Brandon Barden is responsible for the most meaningful Vanderbilt touchdown in years. He just had no idea at the time.
The tight end was a redshirt freshman in 2008 when he caught a 1-yard scoring pass from Mackenzi Adams that rallied the Commodores to a 14-13 upset of Auburn. His catch enabled Vanderbilt to improve to 5-0 in a season that eventually ended with a Music City Bowl win over Boston College, and it occurred while ESPN’s “GameDay” program was making its only trip to Nashville.
“I was a freshman having a great time, and I didn’t think too much about the moment and how big it was,” Barden said. “Now that a couple of years have gone by, I look back and think that I was pretty lucky to be in that situation, but at the time I definitely took it for granted.”
As it turned out, a lot of Commodores took a lot of things for granted.
Since that victory over Auburn, Vanderbilt is 5-20 in regular-season contests and 2-13 in Southeastern Conference games. The Commodores returned 17 starters from their bowl team yet plummeted last year, going 2-10 overall and 0-8 in the SEC with seven double-digit losses.
“I think we got complacent and thought we were going to do the same thing as the year before,” Barden said. “We felt every year was going to be that easy.”
Taking a 2-3 record to Georgia this week, the Commodores may not look like bowl material, but they also don’t resemble last year’s team that exceeded 13 points only four times in 12 games. Vandy is averaging 350.2 yards of total offense per game after averaging 306.3 last year, and it is averaging 25 points after 16.3 a year ago.
Tailbacks Warren Norman and Zac Stacy have been solid as sophomores, with Norman amassing 327 yards on 53 carries (6.2 per carry) and Stacy 241 on 35 (6.9).
“Running the football is the best thing we do, because our best playmakers are at running back,” coach Robbie Caldwell said. “We’ve got to throw when we want to throw and not when we have to throw, because we can’t protect well enough right now. I do believe we can get there, but we’ve just got some young guys up there trying to do it who just don’t quite understand what’s going on.”
Junior quarterback Larry Smith is coming off his finest performance, completing 16 of 27 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns in last Saturday’s 52-6 shellacking of Eastern Michigan. Smith has completed 56.3 percent of his passes for 793 yards, and he has five touchdowns after throwing four last season.
Barden, a 6-foot-5, 250-pounder from Lincolnton, Ga., is Vandy’s leading receiver with 17 catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns.
Not much was expected from the Commodores after last season’s collapse, and not much became zero in July when coach Bobby Johnson abruptly retired. Caldwell was elevated from offensive line coach and quickly won players over with his Southern charm and humor and by adding names to the backs of jerseys.
Whether Caldwell was a novelty act or a legitimate coach was answered Sept. 18, when the Commodores rushed for 227 yards in stunning Ole Miss 28-14 in Oxford.
“We definitely needed that,” Barden said. “If we had not beaten Ole Miss, we would have a lot less morale than we do right now. Between that game and the game this past weekend, we’ve got some swagger going down to Georgia.”
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...