As the Vanderbilt football team watched Joseph Bulovas’ 38-yard field goal attempt slowly start to drift toward the left upright, the Commodores couldn’t help but feel the weight of an 11-game, 657-day losing streak.
Tied 21-21 with 22 seconds left, Bulovas’ kick would either serve as a continuation of mediocrity or ignite a program renaissance rooted in winning the Clark Lea way.
The kick just snuck past the right upright and the Alabama transfer punctuated a 14-point come-from-behind Vanderbilt victory. It was the Commodores’ first road win since a 45-31 triumph over Arkansas on Oct. 27, 2018.
"The guys in the locker room, they sure deserve it," Bulovas said. "They work their tails off day-in and day-out. This game is not about a game-winning kick or anything like that. It's about hard work throughout 60 minutes of the game. They wrote the letter, and I just sealed the envelope."
“The clock hits zero and we had 24 and they had 21 and it’s like, ‘It’s over, we did it,’” said quarterback Ken Seals, who earned his first-ever win as VU’s starting QB. “Just sheer joy. The visuals, I’ll never forget. Just hugging my teammates and being on the verge of tears.”
The win doesn’t exactly make up for the Week 1 debacle against ETSU, but it could be argued Saturday’s win doesn’t happen without suffering the sting of that loss.
Lea has been straightforward from the beginning: rebuilding the Vanderbilt football program will take some time. He’s even on record stating that winning is a skill Vanderbilt simply hasn’t yet developed.
But what Saturday’s win proved is the building blocks are there, and it’s Lea’s job to transform the ‘Dores from bumbling architects into skilled structural engineers.
"I think it's a result that we can build off of,” Lea said. “It's an effort we can build off of... I think what we did was we took an effort in our first game that we weren't proud of, and we shifted into one where we took the fight to Colorado State for four quarters.
“…Adversity in Week 1 just stole our spirit. This week, it seemed like it ignited our spirit, and that's an important moment."
Added Seals: "I think this game was extremely important for the direction of our program and this team. I'll just say this, God has blessed us all with the athletic ability to go out here and play this game, and we're all grateful and he has seen the work that we put in.”
Trailing 14-0 into the second quarter, Vanderbilt scored 21 unanswered points. The ‘Dores found an offensive swagger they hadn’t had in nearly two years.
Seals bounced back from a two-interception game against ETSU to complete 27 of 42 passes for 238 yards and two touchdowns. In an effort to not have a repeat of last week, offensive play-caller Joey Lynch switched things up and played more to Seals’ strengths.
Vanderbilt counted on a balanced rushing attack, led by Re’Mahn Davis’ 17 carries for 77 yards, to help take some pressure off Seals. When the sophomore did drop back, Lynch made sure he got the ball out quickly.
Chris Pierce, Cam Johnson, Will Sheppard, Devin Boddie and Davis each accounted for at least four receptions. Pierce led the way with 76 yards and a score, while Johnson added 66 yards and a touchdown.
In scaling back the number of downfield throws and employing more of an up-tempo, RPO-based offense, Lynch may have found the recipe for success.
“That sideline and the belief on that sideline was the difference tonight,” Lea said. “That has to do with Vanderbilt football discovering itself.
“…When you prepare with humility, you can compete with arrogance and some swagger and enthusiasm and confidence.”
Follow Michael Gallagher on Twitter @MGsports_