Dejected Dores left to ponder the what-ifs

<p>OXFORD, Miss.-- As the Vanderbilt football players mingled glumly with well-wishers outside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium while waiting to board the buses that would take them back to Nashville, one thought was on everyone's mind. Though no one was saying it. </p><p> This was one of those games we really shoulda, coulda put in the 'W' column.

OXFORD, Miss.-- As the Vanderbilt football players mingled glumly with well-wishers outside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium while waiting to board the buses that would take them back to Nashville, one thought was on everyone's mind. Though no one was saying it.

This was one of those games we really shoulda, coulda put in the 'W' column.

But no, it was the Ole Miss players over on the other side of the lot who were in a celebratory (albeit relieved) frame of mind after Saturday's regionally televised game. In retrospect, it was one of those games filled with so many crucial plays that could have tilted the outcome in either team's direction. But it was the Rebels who made the big plays down the stretch and earned a 26-23 overtime victory.

The Commodores, their coaches and their long-suffering fans, were left to ponder what might have been. Such a fine line between utter dejection and exuberance.

For three quarters, Bobby Johnson's team had mostly acquitted itself well. In building a 23-13 lead over the game's first 45 minutes, the players had seemed to solve so many of the problems that had reared themselves in the Sept. 4 home loss to South Carolina.

Lo and behold, these Dores had rediscovered their once-thought-to-be-lost running game. They had slowed, if not shut down, David Cutcliffe's two-headed offense. They had scored a pair of field goals. They had taken good care of the football (save for one fumble on a punt return).

Toward the end of the third quarter, Matthew Tant had burst up the middle for a stupendous 64-yard run in which he had outrun the Ole Miss safety to the end zone. The score would have put Vandy up 30-13, had it not been called back for a mysterious "illegal formation" penalty. Still, along about then, Commodore fans were starting to feel downright cocky about things.

Then came the fatal fourth quarter, and everything seemed to come unglued.

Say this for Bobby Johnson-- he wasn't about to lose this game playing it conservative. After forcing a punt with 10:30 to play, with a first down on his own 18, the staff called for Cutler to throw a bomb down the sidelines, in hopes of doing to the Rebels what Grant had done at Appomattox-- i.e., force unconditional surrender.

Second-guess the play-calling if you will, but let there be none of this silly talk of "playing not to lose." If Vandy was going down, it was going to do so with all pistols firing.

But Cutler overthrew the pass, and Ole Miss cornerback Trumaine McBride made an athletic interception while running full-speed away from the line of scrimmage. McBride was able to circle back and return the ball to the Vandy 39. It was Cutler's only pick of the day.

"We were trying to win the ball game," said Johnson, whose frustration showed in a rather icy postgame press conference. "We called the play. Cutler went down the field, and the ball was thrown a little late. We didn't think running the clock out was the best thing to do.

"I never thought we had [the game] in the can," he added. "I didn't want to sit on a 10-point lead and think that that was going to do it."

To make matters worse, the officials made a very questionable and untimely late hit call Norval McKenzie for his tackle of McBride. After the striped-shirts tacked on 15 big ones, Ole Miss was sitting pretty at the VU 24. Four plays later the Rebs cashed in and cut the lead to 23-20.

Vanderbilt badly needed to answer with a score, or failing that, run some clock. McKenzie broke off a big run on an option, and once again the offense was moving. But an untimely holding penalty forced Vandy into a second-and-19, and on a fourth-and-4 play, Cutler scrambled and only picked up 3.

By now the Ole Miss crowd, which had been lethargic for most of the game, was getting juiced, sensing a comeback. Former Lipscomb High School quarterback Ethan Flatt calmly drove the Rebels 56 yards on 10 plays (aided by a defensive holding call on Vandy) into position for a game-tying Jonathan Nichols field goal with 2:23 left.

Vandy got the ball back, and the game was still there for the taking. But the weary Commodore offensive line, minus injured Justin Geisinger at this point, allowed Cutler to be sacked on second and third downs. Ole Miss would get the ball back in great field position with 1:12 to go; almost miraculously, however, a 50-yard field goal attempt by Nichols with 0:06 left went wide right. Overtime.

Ole Miss won the coin toss, and of course deferred. When you get the ball first in overtime, you want to make sure you score seven points, not three, reasoned Johnson. Once again, the normally-conservative Johnson went for the knockout punch. On four straight plays, Cutler threw downfield to a receiver. Only problem: none were completed.

"We tried to make our best player make the best plays," Johnson said. "We were trying to score a touchdown."

He had rolled the dice and lost. Cutcliffe, now needing only 3 points for the win, called three straight safe running plays to set up a 35-yarder for Nichols. The relieved Rebel fans were sent home happy after all. Hotty toddy, indeed.

For Vanderbilt fans who made the trip, however, this one must be chalked up as another one of those winnable games that was left on the field. The team had done so many good things... just not enough. The what-ifs were enough to keep anyone up late at night.

What if Vandy hadn't fumbled away a punt in the first quarter? What if Vandy hadn't botched an extra-point attempt in the second quarter trying to run out of the swinging-gate formation? What if the injured Erik Davis had been available for the overtime? Or Justin Geisinger?

Sadly, like William Faulkner and the Old South, the answers are all Gone With the Wind now. Vanderbilt (0-2) now must regroup and start preparing for Paul Johnson's nefarious triple-option offense, unless it plans on falling to 0-3 next Saturday.

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Contact Brent at brent(at)vandymania.com .


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