When Playing With Fire Is A Good Thing

The traditional understanding of the expression "playing with fire" is a pejorative one. Recklessness, carelessness, and other "-lessnesses" are part of that fire-filled framework of frailty. However, the Vanderbilt Commodores have turned that phrasing on its head. This team is playing with FIRE, with a passion that can surge to the forefront of an SEC gameday and dominate an opponent.


National pundits are amazed (with some justification) that Vanderbilt could open up this large a can of whoopin' on the Ole Miss Rebels. This contest has undeniably put Mississippi head coach Houston Nutt on the hot seat, and for that reason, the Ole Miss side of the equation is going to gain a lot of national play in the coming days. However, while wondering why the Rebels wilted is understandable, the other side of the coin deserves and demands an explanation as well. Plainly put, it's been a long, long, long time since Vanderbilt was able to maximize momentum and harness positive energy to such a considerable extent.

What you saw at Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturday afternoon was something more than a merely "plucky" or "opportunistic" or "resourceful" win. Those three adjectives point to a tough and grinding win achieved under difficult circumstances, a victory achieved by jumping through a narrow window of opportunity. This game was more than that. On Saturday, Vanderbilt didn't hammer out a rugged nine-point win based on some key crunch-time surges in the early stages of the fourth quarter. This was a contest in which the Dores used a moment of excellence as a portal to a substantial and far-ranging transformation.

The most salient and overarching truth of Saturday's shellacking of Ole Miss is that the first 20 minutes of play were ghastly, if not worse. Vandy quarterback Larry Smith struggled profoundly in the first quarter and change, fumbling on one series and then completing a one-yard pass on a 4th-and-10 attempt. When Vanderbilt got the ball back in a scoreless tie with 9:36 left in the second quarter, viewers on the SEC Network had been subjected to a flop-sweat-filled failure festival, a logical scenario in light of Vanderbilt's struggles against a Connecticut offense that can't get out of its own way. (When Connecticut stunk up the joint in a Friday night home loss to Iowa State, the tenuousness of Vanderbilt's 24-21 win over the Huskies was amplified, not reduced.) Through the first third of this game, there was nothing – nothing at all – which pointed to a VU steamroller in the second third and the absence of drama in the final third. If the opening 20 minutes had accurately foreshadowed the second 20 minutes and the last 20 minutes of Rebels-Dores, the two teams would have mud-wrestled to a 13-10 conclusion. Instead, Vanderbilt came within a few minutes of pitching not just a shutout, but a 30-point whitewash.

Just how did this happen? It happened because the Dores believe very deeply in themselves, and consequently accessed a well of inspiration that didn't peeter out very quickly. In fact, Vanderbilt's non-defensive scores all came on drives that did not progress with a linear and easy smoothness. The Dores turned adversity into outrageous success on a consistent basis after a taxing and frustrating first quarter.

On Vandy's first touchdown drive, the Dores uncorked big runs on 2nd and 14 (a 26-yard dash by Zach Stacy, en route to 169 yards for the meal-ticket running back) and later on 2nd and 16, when Smith bolted into the end zone to break the scoreless tie. Those two runs immediately transformed anxiety into elation, and perhaps it was the abruptness of VU's first "turnaround touchdown" that hit the Rebels' psyches with freight-train impact. Nevertheless, Vanderbilt needed to put in the hard work needed to maximize that momentum, and that's precisely what the Dores did as the second quarter continued. Trey Wilson produced VU's third pick-six of the season right after Smith's break-the-ice touchdown; following those early plodding minutes of scoreless, eyesore-creating football, Vandy had quite suddenly amassed a 14-0 bulge.

Instead of relaxing or losing their competitive edge, however, the Dores – whose emotional temperament has been perfectly shaped by coach James Franklin – continued to do the things that brought them such a feast of fortune. Another three-and-out by a flying defensive unit was followed by yet another backbreaking run from Stacy. Having already solved two daunting second-and-long situations, Stacy rumbled for 42 yards on a 2nd-and-21 snap from the Ole Miss 42. When second downs with an average of 17 yards to go are regularly converted with running plays, it's clear that a tipping point has been reached and then crossed. If one second-and-long is converted on the ground, that can be attributed to the play selection of VU offensive coordinator John Donovan. Multiple conversions in such down-and-distance scenarios, however, are a product of something more. They're the results of that wonderful thing called intensity – Vandy's ownership of it and Ole Miss's forfeiture of it.

To emphasize the point, the Dores' control of this game in the second quarter wasn't gradually established, leading to a slight edge or a subtle advantage on the margins of the competition. No, Vandy blew the roof off this game and shook the Rebels to their foundations. The rapid but unmistakable about-face produced by VU in the second quarter is the fruit of Franklin's relentless effort to change the subculture surrounding the program. It's quite a sight to behold for even one gameday, even if the Floridas and South Carolinas of the world await on the SEC slate.

Let's be honest: As the 2011 season unfolds, Vanderbilt won't be able to change games on a dime the way it did against Ole Miss. Maybe Kentucky will offer that opportunity, but not many other foes on the schedule. However, the mere fact that VU was able to achieve this kind of metamorphosis – if only in one game – speaks volumes about the work being done by the coaching staff and, not to be forgotten, by the players in response. Typically, Vanderbilt plays with fire and gets burned. This, however, is a fire with healing and restorative properties. The Commodores, water-loving creatures that they are, have proven that they can learn to fan into flame the gift of overflowing energy, the burning yearning that will keep them competitive in a season already marked by instances of overachievement.

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