The 1969 Nittany Lions won games with their defense and special teams setting up great field position for their offense. This was the year Penn State earned its nickname of Linebacker U., establishing the tradition that would follow. Dennis Onkotz and Jack Ham were both All-American linebackers. Defensive Tackle Mike Reid, who would later gain fame as one of the best songwriters in Nashville, was the best in the nation at his position. Defensive backs Neal Smith and Paul Johnson were almost as good at their positions as Onkotz and Ham. The stop troops and special teams either scored or set up great field position to score 107 points that year, while giving up only 87 points.
Vanderbilt's defense looked very much like that Penn State defense Saturday night. I cannot remember the last time a Commodore defense handed over field position like this. Was that Jonathan Goff and Marcus Buggs out there or did Ham and Onkotz occupy their bodies for three hours? Was it Curtis Gatewood, or did Reid write the song's that told the tale of Gatewood's sack?
Once again, Vanderbilt's excellent kickoff coverage set the tone for this game. The Commodores forced TSU to begin the game with Jared Fagan meeting Terrence Wright at the 10-yard line. Fagan gave Wright a trip to Hollywood—he saw stars! The hit forced him to lose the ball.
Gatewood's sack of Antonio Heffner forced the Tigers into a 3rd and long hole, and then Gatewood and Theo Horrocks forced Heffner to dispose of the ball on the next play. When Earl Bennett returned the Tiger punt 11 yards to the TSU 37, Vanderbilt got a great opportunity on their first possession.
On TSU's second possession, Reshard Langford's quick run to the backfield resulted in his picking up a bad lateral and returning it to the Tiger eight-yard line. You cannot ask for better field possession than an average of the 22.5 yard line of your opponents on your first two possessions. Alas, Vandy came away with no points.
You might have expected a major letdown by the defense after the offense failed to capitalize twice, but these guys are not your father's same old Vandy team. They went back to work in workmanlike fashion. First, Langford, and then Ray Brown, stopped Tiger tailback Javarris Williams for no gain and a one-yard loss respectively. On 3rd and long, Marcus Buggs' red-dog forced Heffner to throw off the mark, and TSU had to punt from their own end zone once again. The punt stopped at the Tiger 38 yard line. Three Goldmen possessions in a row started enemy territory for an average of less than 28 yards from pay dirt. This time, Chris Nickson found Marlon White open for the touchdown pass.
At this point, the score should have been 17-0 or 21-0, and the game should have been over in the first quarter. However, the offense just couldn't get untracked. Tennessee State begged Vandy to throw the ball, and the Commodores couldn't complete the downfield pass, at least at this point of the game.
Now, for how Vanderbilt reminded me of a former 1960's college basketball team. This one, too, was an undefeated team. In 1963-64, John Wooden led UCLA to the first of 10 national titles over the next dozen years. This team went 30-0 but it wasn't dominating like his Alcindor (Jabbar) and Walton teams. The 1964 edition had no starter over 6-5; they capitalized on a devastating full-court zone press and super quick fast break to blow teams out in two or three minutes. In every one of their games that year, the Bruins went on a two or three-minute run that put the game out of reach. If you saw the 1964 title game against Duke and their twin towers, this was the perfect microcosm for that season. Duke appeared to be too strong for the Bruins, and then poof! UCLA trailed Duke 30-27 late in the first half. The Bruins went on a 16-0 run in just 2:34 to take a commanding 43-30 lead. UCLA forced three turnovers with their 2-2-1 zone press, and Duke missed 10 consecutive shots in this stretch, hurrying their shots when they broke the press. The Bruins' devastating fast break was fueled by guard Gail Goodrich who hit for eight points in the run.
What you saw or heard Saturday night was the football equivalent of that 1964 UCLA basketball team. Vanderbilt scored three touchdowns in just over two minutes of playing time, turning a close game into a rout. The onslaught started with the defense putting the press on TSU. It began with another magnificent special teams' play. Brett Upson's punt was downed at the TSU one-yard line by D. J. Moore. Goff then rushed and forced a bad pass by Heffner. On the next play, Heffner dropped back in his end zone and Goff was there again. He forced Heffner to throw before he had a firm grip and Goff got a paw on it. Buggs was there to catch the ball for a Commodore touchdown. Onkotz and Ham couldn't have done it any better.
The special teams rose to the occasion once again with Funtaine Hunter forcing another fumble on the kickoff and Jared Hawkins racing to drop on the ball at the TSU seven. Two plays later, Nickson rushed into the end zone for the touchdown.
Two plays into the next Tiger drive and the first play of the final period, Langford stepped forward and picked off a pass that was practically thrown his way, thanks to another tough pass rush. Langford returned the interception 21 yards to the TSU 33 yard line. Vanderbilt took advantage of the sudden change, and Nickson finally hit Bennett on a deep ball. The 33-yard pass made the score 31-3. Two minutes and 15 seconds earlier, Tennessee State had the ball trailing by just seven points. Now, it was time to warm up a backup quarterback.
Goff and Buggs (along with Kevin Joyce) are keeping alive the tradition of Vanderbilt being Linebacker U. After the game, the duo commented on the big play that started the two-minute blitz. "I came in on a blitz and just tried to get a hand out and get a hand on the ball," Goff said. "Luckily, I was able to make a play right there." Buggs took advantage of his partner's ploy. "I just saw it in the air, so I grabbed it. It just popped into my face and then I just wanted to make sure that I was in bounds."
When asked about all the great field position the defense gave the offense, Goff and Buggs were in agreement. "It changed the whole momentum of the game," Goff replied. "And once we had the momentum, we were able to take advantage of it and take control of the game. We really were able to take control of the game after making some plays on defense."
"Our defense today came up huge for us," Buggs told the press. "The fact that we were able to force a couple of turnovers just changed the whole game."
With the 38-9 win, Vanderbilt has now given up just 70 points in four games for an average of 17.5 points per game allowed. The last time the Commodores gave up less than 20 points per game for a season was 1997, when Coach Woody Widenhofer's Commodores gave up 19.9 points per game. That defense was full of stars: Jamie Duncan, Antony Jordan, Corey Chavous, Matt Stewart, Jimmy Williams, Carlton Hall, and Glenn Young. After this Saturday's game, the defensive average should drop another couple points, possibly to 14.