Fagan's INT saved win, VU's offseason

KNOXVILLE-- In the end, the season finale was almost a microcosm of the season as a whole. Midway through the second quarter, Vanderbilt seemed to be cruising, nearly unstoppable in Neyland Stadium, leading 21-7, while the Big Orange was sputtering. Everything was working.

It was as though some magical, mystical power had taken hold. The 107,487 paying patrons were as stunned as the national media had been earlier this season, when the Commodores had opened up 4-0.

Soon reality would set in, however. The Vols began to look like the Vols again, scoring on a long drive late in the first half, winning the battles for field position in the second half, and generally keeping Vandy backed up on its own side of the field.

Vandy's offense, which had clicked so efficiently in the first half, suddenly couldn't move. Its defense, which had performed heroically in stopping Tennessee on downs inside the Vandy 5, was starting to wear down. Tennessee scored 17 unanswered points to wrest the lead back, 24-21.

The game-- and the season-- which had started with such promise, were threatening to end in old, familiar ways.

And then, without warning, the magic came back, just as quickly and mysteriously as it had vanished.

Getting the ball back with 100 seconds left on the clock, Vanderbilt surely knew this possession would be its last. It was do or die.

So many times in the course of his 45-game career at Vanderbilt, Jay Cutler had been in this position-- ball in his hands, clock running down, more than half a field to go, with the chance to win or tie the game on a last possession. Against Wake Forest and Arkansas this season he had done it-- but on this cold November afternoon, those wins seemed eons ago. Could the Commodores summon the necessary magic once again?

Three Cutler-to-Earl Bennett passes later (and a fortuitous pass interference call), Vanderbilt was in Tennessee's famed checkerboarded end zone. The pitch-and-catch pair made it look easy in putting Vandy up 28-24.

Almost too easy. The blitzkrieg drive had consumed only 29 seconds, and Tennessee would get the ball one last time, with 1:11 left and a chance to break Vanderbilt's heart.

On the other side of the scrimmage line was senior Rick Clausen, who three hours earlier had run through the ceremonial 'T' one last time. Would he be able to lead the home team to one last, storybook finish?

Doggone if he almost didn't. Using his feet as well as his arm, with Vandy dropping back into a zone, the plucky senior led Tennessee from its own 20 to the Vanderbilt 17, then the Vanderbilt 11, though a delay-of-game penalty would push it back to the 16. From there he twice threw to the end zone, both times incomplete.

Fourth down. Clock showing 0:01. Neyland Stadium swaying with noise and emotion, its patrons trying to will the Volunteers to victory. Clausen poised for the snap. (Does college football get any better?) Last play of the game.

He lofts a fade pass for the sideline, where little-used freshman Jared Fagan was covering senior receiver C.J. Fayton. Five-foot-10 covering 6-foot-2.

"They were running the same route they had run the two previous plays," said Andrew Pace, who was covering another receiver on the play. "The quarterback scrambles a little bit, and Fagan... first I wanted him to just knock it down, but of course he ended up intercepting the ball and falling down, which was good enough for me."

"We were using bracket coverage," Fagan said. "The defensive line got pressure on [Clausen], and he made a bad throw. I saw it, and broke on it."

In the first game in which he had played significantly, the speedster from Maryland ended up making the final play, the most significant play of Vandy's season.

Bobby Johnson credited the pressure which several other Vandy defenders put on Clausen with helping rush the throw.

"We had three linemen in the game and two extra defensive backs," he said. "We blitzed one of our linebackers, and Kevin Joyce did a good job of coming across and putting pressure on the quarterback. It was a tough throw for Rick. It was the only one he had."

"When he caught it, my eyes got wide, and I got a big smile on my face," said Pace. "I jumped up in the air and just started running all over the field!"

Fagan's crucial play unleashed a wild celebration from the bench, and a torrent of pent-up emotion for many longtime Commodore diehards. Veteran Equipment Manager Luke Wyatt was seen weeping openly in the postgame locker room. It had been 23 long years since any group associated with Vanderbilt football had tasted victory over their rivals to the East.

What have these Dores wrought? Now, instead of ending the season with seven straight losses, Vanderbilt fans have experienced the strange sensation of concluding a season with a win. The last time that could be said was 1975, coincidentally the last time a Commodore team won in Neyland Stadium. (Vandy went to the Hall of Fame Bowl after beating Tennessee in 1982, but lost to Air Force.)

Johnson said he wasn't much for nostalgia, but acknowledged that the win was a huge one.

"It's big for our program right now," he said. "It means we've beaten one of the truly top teams in this league. They've been up at the top, especially in the Eastern Division. I know their record is not as good this year, but that's a fine program right over there. Until we start winning those kind of games, we're not going to make the progress we need.

"This is going to help recruiting. It's going to help my Thanksgiving dinner. It's going to help a bunch of things."

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