STARKVILLE, Miss. -- A late rally fueled by turnovers and defense -- sounds like yet another win for No. 13 Vanderbilt. Not so fast.
Mississippi State handed the Commodores their first loss of the season, derailing the feel-good story of the year with a pair of second-half interceptions and smothering defense in a 17-14 victory on Saturday.
"All the things we were doing when we won five games, we didn't do a very good job with today," Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said. "That's just the difference between winning and losing, especially when we take on teams with a lot of talent like Mississippi State."
Vanderbilt's amazing run to start the season was sort of a case of identity theft. The Commodores (5-1, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) have been using the same formula the Bulldogs (2-4, 1-2) mined for a breakthrough eight-win season last year. That earned the Bulldogs a trip to the Liberty Bowl and Sylvester Croom SEC coach of the year honors.
It was like 2007 all over again for the Bulldogs, who made a habit of knocking off seemingly superior opponents with defense, opportunism and the occasional big play.
"Somewhere along the way we forgot who we were," Croom said. "Now we remember. We've got our identity back."
Vanderbilt, the fourth ranked team to fall to the Bulldogs under Croom, was looking to go 6-0 for the first time since 1928. The Commodores led the nation in turnover margin, were second in interceptions and had outscored opponents 58-10 in the second half.
This time, though, it was the Bulldogs who held all the key advantages. They rallied from a 7-3 halftime deficit. They held the Commodores to a woeful 107 yards of total offense -- a figure paltry even by Vanderbilt standards. The Bulldogs came up with two second-half interceptions and held Vandy to 1-of-10 on third down. And for good measure, Mississippi State's Anthony Dixon rushed for 107 time-consuming yards that helped give the defense a rest.
Mississippi State held quarterback Chris Nickson to 3 of 10 passing for 15 yards, and more importantly didn't allow any runner to surpass 15 yards.
"All the running backs and myself, we were just trying to find holes out there," Nickson said. "There just weren't too many. They came out with schemes that were different than what we were prepared for and we couldn't ever get into a rhythm. It's hard to make plays when you can't get into a rhythm."
Yet it still looked like Vanderbilt might sneak away with another improbable win. The Commodores' only scores -- a 1-foot dive by Nickson and a 2-yard run by Jeff Jennings -- were set up by Mississippi State penalties committed in the end zone.
Vanderbilt had been living on the edge on the way to matching its best start in SEC play. The Commodores are near the bottom of most league statistical categories.
It didn't seem to matter that they were 116th of 119 teams in passing or that they had to come from behind in each of their previous wins. They were off to such a hot start, a win would've made them bowl eligible for the first time since 1982.
But this game would have no happy ending. Along with their poor offensive performance, the Commodores, one of the least penalized teams in the country, committed season highs of 10 penalties for 65 yards. And their two turnovers tied a season high. Nickson's errant pass on the first play of the fourth quarter was picked off by De'Mon Glanton and gave the Bulldogs with first-and-goal at the 7. Christian Ducre scored from 3 yards out three plays later for a 17-7 lead.
"We had too many penalties, dropped balls and too many missed tackles," Johnson said. "We couldn't seem to make the big play and that's what seems to happen to you when you don't win."
Vanderbilt replaced Nickson with Mackenzi Adams, who immediately led a scoring drive to start a rally. But the Bulldogs shut the Commodores down on the next drive, finishing it off with a sack of Adams, and Karlin Brown's interception on Vanderbilt's final possession ended the threat.
"We just didn't do it, and we could have," Nickson said. "I was sitting on the sideline thinking that I really expected us to score again and win the game. We're still a team that can come back and we're going to do just that. Just not today."