The Pain of Progress - Alabama Game Review

That's the reality for Vanderbilt football after a stomach punch of a 13-10 loss at Alabama on Saturday. The forward development of a long-downtrodden program was evident in Tuscaloosa on a sun-splashed afternoon, but the darkness of familiar demons nevertheless managed to overshadow the proceedings for the Commodores.

The potential evident in this Vanderbilt team--displayed in small glimpses during the Michigan game--became even more apparent in the Dores against the Crimson Tide. An overview of the full 60 minutes suggested that the difference in talent, strength and overall athleticism between these two programs wasn't nearly as glaring as it used to be. Earl Bennett looked like a man on the field. So did Chris Nickson, for much of the day. And Vandy's defense came up with a second straight solid performance, heroically keeping this game close throughout the entire duration of the day. At every position, Vandy battled and battled hard, and this time, the talent doing the fighting was a bit more comparable to the opposition. Put all these things together, and you have the appearance of real, authentic progress as a program.

But all of those positive strides will be largely forgotten, because the scoreboard showed that Alabama had more points than the Dores when the dust had settled. It's not fair, but that's the way it is in a sport where you have only twelve chances to prove yourself. And the reason why Vanderbilt--for all of its progress--is still enmeshed in the pain of defeat is that the Dores have yet to knock down the final door that stands in the way of an elusive winning season and bowl bid: the door that is the human mind.

We saw this last year against Middle Tennessee and Kentucky, and it keeps plaguing the Commodore program, over and over and over again: Vandy becomes weak at the very times when it needs to be strong. In 2005, the Commodores made the mistake of thinking they could roll the ball out against two of their weaker opponents at home, when in fact, those two games demanded a killer instinct from Bobby Johnson's team. In recent years, there's no question that Vandy football has been improving on an overall level; but when a big game or a big moment faces the Dores, the old inferiority complex seems to resurface. These moments are less frequent these days for a team that has learned how to fight harder, but even when they last just one drive or one play, they still prove fatal. That's the curse that seems to befall teams that just can't get over the hump: their windows of poor play get smaller and smaller, but the same fatal effect remains. That's life as a team trying to reach the proverbial "next level."

The tricky thing about greatness in sports is that no player or team is excellent at all times; Tiger Woods has slumps, after all, too. The great ones are simply great when they have to be; they realize there are times when you can afford to make a mistake (not that you'd want to make one), and times when you can't. Vanderbilt needs to learn this lesson after the Alabama loss.

There were two occasions when this game got away from an inspired Vanderbilt team.

The first moment came when the teams left the locker room at halftime. Vanderbilt had a 10-3 lead and all the momentum in the world. The Dores had the early lead they needed in a sport whose new clock rules enable games to be shortened... and underdogs to be more competitive. It was essential for Vandy to, if nothing else, make the Tide work extremely hard to tie the game, so that the boys from Nashville could have more left in the tank at the end.

But unfortunately, the one time Vandy's defense let down its guard on Saturday came on Bama's first possession of the second half. Vandy's generally strong defense picked the worst time to lose the focus and intensity that were so present throughout the rest of the game. Bama didn't just tie the game; they tied the game without any resistance, and that sends powerful signals, immediate and subtle, throughout two sidelines.

Perhaps Chris Nickson felt these subtle signals when the second defining moment of this game came along. With the game still tied after an heroic goal-line stand (and forced fumble) by the Dores' defense, Nickson was moving the ball smartly down the field, and had the ball just outside of field goal range. This was clearly Vandy's golden opportunity to re-establish a lead and entrust the game to the capable hands of VU's defense.

It was the time when a mistake couldn't be made.

It was the time when Nickson, who is rounding into shape as a promising signal-caller, made a mistake. His interception represented the last best chance for Vandy to score what would have been a gargantuan road victory. Alas, the old demon known as "fragile belief" came back to bite Vandy in the worst way.

It's the one remaining obstacle for a program on the rise: the emergent talent Vanderbilt has must be allowed to win the day. This means that the mind has to get out of the way, and let the body do the talking in big situations. If this can be accomplished, these 13-10 losses will turn into 13-10 wins, and perhaps bigger wins down the line.

Progress is a painful thing. Hopefully, Vanderbilt will learn from the pain and progress even more as this still-promising season proceeds.

Photo by Stan Jones

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