Thirty years. That's how long it had been... not only since a Vanderbilt football team produced a regular-season record above the .500 mark, but since the Commodores beat Tennessee at Vanderbilt Stadium. The need to beat Tennessee – anytime and anywhere – is paramount for Vanderbilt; VU had won only once in this series since 1982, so it's not as though Neyland Stadium in Knoxville has been "Home Sweet Home" for the Dores in recent years. Any kind of win over the Children of the Checkerboard acquires a large and cherished place in the living memory of a Vanderbilt fan.
Nevertheless, beating Tennessee on home soil matters so much more to the VU crew, for reasons that are easy to appreciate… and hard to forget.
Part of the pain that has defined life as a VU fan in the past is borne of the realization that other SEC schools have managed to pack lots of fans into Vanderbilt Stadium at times. There are only 39,790 seats (not including overflow or auxiliary seating) in the ballpark, but other schools – especially in the SEC East – have spent many autumnal Saturdays splashing colors other than Black and Gold into the stands. No school has done this more regularly than Tennessee. Such a reality has undercut the sense of prominence and legitimacy Vanderbilt has tried hard to create anew on the gridiron... not just throughout the SEC, but especially within the state of Tennessee.
The Commodores, in their attempt to bring back a Dan McGugin-like flavor to their home lair, need to defend it as frequently as possible so that a trip to Nashville begins to be feared. No opponent benefits more from a weak Vanderbilt home field than Tennessee does, so when Saturday's game arrived, the message was clear for the Dores: Send the message. Tell the Vols that the tide has turned. Tell Tennessee that the days of regular superiority in this rivalry are over.
Realize this about Saturday's contest, the last one of Derek Dooley's snake-bitten tenure as Tennessee's head coach: It was hardly a foregone conclusion, despite the lopsided final score. Vanderbilt fans knew all too well that rising Commodore fortunes paired with declining Volunteer prospects have had very little to do with final outcomes in recent installments of this series.
Sure, Vanderbilt did put away a bowl-less Tennessee team – one that finished 5-6 – in 2005, but heading into Saturday, that game was the exception that proved the rule over the past seven years. In 2008, Tennessee limped into Nashville with a 3-7 record. The Vols comfortably turned back the Dores in what was clearly the low point of that Music City Bowl-winning season for Bobby Johnson's boys. Last year, Vanderbilt owned a better record than Tennessee and appeared to have the better team, but VU found a way to lose in crunch time to another UT club that didn't make a bowl game.
The 2008 loss in particular showed that home-field advantage against a lousy version of the Big Orange guaranteed absolutely nothing to Vanderbilt. Four years after that setback, Vanderbilt gained one more chance to put its home-turf misery to rest against its most hated adversary. Assured of nothing, this VU team – armed with six wins but mindful that it has profited from a comparatively weak lower tier of the SEC – needed to flex its muscles. Vanderbilt has so often played Tennessee with a lack of belief, a frailty that became magnified when things didn't go the Dores' way. The point of emphasis for VU and head coach James Franklin on Saturday was to outclass Tennessee so emphatically that the fourth quarter would not offer the Vols a realistic chance to steal a win due to late-stage anxiety by Vanderbilt… the very anxiety that cropped up last year in Neyland.
What made Saturday night's game so frightening for Vandy fans is that the first half set up perfectly for the Children of the Checkerboard. The 19-yard field goal from the Tennessee 2. The two drive starts inside the Tennessee 45 that combined to produce just three points. The inability to land kill shots. These and other ever-present realities certainly planted seeds in the minds of the players on each team. Tennessee's upperclassmen surely knew that a protracted struggle with a high-drama endgame played into their hands. Vanderbilt's upperclassmen were quite aware of the other side of the coin, namely, that they needed to take charge in the third quarter or encounter the familiar scenario in which Tennessee was likely to feel more comfortable.
Something had to happen in the third quarter – and quickly – if the narrative of the Vanderbilt-Tennessee series (especially in Nashville) was going to change.
For the first time since 1982, a Vanderbilt team made something happen in Vanderbilt Stadium against the loathed and despised foe from Knoxville.
With swift and decisive authority, the Commodores landed two massive blows – not quick jabs to the body, but head shots that generated a standing-eight count and led to a knockout before the third quarter was done.
Jordan Matthews produced a 47-yard left uppercut to turn that tenuous 13-10 halftime edge into a 20-10 cushion. Only 66 seconds later, Andre Hal's interception and return of yet another wayward Tyler Bray aerial put VU on the Tennessee 4-yard line. That hard right cross led to a subsequent touchdown and gave Vanderbilt that rarest of delights against Tennessee: a three-possession second-half lead. The notion that this contest was going to come down to the wire had been shattered. Through the first 32 minutes, Smokey found himself in the hunt and carried the reasonable expectation of being able to create a 60-minute game. After Vanderbilt's two power-packed punches, that dog on the Tennessee side had his tail tucked between his legs.
The flurry that buried Tennessee in a 21-0 third-quarter bloodbath marked the savage attack that Vanderbilt has not been able to lord over the Vols over the long march of time, and certainly not since the landmark 1982 win that remains so cherished among Commodores of all ages. Vanderbilt, so often pummeled by Tennessee – and in recent years, beaten not by swift TKOs but by excruciatingly close 15-round decisions on points – was finally able to unload on the Sons of Smokey with Cassius-Clay-versus-Sonny-Liston viciousness.
The feeling could not be any sweeter, and now, VU has a chance to win eight games in a football campaign for the first time since 1982, the year that keeps cropping up on an historic occasion for the Commodore Nation.
The "Anchor Down!" exultation of the Vanderbilt family has rarely been uttered with more feeling, significance or pride in quite some time.
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