NASHVILLE-- Vanderbilt's football team awoke Friday morning to a colossal, agonizing hangover-- a hangover brought on by the knowledge that they had let Middle Tennessee State's Blue Raiders escape back to Murfreesboro with a 38-27 win.
They had watched the Middle team gather in the middle of Dudley Field and raise their helmets, to the sounds of deafening cheers from the Blue Raider faithful. They realized that once again they had succumbed to a non-conference foe, and started a season with an agonizing loss to an emotionally charged underdog.
All that, and most of them had to attend classes on Friday morning.
Such is life for the Vanderbilt student-athlete.
Shocked Commodore fans were left to wonder how a season that had begun with such promise had fizzled so quickly. On this muggy night, 'twas a double whammy that undid the Commodores: a devastating performance by the high-powered MTSU offense, aided by a host of Commodore miscues at critical times.
Vanderbilt's 3-4 scheme seemed powerless to stop Middle's no-huddle spread offense. Dwone Hicks, a dynamo of a running back, torched the Dore D for 4 touchdowns and 207 yards on 37 carries, and was still running strong in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile MTSU quarterback Wes Counts-- whom we all thought would alternate with Jason Johnson, but that never happened-- picked apart Vandy's man coverage on 27-of-36 passes for 308 yards.
The Commodores themselves unveiled a no-huddle attack, an attack that exploded for 28 second-quarter points. But dropped passes, untimely penalties, and one critical mistake on a field goal attempt contributed to the Dores' inability to get on the scoreboard in the second half.
The normally upbeat Woody Widenhofer was as down as I've ever seen him in the postgame press conference. Even he was unable to put a positive spin on this loss. He seemed upset, frustrated, stunned and angry all at once.
"I have no excuses," he told members of the press, who assembled like vultures as Widenhofer vainly attempted to offer an explanation. "MTSU came in and played very well and just plain beat us. They deserve to win. We played decent at times, especially on offense, but lacked consistency.
"I just feel really terrible, because we let a lot of fans down out there. A lot of our team played as hard as they could play-- parts of it.
"And I'm responsible for all of it. So we've got to make corrections, get back in gear and take on Alabama."
Woody acknowledged that it was going to be tough to bounce back from this one. "Really tough," he said.
It's hard to put a pretty face on a defeat like this one, but there were some positives. Receiver M. J. Garrett had a career day, pulling down 8 passes for 219 yards, including a perfectly executed 73-yard bomb. The Commodore offense committed no turnovers, and surrendered no sacks. Joe Webb's punting was outstanding.
But the old bugaboo of dropped passes came back to haunt Vandy. I thought the critical possession came early in the fourth quarter, when another Zolman-to-Garrett bomb gave Vandy first down on MTSU's 10. A running play gained 3 yards, then on second down possession receiver Nezih Hasonoglu dropped as pretty and as wide-open a touchdown throw as you'll ever see. Two straight penalties on Vandy followed, and on fourth down, a center snap on a field goal sailed over holder Justin Purkey's head.
MTSU was able to maintain possession for most of the rest of the game. On its only other real possession of the quarter, Vandy turned the ball over on downs when a Zolman keeper came up inches short on a measurement.
The defensive performance was downright disturbing. Make no mistake-- Dwone Hicks was one of the finest backs Vanderbilt will face all season. On one amazing fourth-quarter play, Hicks broke five tackles. Still, the defense's inability to stop him raises the spectre of second year in a row of a stop corps ill-equipped to stop the run. The fact that safety Justin Giboney had more tackles than any of the linebackers doesn't bode well.
The defense also kept MTSU drives alive with silly penalties. A celebration penalty and a pass interference penalty-- both involving Harold Lercius, and both cheesy penalties in my opinion-- were especially costly. In the second half, MTSU was able to maintain possession for 22:12 of the 30 minutes.
Receiver Dan Stricker caught one long touchdown pass, but even he had a few uncharacteristic drops. Yet the junior captain was unwilling to concede that this loss meant all hope was lost for the season. "I can't even begin to explain how I feel right now," Stricker said in the locker room afterwards, "but if I know the leadership of this team... we can bounce back from this. It's not just the offense, it's not just the defense, it's a whole team deal.
"You find out a lot about a man from how he handles adversity. You can either take it and quit... or you can take it and move on. We need to set a fire inside of us and go beat Alabama. There's a light at the end of the tunnel-- we just have to find it."