Defense beat UT in 1975

It's been 30 years since Vanderbilt beat Tennessee in Knoxville... but the memories are still vivid in the minds of longtime Commodore fans. In an effort to revive the magic... and perhaps spur the 2005 Commodores on to a season-ending victory... VandyMania's resident historian Howell Peiser recalls the details of Vanderbilt's glorious 17-14 win over the Vols in 1975 at Neyland Stadium.

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The date was November 29, 1975. Vanderbilt, a 13 ½-point underdog, made their season-ending trip to Knoxville to face Tennessee with both teams sporting 6-4 records. Both teams had failed to receive bowl invitations.

There were only 11 bowls in those days (with five invitations guaranteed to other conferences), and just three SEC teams had received bids (Alabama to the Sugar, Georgia to the Cotton, and Florida to the Gator), although both Mississippi and both Tennessee schools posted winning records.

This 6-4 group of Commodores may have been the weakest SEC team in history to post a winning record. New coach Fred Pancoast inherited a lot of defensive talent, but the offense had been decimated by graduation, especially in the offensive line. Throw in numerous injuries, with quarterback Fred Fisher having lost much of his quickness to run the veer offense, and Vandy couldn't score points. After seven games, Vandy had tallied just 49 points.

The season opened with a lackluster win over Tennessee-Chattanooga 17-7. Vandy could muster only 189 total yards and 12 first downs against the Moccasins. It took an interception return for a touchdown by Tate Rich to sew up the victory. Fisher sustained an injury in this game, and would miss the next contest. David Culley would make his first career start in game two.

Game two was a night affair in Houston against Rice and quarterback Tommy Kramer. Rice had just upset Houston to start the season and was a four-point favorite. Kramer, the future Minnesota Viking star, could not lead the Owls to pay dirt thanks to an outstanding defensive effort by the Commodores. But, Vanderbilt did not score a touchdown either. The foot of kicker mark Adams was the difference as Vandy won 9-6.

Alabama came to Nashville for game three and thoroughly dominated all afternoon, winning 40-7. The Tide picked up 25 first downs to Vandy's four. They out-rushed the Commodores 374 to 53 and out-passed them 101 to 38. Alabama held the ball for 90 of the 130 total plays.

Next up was a visit to Tulane and the Goldmen's first ever trip to the Superdome. Vanderbilt wasn't allowed to conduct a practice in the dome, as a few other Nashvillians took precedence; Johnny and June Carter Cash, Merle Haggard, Charley Pride, and Waylon Jennings and Jesse Colter were to perform a concert on the night before the game; their rehearsal took priority over the Commodores' walk-through.

Once again, Mark Adams' foot made the difference. Vanderbilt won 6-3, holding the Green Wave to 198 total yards. Vandy could only manage 215 total yards and 10 first downs.

At 3-1, Vanderbilt traveled to Florida where the Gators were seeking revenge for a huge 1974 upset. Freshman Mike Wright was forced to start at quarterback due to ineffectiveness by the ailing Fisher. Coach Doug Dickey's wishbone offense may have been more potent than Alabama's that year, and the Gators crushed Vandy 35-0. Once again, the Commodores failed to top 100 yards rushing or passing, while Florida rushed for more than 450 yards, including an 80-yard scamper by all-SEC halfback Jimmy Dubose on the first play of the game.

The next week saw Georgia venture to Dudley Field. The outcome of the game was almost as biting as the bitter cold, rainy weather. Most of the Commodore faithful were gone before the second half started. Georgia won 47-3, dominating in every statistical category, including a touchdown off a gadget play, called "The Shoe String." Quarterback Ray Goff carried the ball on a keeper for two yards and pretended to tie his shoe before returning to the huddle. Instead, with six other Bulldog players hovering to Goff's left at the line of scrimmage, Goff grabbed the ball and tossed it to receiver Gene Washington. Washington, a track sprinter, easily raced around his six blockers and scampered 36 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown while the completely perplexed Commodores emerged from their huddle.

