Special teams mistakes need addressing

NASHVILLE-- Time for me to take my medicine. Earlier this year on the day of the Wake Forest game, I went on record predicting that the Commodores would make it to a bowl game. I'd seen enough of Jay Cutler in preseason practice and heard enough talk from the fifth-year seniors to make me think it was not only doable, it was probable.

Some thought I was nuts. Others thought saying it in print would jinx the team. But after Vandy opened up with four straight wins, including two come-from-behind wins on the road, lots of people started coming around to my way of thinking. A postseason game was there for the taking.

But after Saturday's loss to Kentucky-- Vandy's sixth in a row-- it ain't happenin'. I was wrong. In fact, the only way the Commodores can avoid ending the season with seven straight losses is to beat Tennessee in Neyland Stadium, something that hasn't been done since 1975.

If that happens-- and don't think for a moment, the way Tennessee has been playing, that it can't-- there will be great rejoicing in all the Vandy nation. (If we can't go to a bowl, why should we let the Vols?) But in all probability, the epitaph for the 2005 season may end up being "Two special-teams plays away from a winning season."

In 2004 the post-mortem was, "Vanderbilt (2-9) was 15 points away from being 7-4." 2005 will likely be remembered for a pair of special teams plays that cost the Commodores wins against two eminently beatable teams.

On Oct. 1 the Commodore bench was poised for celebration when Bryant Hahnfeldt lined up to kick the field goal that would beat MTSU, 18-17. Instead, a Blue Raider swooped in unmolested from the left side to block the kick and deny the Commodores their fifth straight win.

It may not be accurate to say that loss alone, in retrospect, sent Vandy into a tailspin. LSU and Georgia were pretty good, nationally ranked teams, and both played their part in sending Vandy's season in the wrong direction.

But the Commodores remained mathematically in contention for a bowl until Saturday. On Saturday the blocked field goal alone didn't cost Vanderbilt the game, but it amounted to a 10-point swing that seemed to totally demoralize the Commodores.

Trailing 14-3 late in the first quarter, Hahnfeldt again lined up to kick a 46-yarder that would cut it to 14-6. Kentucky massed its players on the left side, and Ray Fontaine stormed in to block it; Bo Smith took it 72 yards to put the Cats ahead 21-3.

Other special teams mistakes helped Kentucky forge a seemingly insurmountable 31-3 first-half lead. The Wildcats' Mr. Everything Rafael Little had returns of 51 and 31 yards against the Commodores' punt team.

Kentucky would stretch its lead to 41-10, and later 48-17. Vanderbilt, to its credit, would rally to make a game of it in the fourth quarter, but failed to recover a final onsides kick and never got a chance to retake the lead.

Bobby Johnson was asked in the postgame whether the mistakes were due more to Commodore breakdowns or the other team doing a good job.

"I'd say they did a good job," he answered. "They did a good job of blocking the kick. They did an excellent job on the punt returns. That was the problem. It wasn't so much breakdowns as, we just didn't do a good job of beating our blocks. I would give them the benefit of a doubt and say they did an excellent job."

Still, the Commodores have had a kick of some sort blocked in four of their last six games now, perhaps indicating the problem is a little more chronic. The Commodores don't currently have a special teams coach. Instead, individual assistant coaches are assigned to handle the various special teams units.

To state the obvious: it's a problem that the Commodores must address in the offseason.

Earl Bennett continues to astound

Freshman receiver Earl Bennett did something Saturday that no other Commodore has done in 117 seasons of Vanderbilt football history-- he caught five touchdown passes in a game.

The Birmingham product, who last year had reneged on a commitment to Kentucky in order to sign with Vanderbilt, finished with 13 catches for 99 yards. It was the second time this season he has gone over 10 catches in a game. He has now caught more passes in a season (65) than any other Vanderbilt freshman in history.

"Earl Bennett is a football player-- I don't know what else to say about it," said Johnson. "Sometimes they say he drops some passes, but Earl returns punts, returns kicks, covers kicks. How many times did we pass, 67? He was probably in on 57 of them, running routes. He gets tired sometimes.

"I think he's top-notch. He had a great performance, and that's not his first one."

Bennett injured a shoulder making one touchdown catch, but went back in later and made his fifth catch of the day for a score.

"That's another thing about Earl. He's tough as nails. He's in great physical shape. For anybody to run that many routes and do all that he does in a football game -- he's just top-notch."

With Erik Davis ailing and Marlon White struggling of late to hang onto the football, Bennett has become Jay Cutler's go-to receiver.

South Carolina freshman receiver Sidney Rice has perhaps garnered more accolades due to the Gamecocks' recent turnaround. But Bennett's rookie year has been nothing short of sensational.

Earl Bennett beats Kentucky's David Jones (7) for one of his five touchdown catches. (Stan Jones / VandyMania)

Jennings lost for season

After suffering a knee injury late in the Kentucky game, sophomore tailback Jeff Jennings will require surgery and at least five months of rehabilitation, Johnson said Sunday.

It was a bitter blow for Jennings, who had 76 all-purpose yards vs. Kentucky. Saturday would have been his first chance to play in Neyland Stadium before his hometown fans. Jennings played high school football for Jefferson County High School in nearby Dandridge.

Another East Tennessean, Cassen Jackson-Garrison of Knoxville, will likely get his first start of the season Saturday against Tennessee and will be called upon to carry the load. Jackson-Garrison and Jennings have shared most the carries in all 10 games to date.

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