There were those 21 returning starters. There were Jay Cutler, Jovan Haye, Justin Geisinger, and a host of other players who had been through the SEC wars and survived. There was even (gasp) some rare depth at defensive line and linebacker.
The pre-game atmosphere was one of festive, jovial partying, as tailgaters filled the Capers lots for the annual rites of autumn. The weatherman even did his part, with heavy clouds at kickoff time keeping the temperatures comfortable.
In a maligned South Carolina squadron that had looked eminently vulnerable in coming off a pair of lackluster 5-7 seasons, Bobby Johnson's team hoped to find its foil for opening the SEC campaign with a rare conference win.
But alas, the Ghosts of Vanderbilt Past seemed to arrive just in time to play a cruel joke on the partisans, most of whom had seen this movie already. The 33,670 not only witnessed a South Carolina team that methodically trashed the Commodores' high hopes... they saw Vanderbilt shoot itself in the foot with turnovers, a few akin to some that have gone down over the years into the Vandy Hall of Shame.
A long drive ends when a Vandy tailback fumbles while stretching the ball over the goal line... a deflating 98-yard interception return for a touchdown... for good measure, there was even a bad snap on Vandy's first and only placekick attempt of the day. Who authored this script?
The result, as you, I, and a regional TV audience know by now, was a decisive 31-6 victory for Lou Holtz's club. The spent Vanderbilt players left the field with their proverbial daubers down. The gold-clad crowd, which had arrived full of enthusiasm, filtered out through the third and fourth quarters, sputtering and muttering.
Once again, the Commodores and their loyal fans are forced to readjust their expectations. Not even the oddsmakers had expected the Gamecocks to steamroll the Dores with such ease.
Getting outrushed 269-36? Ouch. Your starting tailback ends up with -4 yards on 7 attempts? Double ouch. It was a rushing performance that Johnson used the word "pitiful" to describe.
Cutler, on whose shoulders many of this season's high hopes were pinned, demonstrated an ability to throw the ball effectively, connecting on 24-of-38 passes for 270 yards. But three of Vandy's four turnovers were attributable to Cutler, who went so far as to apologize to the fans who'd shown up with sky-high hopes.
"It want to apologize to the students," he said. "It was great to see all those seats full, but we didn't show them a good game. We will keep practicing and fighting to make our team better. We don't believe we will keep playing this way."
Star defensive end Jovan Haye said the team had come into Saturday's game fully expecting a Commodore victory. But Vandy was taken out of the game early by a South Carolina rushing attack that seemed to move the ball at will in the game's first quarter.
Hefty quarterback Dondrial Pinkins looked entirely comfortable engineering Holtz's run-based offense, and only when the Gamecocks went to more of a passing attack and began substituting did the USC offense begin to lose momentum. "Right off the bat we got Vanderbilt on its heels and were able to move the ball down the field and score," Pinkins said.
Down only 17-6 at halftime, the Commodores were within reach early in the second half but couldn't move the ball. After USC tacked on another touchdown, Vandy wasted an 80-yard drive when Norval McKenzie tried to stretch the ball over the goal line, and the cause was lost.
If first games are "measuring-stick" games, the Commodores emerged from this one about a quart low. They now have two weeks to pick themselves off the carpet before a visit to Ole Miss Sept. 18.
"We are going to get after it," promised Johnson. "We're going to find people who want to play and play hard and take care of the football.
"And that's your only alternative. There is no other alternative."
Win or lose, the fates will choose, goes the old anthem, and Commodore fans had all but convinced themselves that this was the year the spirits might be kind. But at the final gun, the Gamecock fans were the only ones left to do the crowing.
- The Commodores attempted no field goals on the day; the day's only placekick came in the second quarter after Vandy's only touchdown. But Patrick Johnson never got a chance to kick it, as holder Jay Cutler couldn't field Paul Meadows' low snap, and was tackled for a loss.
- Junior free safety Kelechi Ohanaja led the team in tackles-- he was credited with 18, a personal high.
- Vanderbilt unveiled a no-huddle offense against South Carolina, and Cutler operated for much of the game from the shotgun formation. Trey Holloway, playing his first game at center, delivered only two bad snaps on the day, and they came on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter.
Action photos by Neil Brake, Vanderbilt Athletics.