22 Georgia in 2006 and even pulled off the biggest victory in more than 70 years by downing then-No. 6 South Carolina last October.
But the Commodores hadn't upset a ranked team in Vanderbilt Stadium since Sept. 19, 1992, a 31-9 win over then-No. 25 Mississippi.
This win was very sweet for Vanderbilt, which lost its first 14 games against Steve Spurrier as he coached Duke, Florida and South Carolina. Now the Commodores have won two straight against the ol' ball coach, and it was enough for Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson, a Columbia native and Clemson alum, to nearly lose his voice.
"It feels great," Johnson said. "I was very proud of our guys, the way they played in the second half. We overcame a lot from the second half, and they just kept plugging away so I'm very pleased with their effort. I'm sorry I lost my voice."
South Carolina (1-1) had survived four interceptions in shutting out North Carolina State 34-0 last week. The Gamecocks couldn't escape their mistakes against Vanderbilt.
The Commodores picked off two of Chris Smelley's passes and sacked him four times, recovered a punt that bounced off a South Carolina player and blocked a field goal. South Carolina's lone touchdown was due to Vanderbilt's only turnover, which the Gamecocks recovered at the Commodores 20 in the first quarter.
Smelley threw two touchdown passes, the second to Freddie Brown with 7:39 left. But Smelley overthrew a receiver and was sacked on consecutive plays as Vandy forced Spurrier and the Gamecocks to punt with 2:39 left.
Ryan Succop also missed a 49-yard field goal wide left.
The South Carolina meltdown continued in Vandy's clinching TD drive. Defensive captain Captain Munnerlyn was flagged twice on third downs, keeping alive a 68-yard possession capped by Jared Hawkins' 13-yard TD run for a 24-10 lead with 9:28 left.
Vanderbilt had little offense in the first half and was outgained 133-50 by the Gamecocks. Reshard Langford and Darlron Spead had more yards (74) off their two interceptions than their own offense.
But Vanderbilt, which had lost 10 straight SEC openers at home, got the breaks that usually go against the Commodores in the second half. Johnson said his Commodores were so angry at their play he didn't have to tell them what to do at halftime.
"They knew they didn't play well. I just had to open the door," he said.
Brett Upson's punt glanced off the back of Addison Williams of South Carolina, and Ryan Hamilton recovered at the South Carolina 30. On the next play, Nickson threw to Brandon Barden for a 31-yard touchdown with 10:14 left and a 10-10 tie.
The 6-foot-5 Barden had transferred to Vandy from Virginia Tech after the shootings that left 32 dead. He evaded Munnerlyn for his second catch and first TD with the Commodores.
Officials threw a flag as Smelley tried to find Moe Brown for a long pass. But they ruled the ball uncatchable instead of flagging Vandy for pass interference. South Carolina had to settle for a 42-yard field goal attempt by Succop, who hit a 41-yarder as the first half expired.
Greg Billinger got a hand up and blocked the ball, which John Stokes recovered for Vanderbilt.
Then the Commodores finally showed signs of an offense. Nickson hit Jamie Graham on a 16-yard pass, then Sean Walker ran for 29 yards on a reverse. Two plays later, Nickson scored from a yard out for a 17-10 lead with 3:53 left in the third.