Why is there such reason for optimism in and around Nashville? First of all, Vandy's defense--which doesn't possess the horses Michigan had on the edges--nevertheless smothered the Wolverines' passing game. Steve Breaston, Mario Manningham, and other shifty playmakers were kept under wraps, as the Dores slammed the door on any vertical, home-run pass plays. Michigan was largely limited to dink-and-dunk throws that rarely went beyond the short-intermediate range, a testament to the quality of an airtight secondary that didn't break (well, not until the final few minutes of the game, at which point the outcome had already been decided) and a defensive front that made Michigan quarterback Chad Henne sweat on a number of occasions. With Jonathan Goff having a monster stat line of 14 tackles and one blocked field goal, Vandy's defense--bullied at times by Michigan's power running game--never really surrendered against an opposing assemblage of talent. Holding Michigan to 20 points over the game's first 57 minutes stands as a tremendous accomplishment for Bobby Johnson's defense, and it kept Vandy competitive well into the fourth quarter.
Even on the offensive side of the ball, there were noticeable and--moreover--significant positives the Dores could take away from this game. First of all, you can use a number of catchy nicknames to refer to quarterback Chris Nickson, who frustrated Michigan throughout the first two and a half quarters with his speed and athleticism in a very impressive debut. The quarterback draw was such a reliably good play for Vandy and offensive coordinator Ted Cain that the Commodore quarterback could be called "Quicks Nickson," "Chris Quickson," or one of several other monikers. Nickson's agility in the open field was that noticeable. It will serve Vandy well in the post-Cutler era, and it sure lent a lot of validity and accuracy to Coach Johnson's claims that this program can indeed improve, even without No. 6 under center.
Aside of everything Vandy displayed against Michigan, though, the other big reason why the Dores can consistently compete in 2006 is that the new clock rules--in which the clock restarts when the ball is ready for play, not when the play starts--will favor underdogs. This reality seemed likely to exist in the first place, but it took an actual game--and live action--to show just how greatly this one rule change will shorten a college football game.
The Vanderbilt-Michigan contest took exactly three hours to play, from kickoff to final gun. Had an official not been injured midway through the fourth quarter, the game would have taken 2:55 in a sport where the great epics of the past decade--in regular-season and postseason play--have approached and sometimes eclipsed four hours. Underdogs in any sport want the game to be shortened, and this rule change clearly shortens games. Yes, it does mean that getting an early lead is more important than ever: it will be that much harder to come from behind in the final minutes of a game. But if Vandy can get a quick score in the early going against opponents, the clock will become its ally much earlier in a game than usual.
Michigan, like any team playing its first regular-season game, had a predictable amount of rust and sloppiness. The clock rule came into play because it appreciably reduced the number of snaps the Wolverines were able to have over the course of the full game. Without 10, 15 or 20 extra reps on offense, Henne and his receivers weren't able to establish the kind of rhythm they needed to be effective. You should be able to see how the bigger picture can come together for Vanderbilt, especially in next week's SEC-opening road game at Alabama: if Vandy can get a quick early touchdown for a 7-0 lead, and if Bama's offense--with a new quarterback this season--starts rusty and stays that way, the Dores can set up and manage the game just the way they'd like to. With Nickson running for first downs and Earl Bennett providing a step-up performance (the drops by the star receiver killed Vanderbilt more than anything else against Michigan), the Dores could make just enough plays to establish field position, keep the ball, and prevent Bama's offense from getting a rhythm. In a sport where teams like Vanderbilt just want to have a chance going into the final few minutes against teams like Alabama (especially on the road), the new clock rules in college football will give Vanderbilt a real fighting chance. Hope isn't hollow for fans of Vanderbilt football after an encouraging performance against Michigan on Labor Day weekend. With an inspired defensive effort and a quick quarterback, this team has a chance to sustain the momentum provided by the 2005 season. Now, all that remains is for the performance on offense to supplement the effort and elbow grease that were so impressively displayed against the Wolverines. With better pass-catching and clutch offensive playmaking (and some help from the clock), the rest of 2006 could prove to be surprisingly successful for a program hungering for the bowl bid that was narrowly missed last Autumn.