The John Wayne Game

Four plays. That's how long it took for the Vanderbilt Commodores to give up a big pass play to the Florida Gators, on a day when they couldn't afford to get beaten deep. The rest, as they say, was history-that's what the Dores were, and that's what Woody Widenhofer will be when this season ends.

But in the meantime, the Vanderbilt family-just like all human beings-must return to regular programming and soldier on, so that the next game, the next event, the next season, the next coach, will all have ultimate meaning for a program that, at times, has even managed to compete with great Florida teams (1996 rings a bell). How can this year's underclassmen help create an environment that will allow for a smooth and productive transition into next year and an entirely new profile for the Dores?

What better way to get the next Vandy coach's attention (ideally, in a positive manner; there's also the negative method of dogging it…) than by shrugging off the Florida debacle and coming back with a victory in an eminently winnable SEC game, one of the few league contests the Dores can legitimately expect to win each year: Kentucky at home.

This Cat fight will say a lot about Vanderbilt, not in terms of talent or athleticism, but in terms of motivation, desire, and all the virtues that football men hope to instill into their boys over the course of autumnal Saturdays. One football man, wherever he might be, will intently watch film of THIS game to see what kind of player he'll be able to motivate. Combined with an incoming recruiting class that will offer more talent, Vandy's next coach will have even more to build on if he sees that the upperclassmen of 2002 have some genuine grit.

This contest against Kentucky will be nothing but a game of grit. Both teams can bring big pass plays to the table, making this a game that could very well be an entertaining shootout. But beyond that element, neither the Cats nor the Dores will bring excellence to Dudley Field in any discernible way. It won't be a Rembrandt in Nashville this Saturday-at least not outwardly; rather, it will be a portrait in pigskin passion, with the winner being the team that wants to avoid the SEC East cellar.

So, as Woody tries to get his team off the mat and leave Vanderbilt with fond memories of kids who never gave up on him, he can warn his team right now: Kentucky doesn't quit, and it will be up to the Dores to take the fight to Jared Lorenzen and Co.-for seven overtimes, if necessary. (Speaking of not giving up, Vandy could take a lesson from how Arkansas turned misery into motivation and changed the tide and tenor of its season.)

Vandy should take note, before anything else, that Kentucky played Florida TOUGH through three quarters in Lexington, Ky., back in September, trailing just 23-10 late in the third quarter. Wildcat head coach Guy Morriss has instilled a lot more discipline into his first-year team, and the sloppiness and occasional indifference that pockmarked the Hal Mumme era have decreased. Kentucky is in the same position as Vandy because of its talent level, but not because of any lack of intensity.

The Wildcats not only played Florida tough, they came THISCLOSE to upsetting LSU; they came THISCLOSE to winning in Starkville (still not the easiest place to win, exactly); they jumped Georgia by 15 points in the first half in Athens, only to give way in the fourth quarter. Kentucky brings the fight to its opponents, and the Dores will need to fight back.

None of the national college football cognoscenti will give a hoot about this game as the SEC and national races reach the home stretch. But just as the big teams can only take care of their end of the bargain, it also remains true for Vandy: take care of business against Kentucky, and the Dores will have someone to look down on in the SEC. That's goal number one, a goal which lies in the immediate future. The second goal-a more long-term goal that is decidedly more important than the first one-is to serve notice to the next Vandy coach that there are some players waiting for the right guy to mold them into better football players.

True grit-that's the necessary element this Saturday against Kentucky.

"So Vandy, are ya ready to play some all-out football… PILGRUM?"

The Duke wouldn't want it any other way. Time to roll up the ol' sleeves and punch Kentucky in the mouth. Top Stories