The Vanderbilt record dropped to 3-4 with a 17-7 loss at Ole Miss. The Commodore touchdown came near the end when backup quarterback David Culley lobbed a bomb to tight end Barry Burton.

For homecoming, the Commodores hosted a 1-6 Virginia team. Only a late interception inside the Vanderbilt five yard line by defensive back Steve Curnutte salvaged the win, as the Commodores survived 17-14. For the first and only time all season, the veer offense looked like the 1974 edition, as Vandy rushed for 328 yards and picked up 25 first downs. However, the alignment switched from a split-back to an I-formation in order to give tailback Lonnie Sadler more opportunities. Having a semi-healthy Fisher at quarterback meant a lot and would change the Commodore fortunes for the month of November.

The Commodore record improved to 5-4 with a 13-3 win over Kentucky. While the offense produced only 212 total yards, the defense held the Wildcats to 182 total yards and forced four turnovers.

A second consecutive winning season was secured with a 23-14 win over a hapless Army team. Three pass interceptions and a botched Cadet Punt allowed Vandy to do most of their damage. The black and gold once again were held to less than 100 yards rushing and 100 yards passing against one of the nation's weakest defenses.

Tennessee meanwhile was suffering through its worst season since 1964. The Vols had won eight or more games each year from 1965 to 1973 and finished 7-3-2 in 1974. There was a movement afoot to fire head coach Bill Battle, but he was given a vote of confidence just prior to the Vandy game.

The Vols sported a pair of offensive stars as good any other duo in the SEC. Split end Larry Seivers wasn't particularly fast or strong, but he always found a way to get open and catch the ball. Halfback Stanley Morgan added speed and strength and could get wide in a hurry. Tossing them the ball was strong-armed quarterback Randy Wallace.

The previous two seasons, Tennessee was on the verge of losing to Vanderbilt only to have botched punts by Barry Burton allow the Vols to avert a loss. In 1973, his failure to get a punt away led to Tennessee scoring the winning points. In 1974, the same failure to punt the ball allowed Tennessee to score a touchdown and convert a two-point conversion for a tie. Little did anyone know it but before the 1975 game ended Burton would be forced to attempt another decisive punt from the Vandy goal line.

Vanderbilt began the game with a surprise offensive formation. They opened in a variation of the one back wing-t or combination slot/wing-t. Jesse Mathers was the lone wide out, Barry Burton was the tight end, Adolph Groves and Martin Cox alternated in the slot inside of Mathers, and Mike Gothard was the wingback just outside of Burton. Lonny Sadler aligned as the single back five yards behind Fisher.

The offensive wrinkle worked. The Commodores successfully ran wide in the opening stages and once Tennessee brought an extra defender closer to the line of scrimmage, Fisher stung them with a 50-yard strike to the freshman Gothard. Gothard had clear sailing toward the goal but was caught from behind deep in Volunteer territory. A few plays later, Sadler dove over the goal from the one and Vanderbilt led 7-0.

Tennessee couldn't get its offense going for most of the first half. The Commodores set up their stop troops to keep Morgan from running wide. When the Vols tried to run Mike Gayles up the middle, all-SEC nose guard Tom Galbierz was there to squash the hopes of the Orange. When Wallace tried to pass the ball, Vandy's top-ranked secondary of Ed Oaks, Steve Curnutte, Reggie Calvin, and all-SEC safety Jay Chesley forced the Vols to throw short. Tennessee would complete 12 passes for just 113 yards on the day, but most of the yardage gained came about as the result of screen passes. Wallace couldn't penetrate the back line of Vanderbilt's defense. The 7-0 score stayed that way for the rest of the first quarter and almost all of the second quarter. Vandy's offense bogged down once Sadler left the game with a sprained ankle. Just prior to halftime, Vanderbilt tried to run a two-minute offense. Fisher dropped back to pass and was sacked just as he was letting the ball go. The ball went skyward and fell into the hands of UT's star defensive end Ron McCartney, who ran with the ball 25 yards to the Commodore 13 yard line. It took three plays for the Vols to score on a three-yard pass from Wallace to co-captain Tommy West (the current head coach at Memphis). The extra point by Jimmy Gaylor tied the score at 7-7 as the two teams went to the locker.

