None of it, in fact, was supposed to end like this.
Four minutes into the second half, Vanderbilt was cruising along with a 27-3 lead. Of all things, someone in the crowd (many of which were on hand due to the availability of ten-dollar tickets) started the abominable "wave." Beach balls were bouncing around in the east stands. The crowd was thoroughly enjoying its Saturday evening at the historic old ballyard.
There was seemingly no way Vanderbilt could blow this ball game. Oh yeah, sure, Vanderbilt had blown a 28-3 lead in Knoxville back in 1987... but that was against Tennessee, and that was 1987, and this was at home against... Rutgers?
One week previous, the Commodores had methodically built a 31-7 lead on hapless Mississippi State. Just last week this Vanderbilt team had shown its character by snuffing out any semblance of a late Bulldog rally.
But tonight, the crowd would watch helplessly as Rutgers rolled up 34 second-half points and went back to New Jersey with a stupefying 37-34 win. Watching the second half was a little bit like watching a horror movie. "No! No!" you wanted to scream. "Don't open the door to that darkened room!"
The Scarlet Knights' gutsy comeback left the Commodores shaken and befuddled, and it left the 28,342 who paid to watch it scratching their heads. (A few drunken morons even yelled ugly epithets as the team left the field.)
It might take more than a week to dissect exactly what went wrong. When Vandy took the 24-point lead early in the second half, it seemed on the verge of steamrolling Rutgers. "We felt like our offense could do anything it wanted to," said receiver Erik Davis. The defense had produced three turnovers, which made eight in the last three halves. The Dores were clicking on all cylinders.
Is it possible Bobby Johnson's team get a little bit comfortable? Depends on whom you ask.
"Mmmmm.... I don't really think so," said Johnson. "I don't think we're a team that can afford to relax, and I think our guys know that."
Erik Davis, who caught the pass that put Vandy up 27-3, begged to differ.
"Defiinitely. I think there was a lack of execution in the end. Too many mental mistakes, too many mistakes in general, and we paid for it. I think we kind of got lackadaisical."
"It can happen any time you get a big lead like that," said Cutler. "It's tough to stay that intense."
Rutgers, to its credit, maintained its poise. Quarterback Ryan Hart was nearly unstoppable, completing 31 of 40 passes. Big bruiser Brian Leonard, the Knights' designated short-yardage specialist, hurt Vandy carrying the football and catching it.
The first hint that Vandy might be in trouble occurred when Willie Foster busted a big punt return to the Commodore 30, and Rutgers scored in two plays to cut the lead to 27-16. But Cutler would answer with a 71-yard bomb to Brandon Smith that set up a Cutler TD on a sweep. A 34-16 lead with a quarter left ought to be comfortable, right?
"There were about five things that had to happen in that game for us to lose... and they all happened," Johnson said. "And we were part of it. Some of them were good plays by Rutgers, and some of them were bad plays by us. The short punt, the fumble... all those things."
Vandy couldn't move, and Rutgers scored again to cut the lead to 11. A Matthew Tant fumble was returned to the VU 9 setting up a second fourth-quarter score. The Dores drove to midfield but failed to pin Rutgers deep when a shanked punt went out of bounds at the RU 32.
After the Scarlet Knights took a 37-34 lead with a minute left, Vanderbilt still had a chance to win or tie with a long drive. But fate would provide one last, cruel twist of the knife, in the form of another controversial call from the officials. (Can't blame Bobby Gaston for this one-- these zebras were from the Big East.)
On third-and-16 on his on 25, Cutler scrambled and heaved the ball 66 yards in the air-- amazingly, Marlon White came down with it at the Rutgers 9. With 15 seconds left, Vanderbilt was in position to at worst send the game into overtime with a field goal. But no! The back judge ruled Cutler had stepped over the scrimmage line before throwing, making the pass illegal.
Replays showed the call to be... controversial, if not outright incorrect.
"The sideline judge didn't think I was over, but we hadn't been getting those calls all year, so why now?" reasoned a frustrated Cutler. "That didn't lose the game though. We lost the game in the fourth quarter. We didn't execute in the second half."
"Inexplicable" is the only word that comes easily to mind. Its seemingly insurmountable lead squandered, Vanderbilt must now regroup before heading to Athens next week to face a pack of wounded Bulldogs.