ROANOKE’S MOST MEMORABLE PLAYS OF 2014

Philosophers and geniuses suggest that one cannot have good memories without bad ones to help put things in perspective. The majority of Vandy football fans would likely be happy to flush the disappointment of the 2014 campaign completely from their memory, if only they could – but even sad stories need telling. Thus, we bring you the most momentous plays of the 2014 season..

..some symbolic, some soul-crushing. Many of these memories are better left filed away someplace where booze is plentiful and hope never dies. This year one thing is for sure: the painful plays hurt more than the successful plays gave comfort.

Top 5 Most Painful Plays of the Year:

5) UMass fake punt leaves us down 14-0. Context is everything. After the Temple debacle (which could be explained away as a fluke) and the Ole Miss massacre (which could be explained away as Ole Miss possibly being great), UMass rolled into Nashville winless and 17-point underdogs. A true freshman – with his redshirt stripped – gets the start at QB over Patton Robinette – and we open to the tune of a rocky 7-0 deficit. UMass – whose QB turns out to be pretty good – is stopped near midfield. We are preparing to get the ball back and restore order.

The one thing you watch for from a big underdog punting from mid-field is the fake kick. Only, we didn’t. The UMass punter uncorks a lazy fly ball to a receiver open by twenty yards. The kid strolls virtually untouched into the end zone. UMass leads 14-0.

4) Half-ending pick-six, South Carolina: game, set, match. Arguably, one of our best 29 minutes of football this year came in the first half against South Carolina. The Gamecocks were coming off impressive wins over Georgia and East Carolina and were ranked 14th at the time. We dominated the early play and clung to a 14-10 lead heading toward the locker-room despite losing QB Robinette. With our back-up QB, Wade Freeback, called into action, the staff is trying to burn out the clock. We are running so successfully, however, we are suddenly threatening to score. I tell Mrs. Roanoke we need to throw something safe here – anything but the obvious sideline out route. Mrs. Roanoke has been married to me for 28 years. She silently rises and heads off to fix me a stiff drink. She is not surprised when anguished cries erupt from the tv room. Sadly, somehow, I am surprised. Carolina sits on the obvious, clock-saving out route, steps in front, intercepts and proceeds 60 yards for the go-ahead score. The Gamecocks lead at half after being badly out-played and the outcome of the game is no longer in doubt. Demoralizing. This collapse, notably, is also consistent with a season-wide plague that saw opponents repeatedly score improbable TDs moments before half-time. (See worst play number 3.)

3) Nightmare Opening Half Ends with Temple Defensive Score. There are any number of terrible plays in the Temple opener that merit consideration for worst plays of the season. But our experts at Masochists Anonymous hand-picked the excruciating late second quarter Temple sack of Stephen Rivers as the apex. Vandy is down 14-7 but driving for a score when Rivers’ knee goes down while he still has the ball. Maybe the ball is “moving” slightly in his grip, but he is down in possession of the ball when it is jerked out of his hand and returned 70 yards for a crushing Temple TD. Instead of tying the game, we are down 21-7 at half and the nightmare is on.

Seven turnovers, the inexplicable benching of Robinette, soft zones tailor-made to give Temple’s offense confidence, a torrential downpour, and a terrible vanilla game plan – there are no shortage of things to complain about in our home opener. But add to this raft of pain, a recurring theme that booth review did us no favors all year. This was a possibly season-altering turnover that would not have gone against Alabama at home. Existential pay-back for the last minute reversal in Knoxville last year? Maybe.

2) Robinette concussed on fluke play. The injury to QB Patton Robinette against South Carolina set this team back further than any other single play all year. Robinette was excelling – and Vandy was leading the Gamecocks when the dual threat QB hurdled a defender and fell awkwardly, banging his head on the turf. Robinette shook it off long enough to throw a TD to complete the drive. But once he came to the sidelines up 14-0 – he was done. For over a month. The injury lingered, scarily – and the team floundered before Johnny McCrary finally claimed the QB position.

1) The upside down wrist-band, wrong call, pick-six in Athens. While some painful plays were game-altering, worst play #1 was emblematic of everything wrong with our offense in 2014. We fell behind Georgia, fast and far – 21-0 after a quarter. As we slowly scraped our way back into the game, QB Stephen Rivers developed a hot hand. The next thing you know, Vandy is inside the Georgia 30, trailing 27-10 and threatening to make a game of it. On fourth and two at the 29 yard line, the braintrust decides to roll the dice and go for it. We have been running successfully – which makes the ensuing call all the more strange. Rivers drifts left and then lofts a throw-back pass well behind the line of scrimmage. A waiting Georgia defender takes the gift-wrapped INT to the bank. Perhaps you ask yourself: “Why throw a slow developing pass behind the line of scrimmage on a play where Georgia should be bringing the heat to stop a short gain?”

It gets worse. Post-game, the staff concedes Rivers called the wrong play by misreading the play chart upside down. Rivers thought the call was crazy – but he was benched after openly showing frustration about play-calling against Ole Miss: he ran the play. Other players were quoted in the newspaper as saying the call seemed odd for fourth and two – but inexplicable calls were par for the course all year: i.e. situation normal. The staff watched the team line up for the glaringly wrong play – and let them run it. This was, basically, as bad as it gets.

