1971 also saw a major change in the college football world. It was the year the wishbone, veer, and option-I offenses became the preferred way to move the ball. What had worked for Texas and Houston became the norm for dozens of major college teams. Oklahoma would set rushing records that still exist today and narrowly miss out on a national championship. Alabama's short-term slide toward mediocrity would be stopped, as the Tide ran the table in the regular season before facing the best team in modern history in The Orange Bowl.
Defensively, Vandy used a 5-2 monster alignment. The eleven starters represented a strong and quick group, but there was little depth. The strengths of the defense were at end with "Jungle George" Abernathy and John Carney, and in the secondary with Doug Nettles, Ken Stone, George Tomlinson, and Tommy Tompkins.
On offense, Coach Pace rotated quarterbacks. Steve Burger, the "Donelson Dandy", Denny Painter, and Steve Lainhart saw the bulk of the duty. Burger had been a scoring machine in high school, setting several state records. Painter had been part of the two-headed monster (with Watson Brown) that upset Alabama two years earlier.
Two sophomore halfbacks contributed early to Vandy's running game. Jamie O'Rourke and Dennis Mazar both showed great promise. They complimented a well-stocked backfield which included Jeff Peeples, Bill Young, John Hoover, and Dwight Blair. Peeples could play at several positions, including wingback and quarterback. Joining this group were receivers Gary Chesley and Walter Overton.
Vanderbilt opened 1971 with a rematch against Tennessee-Chattanooga. A year earlier, the Commodores had wiped the Mocs off the field, winning 39-6. UTC was much improved, and it took three touchdown runs by Burger to secure the victory. Vandy had to come from behind more than once to win the game, and the outcome was still in doubt until Ken Stone intercepted a long pass late in the game.
Next came Lee Corso's Louisville Cardinals, the defending MVC champs. Corso, acting like he studied at the Ray Mears school of marketing, mouthed off the entire week that his team would dominate Vandy on both sides of the ball. His top defensive player was linebacker Tom Jackson. Jackson and his ten co-workers did completely dominate Vandy, but the U of L offense was equally inept against Vandy's stop troops.
For 60 minutes the two teams tried without success to score against the other team. Louisville controlled the ball for close to 40 minutes and ran about 20 more scrimmage plays than the Commodores. Vandy managed to produce less than 100 total yards, and the Commodore punter John Schaffler used his leg 14 times that night. Louisville had three legitimate scoring chances in the last four minutes and failed to score. The game ended 0-0 with Louisville at the Vandy 1-yard line on a failed quarterback sneak.
Vanderbilt next ventured to Starkville to take on heavily favored Mississippi State. En route to a 6-5 record the Bulldogs had ruined Vandy's 1970 season with a 20-6 win at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis. Vandy went south looking for revenge, and that is today's flashback game.
The weather played a huge role in this game. September in southern Mississippi can be quite hot, and this day saw the thermometer around 90 with high humidity. Coach Pace was worried his thin defense might collapse if it stayed on the field as long as it had against Louisville.
But as has frequently happened in the course of Vandy football over the last 40 years, something went awry. In the first half of quarter number three, Mississippi State scored three touchdowns. The first score was a gift after Vandy fumbled inside Commodore territory. The next two Commodore possessions lasted three plays each, and the Bulldogs drove for touchdowns following each punt. Fortunately, State missed the PAT after the second touchdown, then failed on a two-point conversion attempt on the third touchdown. With the cowbells rattling and seven minutes to go in the third quarter, Vandy's lead had shrunk to a mere 21-19.
Once again, Vanderbilt failed to move the ball on its next possession. The momentum had swung toward the home team, and the Commodore defense had been on the field for almost all of the third quarter. Something had to happen, or the day might be lost. It did!
John Schaffler came in to punt once again, and this time the Bullies made the error. The punt bounced off the arms of the return man and Vandy recovered in State territory.
Coach Pace decided to make a change at this point, and sent Denny Painter in to run the offense. Vandy switched to the wing-I, and State wasn't prepared to stop it. Painter directed the Commodores on a quick jog to paydirt, with John Hoover diving from the one for the score. Vandy led 28-19.
State began to throw the ball almost every play in the fourth quarter. Luckily, for the Commodores, Doug Nettles caught two of those passes. The first set up a touchdown, and Nettles returned interception number two for another score. At 42-19, the game was no longer in doubt.
The Bulldogs faced fourth-and-long around their 10-yard line and punted the ball late in the game. Walter Overton fielded the ball around the Commodore 40-yard line and put the exclamation point on the game. He faked one way, then sprinted the other way and no Bulldog defender could stop him. The final touchdown made it 49-19. The Commodores dominated an SEC opponent on the road like no other Vandy team in the modern era. No Vanderbilt team has scored 49 points in an SEC game since.
At 2-0-1, Vanderbilt traveled to Charlottesville, Va. to face a weak Virginia Cavalier team. The Cavs were winless and had not scored a touchdown on the season in losing to Navy, Michigan, and Duke. The Commodores came out flat and laid an egg. Virginia scored late in the game on a long pass to win 27-23, and Vanderbilt's chances for a winning season and bowl game went down the drain.
The Commodores proceeded to lose to three excellent conference teams in Alabama, Georgia, and Ole Miss which would go a combined 32-4. A win over lowly Tulane was followed by a tough loss to Kentucky. Vandy then struggled to beat Tampa and closed out with a 19-7 road loss to Tennessee, in a game where VU led well into the third quarter. Pace would watch his team follow that up with a 3-8 season in 1972 and would resign. He would go on to a stellar career at Georgia, as the Bulldogs' offensive coordinator. It would be up to Steve Sloan to right the Commodore ship.
Coming Friday: Peiser takes a look around the nation in college football, and issues his picks against the spread.