Football: No signs of life in Knoxville

A week earlier, in one SEC rivalry game, an inspired Alabama team had awakened and shocked the favored Auburn Tigers at Auburn. Then on Thanksgiving night, in another SEC instate rivalry game, Mississippi State had turned the tables on favored Ole Miss.

Could Vanderbilt duplicate the feat in its instate rivalry game against Tennessee? No such luck.

Alas, as you probably know by now, this one went exactly according to script. The highly favored Vols, behind an explosive performance from receiver Donte Stallworth, mopped up the Commodores 38-0 in Knoxville, and sent Commodore fans home feeling wet, cold, and empty.

The game went out nationally over CBS-TV, and the network's worst fears came to pass. Vanderbilt kept the game close through the first quarter. But in the second quarter after Stallworth caught a 2-point conversion to push Tennessee's lead to 14-0, then followed it minutes later with a 55-yard punt return for a TD, it was (as my uncle from Texas used to say) "Katy, bar the door." You could almost feel TV sets around the nation switching over to other games.

You expected that Vandy's defense would have trouble stopping Tennessee's explosive offense. Vandy really hadn't stopped anyone all year, and you wouldn't think that today would be the day... not with weapons the caliber of Casey Clausen, Travis Stephens and Stallworth, and Kelley Washington on the other side of the line.

What was more surprising was that Vandy's offense would get shut out-- the first time that's happened all year. Vandy's offense managed a meager 205 yards total, its second-lowest output of the season. The Commodore offense was simply unable to move the ball consistently all afternoon. On its deepest penetration of the day (Tennessee's 29-yard-line early in the first quarter), Jimmy Stover missed a 46-yard field goal wide left.

The game was clearly won on the line of scrimmage. Vandy's patchwork offensive line (Kenan Arkan and Brian Kovolisky started the game due to injuries) was simply unable to hold out Tennessee's 4-man defensive line, which is stacked 2-deep with high school All-Americans. Greg Zolman spent much of the afternoon running for his life-- the Vols sacked him 6 times, and forced him into 2 interceptions.

As the rain began falling in the fourth quarter, there was plenty of time to ponder. Here are some of the thoughts that flashed through my head:

-- How will this Tennessee team fare against Florida in the Swamp next week? Personally I think they'll get shredded by Grossman, Gaffney & Co. Florida, it should be recalled, put up 71 points and 571 yards on us, as opposed to 38 points and 469 yards from the Vols. But I guess you never know. The winner advances to the SEC Championship Game as the East representative.

-- After the game, the TV cameras caught Tennessee's Scott Wells shaking hands with Vandy's sophomore quarterback, Benji Walker. The two were teammates at Brentwood Academy. Back in 1999 Vandy's Woody Widenhofer had put a full-court press on Wells, trying to persuade him to join the Commodores as a defensive tackle. Wells rejected Widenhofer's overtures, of course, and headed east. As a result, Widenhofer was all but forced to change Vandy's alignment from a 4-3 to a 3-4. What if Wells had said yes? What if, what if, what if...

-- Meanwhile in that fourth quarter, Vandy got a look at Tennessee's running back stable of the future: Derrick Tinsley, Cedrick Houston and Jabari Davis all played, and all managed impressive gains. Looks like replacing Travis Stephens next year won't be a problem.

-- The TV cameras did numerous cutaways to show the coaches' expressions. The five or six times that Woody appeared on camera, his expression never changed: stoical, emotionless.

-- Most people missed it due to TV cutaways, but freshman Norval McKenzie replaced Rodney Williams as the clock was winding down, and he had three nice gains. Benji Walker also got some playing time on the last two series, and had a nice long run on the game's final play-- but his appearance was marred by an pass picked off by UT's Buck Fitzgerald. Much of Vandy's hopes next year will center on Walker and McKenzie, and both can now claim they have seen action in both the Swamp and Neyland Stadium.

-- Freshman Nick Lyle saw some playing time at safety, and had one nice pass breakup on a third-down situation near Tennessee's goal line. He will be in the mix at safety next year.

-- For the first time since 1948, Vanderbilt (2-8, 0-7 SEC) will play a regular-season game after the Tennessee game. Vandy will wind up the season next Saturday at Ole Miss (6-4, 3-4) at 11:30 CST, in what will be Woody Widenhofer's final game at Vanderbilt. Ironically, it's the site of the greatest win of the Widenhofer era-- the 1999 win in Oxford ranks in retrospect as the high-water mark for "Woodyball." Top Stories