Vanderbilt hits dramatic game-winning field goal to defeat UConn, 30-28

Joey Bulovas played hero for the second time this season as Vanderbilt edged out UConn in epic fashion Saturday night.

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Will Sheppard hauled in two touchdowns for Vanderbilt on Saturday (Hustler Multimedia / Mattigan Kelly).

Bryce Smith, Deputy Sports Editor

In a battle between two of the lowest-ranked teams in the FBS, Saturday night’s contest between Vanderbilt and Connecticut did not disappoint. It was a sloppy, back-and-forth, mistake-filled football game with three lead changes and nearly 1000 yards of offense. In the end, Vanderbilt pulled out a last-second, game-winning field goal from kicker Joseph Bulovas to avenge the Huskies, 30-28. 

“I was proud of this team for not flinching. As ugly as that one was at times, I felt like the character of this football team shown through in the end,” Clark Lea added in the post game press conference.

Midway through the first quarter, it looked like it was yet another slow start that would doom head coach Clark Lea and Vanderbilt. Under the lights and a steady stream of rain, UConn came out and punched Vanderbilt in the mouth to the tune of a nine-play, 50-yard drive orchestrated by Huskie starting quarterback Tyler Phommachanh. The Vanderbilt defense, though, bent but did not break—a continuous theme throughout the contest—holding the Huskies to just a field goal. 

Ken Seals (27-4o for 333 yards, 2 TDs) and the Commodore offense responded with an uninspiring three-and-out to hand the ball back to the Huskies. Once again, Phommachanh took UConn right down the field on a nine-play, 30-yard drive that resulted in another field goal—this one from 44 yards—for a 6-0 UConn lead halfway through the first quarter. The Huskie starter sustained an injury towards the end of the drive, however, and would not return for the rest of the night. 

Vanderbilt’s second drive fared better as Rocko Griffin uncorked a pair of 10-plus yard runs sandwiched between a 26-yard connection between Seals and Chris Pierce on a play action route. That set the Commodores up for a 39-yard field goal, which Joseph Bulovas converted to make the score 6-3. 

UConn backup quarterback Steven Krajewski struggled to acclimate to the flow of the game early on as the Commodores rattled the Huskie offense into a quick three-and-out. Vanderbilt responded with another big Griffin run followed by a play-action shot to Ben Bresnahan that moved the Commodores 44 yards in two plays. Two snaps later, Seals connected with Will Sheppard on a 26-yard touchdown that gave Vanderbilt its first lead of the contest, 10-6. 

The Commodore defense seemed to capitalize on the momentum as a Krajewski pass was tipped right into the arms of safety Maxwell Worship. However, Vanderbilt was unwilling to take the gift that UConn offered as Worship was immediately stripped, leading to a Huskie recovery and subsequent first down. Krajewski went on to complete passes of 15 and 26 yards to put UConn in field goal position. The Vanderbilt defense once again held steady and the Huskies settled for a 31-yard field goal to make the score 10-9. 

Vanderbilt’s offense continued to thrive on the next possession as Seals hit Devin Boddie Jr. on third down for a 33-yard streak over the middle to put the Commodores deep in UConn territory. A late hit by Huskie Eric Watts brought Vanderbilt inside the 10, where Rocko Griffin needed just two carries to find the endzone and put the Commodores up 17-9. 

Once again, the Vanderbilt defense seemed to capitalize on the momentum created by the offense only to have it taken away. The Commodores surrounded Krajewski in the pocket, only to let the Huskie sophomore escape for a 32-yard scramble. Then, Alex Williams sacked the UConn signal caller but it was negated by a facemask penalty. On third and five, Krajewski lofted a ball up for Keelan Marion who made an acrobatic catch for a 40-yard touchdown right before halftime to trim the Commodore lead to 17-16. 

The Huskie offense picked up right where it left off after a Commodore three-and-out to start the half. Krajewski and company needed just four plays to get into the red zone, but Vanderbilt again held forcing a 22-yard field goal attempt from UConn, which freshman Joe McFadden missed. 

Seals immediately gave it back to the Huskies with a lackluster throw intended for Boddie Jr. that was easily intercepted. UConn—seemingly in an effort to not let Vanderbilt take the lead in miscues—then failed to pick up a first down on four attempts, giving the ball back to the Commodores. 

The two sides traded punts for the rest of the third quarter, but Vanderbilt picked the scoring back up to open the fourth. Seals completed big plays to both Pierce and Sheppard to move the Commodores in position for a 27-yard field goal for Bulovas, which he hit to make the score 20-16. 

After a UConn punt, Seals again looked to Pierce and Sheppard, hitting them for 13 and 14-yard gains, respectively. Then, he threw a strike down the right sideline to Sheppard for a 38-yard touchdown and the sophomore’s second touchdown of the evening, as Vanderbilt took a 27-16 lead. Sheppard finished with eight catches for 119 yards and the two touchdowns. 

Vanderbilt’s defense allowed a fourth down conversion, a 25-yard pass, and a defensive pass interference to let UConn back in as Krajewski found Kevens Clercius for an eight-yard touchdown to make the score 27-22. UConn tried and failed a two-point conversion to keep its deficit at five. 

The Commodore offense promptly went three-and-out to give the ball back to UConn, setting the stage for a truly absurd finish between two sides desperate for a win. 

The Huskies took over at their own 22-yard line before marching to midfield in short order. An intentional grounding penalty on 3rd and 10 made it 4th and 20 for the Huskies with 1 minute and 50 seconds remaining. Krajewski lofted a prayer that was tipped by two Commodore defenders before falling harmlessly into the arms of Clercius for a first down conversion. UConn needed just two plays after that to score as fate seemed to shift to the Huskie side. Krajewski waltzed in for a 17-yard keeper that put UConn back on top for the first time since the second quarter, 28-27. UConn missed yet another two-point conversion to give Vanderbilt the ball back with 1:07 left in the contest. 

A fair catch, combined with a personal foul on UConn, gave the Commodores favorable field position as they started the ball at their own 40-yard line. Then, in his best Aaron Rodgers impression, Seals led the Commodores down the field, completing passes of six, nine and 19 yards to get Vanderbilt into field goal range. A lucky defensive pass interference call pushed the Commodores even closer as they reached the 14-yard line. Vanderbilt brought on Bulovas—who finished the night 3-for-3—for a 31-yard field goal and the win. After three straight UConn timeouts, the graduate transfer nailed the kick through the middle of the uprights to give the Commodores the win. It’s the second game-winner for him this season after he propelled the Commodores to victory over Colorado State in Week 2. 

“The kicking game is critical. For us to be able to find someone who has experience—we’re grateful we have. Once we got him in position, we knew he was going to knock it down,” Lea added postgame.

For Vanderbilt, the win moves the team’s record to 2-3 (0-1) in the 2021 campaign. They will travel to Gainesville next week to face off against the Florida Gators. UConn dropped to 0-6 with the loss.