The second half started out like Tennessee was going to put the game away quickly. The Vols drove 67 yards for a touchdown. Wallace hit Seivers twice on screen passes for long gains to convert third downs into first downs. Morgan ran the ball in from the four to put Tennessee up 14-7. For the rest of the third quarter the two squads failed to move the ball.

Vanderbilt started the final quarter at their own 20 yard line. Tennessee's defense had tightened up and appeared ready to secure the win by keeping Vanderbilt off the scoreboard. Sadler returned to the game and broke a play off-tackle for a first down. Groves carried for a few yards. A dive by David Johnson netted a few more yards and runs by Groves and Sadler moved the ball close to midfield.

Then, Coach Pancoast called for a play that Tennessee was expecting, except those expectations proved to be false. For the previous three years, Vandy's bread and butter misdirection play was the tight end around reverse to the all-SEC performer Burton. The Vols were expecting this play to be run at least once during the game, and when Burton took one step forward and pivoted toward the backfield, the Tennessee defense adjusted and slanted toward the reverse. It appeared to have worked as Burton was surrounded by orange jerseys well behind the line. The one problem for Tennessee was that Burton didn't have the ball. Fisher faked the reverse and ran the naked bootleg into Volunteer territory for a crucial first down. The play deflated the Orange stop troops. A completion to Roger Alsup and another to Sadler moved the ball to the Vol 12 yard line. Johnson ran the dive for three yards. Fisher then ran the inside veer play to perfection. He pulled the ball out of Johnson's belly, and carried it to the corner. As he was about to be clobbered for a one yard loss, he pitched late to Groves. Groves had nothing but hash marks in his way, and he waltzed into the end zone to score. Adams added the PAT to tie the game at 14-14 with most of the final quarter yet to play.

Tennessee tried to get the score back quickly. Wallace came out passing. He tossed a 12 yard pass toward West at the 32 yard line, but Oaks was in the way. The ball bounced off West's shoulder pads and Oaks grabbed it for his second pickoff of the day. He ran the ball back to the Tennessee six yard line. Vandy ran three plays and gained five yards. On 4th and goal at the one yard line, Pancoast opted for the cinch field goal. Mark Adams had already won three games with late field goal conversions, and the 18-yarder was child's play for this outstanding two-position player (more about that a little later). Vandy led 17-14 with 8:55 to play.

Tennessee went back to their ground game and converted one first down, but Vandy's defense held by sacking backup quarterback Gary Roach two plays later on 2nd down. After an incomplete pass, Tennessee was forced to punt. The Vols had the best punter in the SEC and one of the best in the nation in Craig Colquitt. He came in and booted a 57-yard rocket that rolled out of bounds at the Vanderbilt six yard line.

Vanderbilt couldn't move the ball for a first down. Three runs produced just four yards. On fourth down at the 10 yard line, the crowd became eerily quiet. Vanderbilt had to punt from their goal line. Fans on both sides watched as the Commodore punt unit came onto the field. The Neyland Stadium public address announcer broke the silence. "Back in the end zone to punt for Vanderbilt, and …it's… Barry Burton!!!" The special cynical emphasis came across loud and clear. All of a sudden the tension equaled that of the mighty Casey at the Bat after he had two strikes. Burton stood on the goal line with two strikes. Would he strike out? The answer was, NO! A perfect snap by long snapper Frank Smith sent the ball exactly where the punter wanted the ball. Tennessee did not send 10 players after the ball and chose to set up a return with the speedster Morgan. Burton took two steps and booted a spiral that made it to the Tennessee 49 yard line. He had punted!