There were four games that fell into the category of unmitigated disasters: Temple, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Kentucky. Frankly, Kentucky was the worst – as our offensive game plan gave us no chance to compete against a team we should have beaten. In this game our OC essentially eschewed the run, put a true freshman in the pocket, let UK blitz all day, and made no adjustments. The phrase “Third and Dorrell” is born. Later in the year as teams hung 50 and 60 points on Kentucky’s beleaguered defense by running non-stop, we were left to contemplate the goose egg our offense achieved in Lexington. Our only score was a defensive one on Darius Sims’ pick-six.

The Five Best Plays of the Year.

Picking “best plays” can be fairly arbitrary. In addition to being nice plays, these moments were important symbolically or gave a rare glimpse of hope in a season otherwise buttered with disappointment.

5) McCrary saves the Day Against Charleston Southern. The depths to which we have fallen are beginning to sink in as Charleston Southern is driving for a go-ahead fourth quarter score. Our defense stiffens, holding the Bucs to a field goal that leaves us ahead 21-20. Unfortunately, our offense – which has been shut out all second half – is now backed up inside its own five yard line. A three-and-out and return of the ball to CSU’s hot offense is going to mean a loss that opponents will be ribbing us about for decades to come. It is second and nine at our own four yard line when the blitzing Bucs converge on McCrary at the goal line. An entire stadium comes to the same panicked realization: a safety also gives CSU the lead. McCrary scrambles to his left, breaks away from his pursuers and uncorks a 25 yard strike to Nathan Marcus to save the game. We survive 21-20, although some still notice that we have been held to 11 first downs and under 300 yards of offense. Without that play, we probably lose.

4) Dudchock rumbles 50 yards for a TD. It is hard to pick among various ODU highlights – Johnny McCrary unloaded five TD passes to five different receivers. For one night – against a team that could get no pressure on our QB – we looked like a well-oiled machine. Dudchock made a number of impressive grabs over the course of the season – this particular catch iced the game. Tight ends, unquestionably, benefitted from the new offense, and were a highlight reel unto themselves this year. Our likely offensive MVP, Steven Scheu, had a number of good TD grabs – including the ones that put us ahead of Florida, and tied up Tennessee. Let all the tight ends share this big play moment – but Dudchock’s ODU TD catch came in a winning effort, and in a year where we did not get many long plays.

3) Darrius Sims Kick-Off Returns. After the narrow win over UMass, a win over South Carolina would have gotten us to .500. That would wash away the bad taste of those first two collapses. How would we build off a win? Right out of the gate, Sims electrified the entire stadium with a stunning 91 yard kick-off return. There was, for a moment, euphoria – and the suggestion that everything would be okay after all. If Robinette is not knocked out of the game while we lead 14-0, I still say we win this game. As it is, this is the only SEC game all year that we led after a quarter. Things went south in the second half – but not before Sims blazed another 100 yard kick-off return for a score. That would be about the last time all year anyone really kicked him the ball.

2) Ralph Webb Powers into End Zone. Webb was a pleasant surprise this year. He might have fared even better if he were not forced to run almost exclusively between the tackles. Against Tennessee late in the third quarter, predictably, Webb was sent straight up the middle at the Vols’ three yard line. He was hammered by two defenders and drilled backwards, but he managed, fairly heroically, to maintain his footing, regain his balance and corkscrew into the end zone. It was a bruising, pad-snapping effort, emblematic of an impressive season for the redshirt freshman. It also got us back within a score of the Vols in a game that left hope that the season’s failures might be fixable.

1) Tie. Stephen Weatherly Blocks Kick and Scores. C.J. Duncan’s Circus Grab. As bad as things were this year, they would have been a whole lot worse if we had lost to UMass. It is easy to forget that we trailed 31-20 with nine minutes left in this contest. That is when Stephen Weatherly single-handedly swept in, blocked the UMass punt, scooped up the ball and tight-roped the sideline to get us back into the game. We still trailed by 5 with two minutes left when C.J. Duncan made the catch of the season – basically stealing the ball from a well-positioned UMass defender for a huge gain. The ensuing score and critical two-point conversion left us up three with a minute, two seconds left. UMass would then drive the length of the field only to settle for a field goal from the Vandy five yard line. The kick was shanked wide.

There were other notable positives that did not make the list – the goal line stand versus Florida, some de-cleating hits by our young defense, the emergence of newcomers like Nigel Bowden, Adam Butler’s TD versus UMass and Oren Burks’ score versus Temple. The efforts against Old Dominion, Missouri and Tennessee stand out as the year’s best. Sadly, two of those performances ended with losses. Thus, while recent Vandy squads have been preparing for bowls in December, this year’s team is left to look back on a derailment that struck so early and thoroughly, we never really could get back on the tracks. Let’s hope it was a temporary set-back that leaves next year’s team hungry. The talent level of this squad remains high. The need to re-tool the offense is, at least, already acknowledged. Things will get better – but, honestly, this should never have been a 3-and-9 season.

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