What - Would You Have Preferred a Loss?
The above image is the perfect one for Saturday night's game in Nashville between the Vanderbilt football team and its rags-to-riches-to-rags opponent, the Connecticut Huskies. The Dores were trailing by a run and were down to their last strike, and an overwhelming curveball left Aaron Westlake frozen at the dish – the bender was that wicked. Yet, it missed the outside corner by an eyelash. The tying run walked in from third. Then, for good measure, a wild pitch scored the winning run just moments later. That was Vandy's 24-21 win over Connecticut in the back end of a two-year home-and-home series.
Sure, UConn won the Big East championship last season and made its way to the Fiesta Bowl in one of the most unlikely journeys this 142-year-old sport has ever seen, but those Huskies are not these Huskies. Last year in New England, Connecticut whacked Vandy and developed the notion that the Dores were not ready to do much of any heavy lifting under Robbie Caldwell. This year's club, with a new coach – Paul Pasqualoni – is starting over in so many ways. A new quarterback and a new system are causing the Huskies to go back to square one. Vanderbilt was playing a returning BCS bowl program only in a technical sense. This was – as hard as it might seem to believe – a team that's in much the same position the Commodores are (minus the BCS bowl appearance a year ago, of course). The position is called "starting over."
Saturday night at Vanderbilt Stadium, a ragged slapstick farce of a game affirmed the notion that these teams are just trying to master the most basic and fundamental elements of their sport.
Neither the Dores nor the Huskies reached 260 total yards of offense. Neither team committed fewer than three turnovers (four for UConn). Neither side was able to complete 50 percent of its pass attempts. Neither Vandy nor UConn were able to convert more than 20 percent of third downs. Neither team scored a single offensive touchdown in the second half, and finally, neither team allowed fewer than five sacks.
The two teams combined to go 5 of 31 on third downs. Three of the game's five touchdowns were not generated by the participating offenses, and UConn's offense actually got kept out of the end zone by a resilient Commodore defense. UConn's offense could technically be credited with six points, but since it started one drive at the Vanderbilt 17 following a Commodore turnover, UConn's offense essentially scored only three points all night long in Music City. These stats are a testament to the holistic horrors of this intersectional encounter, even though they say a lot of good things about the performance turned in by Vandy defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, who was the best assistant coach in this contest by a country mile.
What does one say in the wake of a flop-sweat festival such as this one, a fractured fairy tale in which Vanderbilt – just for good measure – supplemented its turnovers with 11 penalties for 81 yards? Well, as is the case in many marital arguments, the flow of the back and forth will often lead to this immortal line: "Well, what do you want me to say? What could I say that would make you happy? How can I say something in a way that you'll appreciate?"
There's only one such thing to say: "Would you have preferred to lose this game instead of winning it?"
Yes, this was an ugly affair on the VU campus. The Dores' offense – which did a decent job in the first half – then bottomed out after halftime. Quarterback Larry Smith and his teammates were so rattled and flummoxed by UConn defensive coordinator Don Brown's halftime adjustments that they gained only 32 yards on their first six possessions of the second half, encompassing 23 minutes of game time. Vanderbilt was stuck in quicksand with no reasonable expectation of escaping.
And then came the thunderbolt that saved the Dores on Saturday.
Connecticut – powered by a punt block and a fumble recovery for its two touchdowns in this game – had attained a 21-14 lead with seven minutes remaining in regulation. Given the complete paralysis of VU's offense, there was one and only one thing the Huskies could not afford to do: Turn the ball over on anything other than a long downfield pass that could double as a punt, or as the kids like to say today, an "arm punt."
Yet, that's exactly what Connecticut coughed up, and VU's Casey Hayward was all too happy to turn a terrible throw by UConn quarterback Johnny McEntee into a 50-yard pick-six for a 21-all tie at the 6:45 mark of regulation. It was preposterous and it was outrageous, but it happened. Hayward was wise enough to make the right read on the play, smart enough to fill the passing lane, focused enough to not drop the interception, and swift enough to outrace the Huskies' offensive unit to the goal line. In the midst of so much ineptitude, Hayward and the rest of Vanderbilt's defense planted the imprimatur of at least some excellence on this clash.
Then came the other particularly impressive aspect of the Dores' come-from-behind victory: Once they tied the game, they didn't relent. One of the most central parts of success in any athletic endeavor is the need to back up one good play with another, to consolidate territorial, tactical and psychological advantages. Vanderbilt did this, and as a result, coach James Franklin has a chance to connect with his players, to reach them and sell them on the value of persistence.
Indeed, instead of letting down their guard, the Dores only pushed harder against the sagging Huskies in a 21-all tie. A three-and-out in which UConn gained only one yard set up the offense near midfield, and when running back Zac Stacy busted loose for 48 yards (Vandy gained 130 of its 259 yards on three plays), the Dores had cracked chip-shot field goal range. Carey Spear did his thing from 31 yards with 2:56 left, and after VU made one more authoritative stand against McEntee and the rest of UConn's fading offense, the deed was just about done. One VU first down on its final possession guaranteed the ability to run out the clock.
Sure, this was the kind of game that gives coaches prematurely gray hair and heightened blood pressure levels. Of course, this was a game that will not soon make its way to the College Football Hall of Fame. No one would deny these statements.
All one can do is say, "Hey – would you have wanted to lose this game instead?"
Vanderbilt won on a night when it was far from its best. A few more of these kinds of wins will make James Franklin a very successful man before too long. That statement – unlike Saturday night's game – doesn't seem too outrageous at all.
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