There was one small problem. Possibly because the Commodore blockers felt a need to stop the blocked punt attempt, they didn't cover the punt all that well. Morgan fielded the ball and had a blocking wall set up. He took it across midfield and veered toward the sideline, looking like he would go the distance for the victory. There was one man left who could stop him, and …it was… Barry Burton. Burton made the game-saving tackle at the Vandy 30.

Who was the next Commodore hero? It was none other than the man responsible for most of the Goldmen's offense in 1974. Mark Adams was not just a place kicker, he was a starting linebacker. On first down from the Vandy 30, Adams broke through the line and tackled Mike Gayles for no gain. On the next play, Morgan took the ball wide on a sweep and met Jay Chesley at the corner. Chesley won the battle and stuffed the star running back for a three yard loss. On 3rd and 13 from the 33, Wallace tried to pass the ball to Seivers for the first down, but the excellent Commodore Secondary shut off the passing lane. The ball missed its intended target.

That brought up 4th down at the 33 yard line. A field goal attempt from there would be 50 yards, which was out of Gaylor's range. Nevertheless, Coach Battle sent in his field goal unit to try to tie the game. Gaylor had already had one field goal attempt blocked by Vandy's giant sophomore lineman Dennis Harrison. Vanderbilt suspected a possible fake, and they were correct. Wallace was the Vol holder, and he jumped up and sprinted toward the wide side of the field. The intended receiver was Tim Fitchpatrick, but he was surrounded by white jerseys with black helmets sporting a gold "V". The pass never came close to Fitchpatrick and Vanderbilt had held.

There was still enough time left for Tennessee to get the ball back and mount a desperation drive. However, Fisher directed the offense like he had as a healthy underclassman. The Commodores ran for three yards and a cloud of dust and converted consecutive first downs. The clock ran down to less than a minute and a half after the second first down, and without any timeouts, Tennessee could not stop the clock. The game was over; before the clock hit zero, Volunteer fans began yelling for Coach Battle to be fired. Fights broke out in the stands between Battle supporters and the overwhelming amount of Battle detractors. Those fights carried out into the parking lot, where a woman received quite a beating.

Vanderbilt's win closed out a perfect 4-0 November. The 7-4 record combined with a 7-3-2 tally in 1974 equaled the 14 wins produced by the 1947 and 1948 teams.

For the game, Fisher completed 10-of-16 passes for 131 yards. In the four-game winning streak after he had returned from multiple injuries, Fisher completed 35-of-62 passes for 397 yards.

Vanderbilt gained 106 yards rushing to go with the 131 yards passing for just 237 total yards. The Commodore defense held the Vols to 89 yards rushing and 113 yards passing for just 202 total yards.

For Bill Battle, his reign as Tennessee coach would last just one more season. He attempted to reverse the Vols' fortunes by switching to the wishbone offense. Losses to Duke and Kentucky in 1976 sealed his fate, but the 1975 loss to Vanderbilt at home really put the nail in the coffin. To make matters worse for Tennessee, Battle had gambled by bringing in all of his in-state potential recruits for the Vandy game. Many of them chose to go elsewhere after watching the Neyland Stadium crowd turn on the home team. A few actually switched sides and eventually signed with the Commodores.

Unfortunately, 1975 was the end of the Commodores' good fortunes on the gridiron. For the next three years, the offense only minimally improved, but the stellar defense was gone. Three consecutive 0-6/2-9 seasons brought the Fred Pancoast era to a close. It would be seven years between winning seasons in Nashville before the 1982 team went 8-4.

NOTE: Information and statistics for this story came from The Nashville Banner, Nashville Tennessean, Knoxville News-Sentinel, the University of Tennessee Athletic Department, and Vanderbilt Sports Information.


Vanderbilt head coach Fred Pancoast is carried off the field on the shoulders of his players after the Commodores beat Tennessee 17-14 in 1975 at Neyland Stadium. (Vanderbilt U. Photo)

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