Since the great 4-0 start, through late Oct. 24, 1987, Vanderbilt's record had been 6-29-1. Crowds were beginning to dwindle from 40,000 to 32,000 on average.
Offensive innovator Watson Brown had returned to coach his alma mater in 1986. Through his first 18 games he went 2-16, including a loss to a 1-10 Memphis State team. 1987 had been a year in which the offense was potent, but the defense was porous; the Commodores had averaged 21 points per game but surrendered 36. Included among the six losses were close calls to Alabama, Duke and Tulane.
On Oct. 24 Vandy had lost to a weak Ole Miss team, 42-14, and fallen to 1-6. The defense, already lacking the talent to compete in the SEC, suffered several injuries in that game. Junior quarterback Eric Jones had also been whacked hard, and was removed after having his worst day of the season. As a result Brown elected not to practice in pads the entire week. He also decided to scrap the Commodores' wishbone offense. He would spring a major surprise on the Scarlet Knights and unveil a wide-open, multiple, spread offense. Vandy would use three, four, and even five receivers on some plays.
Surprising Rutgers (5-2) would come to Nasvhille on Oct. 31 as Vandy's Homecoming opponent. Head coach Dick Anderson had come from Joe Paterno's staff at Penn State and quietly turned the Scarlet Knights into a consistently good team. The game was to be nationally televised, and several bowl scouts were in attendance, hoping to see the Knights toast Vandy and insure a winning season. Rutgers was a 17-point favorite. The two losses had come at the hands of Syracuse (which would go 11-0 in the regular season) and defending national champion Penn State.
Eric Jones entered the game with the Commodores aligned in the familiar wishbone in the pre-snap formation. Then on signal, the two halfbacks split wide and Vandy was in a four-receiver ace formation. The Rutgers defense was stunned. Vandy drove the ball down the field inside the RU 5, and Johnny Clark hit a chip-shot field goal to give Vandy a 3-0 advantage.
The lead held up until Rutgers' first possession of the second quarter, when the Knights sustained their first long drive of the game. The drive stalled inside the Commodore 35-yard line, and a 50-yard field goal tied the game at 3-3.
Vanderbilt would immediately respond. Jones led the Commodores on a long drive of over 70 yards. Repeatedly spotting receivers Boo Mitchell and Carl Parker open, Jones picked the RU secondary apart. Parker scored on a corner route in the back of the end zone to put VU ahead, 10-3.
Rutgers began to move the ball on its next possession, but once again the defense rose to the challenge. Linebacker Chris Gaines picked off a pass to stop the Rutgers rally. Unluckily, Vandy fumbled the ball back, giving the Knights just enough time to try to score before the half. Rutgers moved the ball across midfield, then used a two-minute offense to score a touchdown. The score was knotted 10-10 at the half.
The next 14 quarters would earn Eric Jones the nickname "Showtime" and would propel him into preliminary consideration for the Heisman Trophy race the following year. Vanderbilt's offensive production in those 3 1/2 games would surpass any other consecutive game production in Vandy's modern history.
On Vandy's first possession of the second half, Jones guided the Commodores on an 85-yard drive that consumed almost eight minutes. Tailback Everett Crawford plunged over the top to score the touchdown, and Vandy led 17-10. Rutgers moved the ball quickly into Commodore territory, but the drive stalled just outside the 25. Another long field goal closed the gap to 17-13.
Vanderbilt responded with another quick touchdown on an Eric Jones bomb, but the Big East officiating crew nullified the score by calling a clipping penalty. Not to be denied, Jones picked up the first down on a scramble on third-and-long. The quarter ended 17-13, Commodores.
Vandy put the nail in the coffin with a long, time-consuming fourth-quarter drive. Fullback Andy McCarroll blasted off guard to tally the score. Down 24-13, Rutgers had to throw the ball on almost every down, and Vandy's secondary was up to the challenge; the Dores forced a turnover on downs. Johnny Clark added a late field goal to make the final score 27-13 Vanderbilt.
The score failed to reflect how lopsided the final statistics were. I saved the final stats from that game as they appeared in the Nashville Banner. Vandy rushed 59 times for 260 yards. Jones rushed 17 times for 101, with Crawford adding 88 and McCarroll 60. Jones was 19-of-26 passing for 267 yards. Crawford caught six of those passes for 83 yards, while Parker caught five for 81 yards. The Commodores tallied 560 yards total yards, 33 first downs and no punts. Rutgers, which had practiced in winter-like conditions all week, gained only 223 yards and 11 first downs. The Indian-summer temperatures on that Halloween day proved lethal for a team from New Jersey.
The offensive fireworks continued for the next two and a half games. The next week saw Vandy destroying 5-3 Kentucky's chances for a bowl. In a 38-29 win, Jones again rushed for over 100 yards and threw for almost 250.
Game Ten saw Vanderbilt stop Maryland four times inside the Commodore 10, with Chris Gaines playing like Dick Butkus. The Commodores rushed for over 260 yards and passed for almost 250, with Crawford and Parker doing most of the damage.
The '87 season concluded with a trip to Neyland Stadium against 8-2-1 Tennessee, and once again, Jones and the Commodores' offense could not be stopped. Midway through the second quarter 95,000 Big Orange fans were silenced, as Vandy stormed to a 28-3 lead. Jones-to-Parker proved potent, as Vandy reached paydirt three times in the first quarter. But Tennessee would compose itself and come back to win, 38-36.
The Commodores started '88 with two wins, to make the record 5-1 since Brown switched offenses. The magic ended there however, as Watson Brown would conclude his last 31 games at Vandy with a record of 3-28.
Coming Friday: Peiser takes his weekly look at college football around the nation and make his picks against the point spread.