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September 2, 2006

Big House blues

ANN ARBOR, Mich.-The Big Ten is supposed to be a physical football conference. Vanderbilt found out just how physical it could be on Saturday afternoon, as Michigan defeated the Commodores 27-7 in the season opener for both teams.

Michigan's vaunted ground attack, led by Mike Hart's 146 yards, gashed the Commodore defense for 246 yards. Meanwhile, the Wolverine defense held Vanderbilt to 42 net rushing yards on 26 attempts, thrilling the 109,668 fans at Michigan Stadium. It was the largest crowd to ever witness a Vanderbilt football game.

Vandy coach Bobby Johnson bemoaned the Commodores' lack of physical play following the loss.

"We did not react very well to aggressive play by Michigan, and they played aggressively all day," said Johnson. "They really put us in some tough situations and we did not react very well."

Michigan's Kevin Grady scored on a 19-yard run on the game's first possession, a 10-play, 81-yard drive that took 4:48. The Wolverines added a 33-yard Garrett Rivas field goal to take a 10-0 first-quarter lead.

Vandy answered with its only score of the day when, with 12:26 to play in the first half, receiver Earl Bennett took a lateral from quarterback Chris Nickson and threw to a wide-open Marlon White to cut the margin to 10-7.

The Wolverines continued to move the ball, but the Commodore defense made two huge plays in the second quarter. Jonathan Goff blocked Rivas's 42-yard field goal, and Curtis Gatewood forced a Grady fumble that Theo Horrocks pounced on at the Commodore 22.

In between, Rivas connected on a 33-yarder to give Michigan a 13-7 halftime lead. The Commodores got the ball to start the half, but on a third-and-1 from the Vandy 39, Cassen Jackson-Garrison-who rushed eight times for a net of two yards-was stopped for a three-yard loss.

Later in the quarter, the Commodores were on the verge of forcing another Michigan field goal after quarterback Chad Henne threw an incompletion, and safety Ben Koger made a nice play on Mario Manningham to run him out-of-bounds for a two-yard gain on an end-around.

But on third-and-8 from the Vandy 16, Henne found Tyler Ecker, who slipped behind linebacker Kevin Joyce, for a leaping touchdown in the back of the end zone for a 20-7 lead.

That play sealed Vandy's fate. The Commodores mounted a 35-yard drive to the Michigan 27 early in the fourth quarter, but Nickson's end-zone attempt to Bennett on fourth down went through the end zone and just out of his reach.

Then, with minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and the Commodores moving the ball, Nickson lost a fumble at the end of a 14-yard run to effectively end any last chance Vandy had of winning. Moments later, Michigan tacked on a 27-yard pass to Manningham in the end zone with 2:11 to play on a third-and-10 play.

Nickson, making his starting debut, never had a chance to help Vandy fans forget departed Southeastern Conference player of the year Jay Cutler. He was pressured and pounded into the Ann Arbor turf all day, and rarely had time to throw. He finished the day with 22 net yards on 16 attempts, and completed 11-of-25 passes for 99 yards.

Nickson said that the team's inability to run the ball severely hampered Vandy's chances of maintaining offensive momentum.

"I think if the running game would have been a little stronger-I mean, the running game always helps. It takes a lot of pressure off you," said the Brundidge, Ala. sophomore.

"I don't want to say that we lacked the running game, but if we had been more successful, I'm pretty sure it would have opened up a few more lanes for us. But we're going to move on from it."

Defensively, Goff led the way with 14 tackles (12 solo), with defensive end Chris Booker contributing seven solo tackles as well.

The Commodores head to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to face Alabama in the SEC opener for both teams next weekend.


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