Vanderbilt vs. Georgia Post-Mortem

How many times have Vanderbilt fans gone through this in the past? New fans can look back at several games in the last four or five years where Vanderbilt scared the pants off a really good team before realizing they didn't belong in that rarified air. Long-time fans can look back four plus decades and recount near misses over good teams that numbers well into double digits.

Going back to 1961 with a narrow 28-21 loss to UCLA in the Memorial Coliseum, the Commodores have come within a touchdown of a beating a really good team about 45 times, or on average once per year.  We can all recite the script like we've been playing in the same Broadway play for the last 150 weeks.  Vandy gets the lead at some point in the second half and looks like they will finally break through with a big upset.  Then, after an untimely turnover and/or mistake or two or six, the favored team roars from behind to the lead in the final stages of the game.  Presto!  Another moral victory.

 

And, that's exactly what happened Saturday in Athens…except something happened.  Vanderbilt refused to play the role of the Washington Generals in the play titled "Same Ole Vandy" this time.  The Commodores made their required turnovers and mistakes when the script called for it.  So, what happened?

 

This was just the 11th time in that 46-year period that Vanderbilt beat a really good team (The other 10: Virginia Tech in 1965, Army in 1968, Alabama in 1969, Georgia in 1973, Florida in 1974, Florida in 1982, Tennessee in 1982, Maryland in 1984, Georgia in 1991, and Ole Miss in 1999).  It's happened before, but this game had a different fingerprint.  In those other nine wins, Vanderbilt didn't come from behind, lose the lead, and come back to win on the road. 

 

The coaching staff deserves so much credit for this.  I'm not saying the players didn't deserve the win, for which they absolutely did.  I'm saying that the coaching staff must get a great deal of the credit for being able to keep the players' mindsets on even keels.  The defense refused to throw in the towel.  Stopping the two-point conversion attempt was the most important play of the game.  The offense received a shot-in-the-arm knowing a field goal could still win the game.  The coaching staff convinced the players that they could win this game, and the players believed it.  They carried out their assignments and did what they had to do when the outcome was on the line.  Even without two regulars in the offensive line (Brian Stamper is now out for the season), Nickson received more than adequate protection.

 

Chris Nickson threw two costly interceptions in the game.  The first one cost Vanderbilt at least three and maybe seven points when he was picked off in the end zone.  The second one led to an immediate touchdown for the Bulldogs.  Some coached might have pulled Nickson at that point, including the coach on the other sideline.  Mark Richt pulled Joe Tereshinski for Matthew Stafford for that exact reason.

 

Instead Coach Bobby Johnson stuck with Nickson, and the sophomore signal caller showed his toughness and fortitude and drove the team down the field to win the game.  He possessed the savvy of John Elway and Brett Favre as he directed the Commodores down the field.  That fourth down pass completion to move the ball inside the Georgia 30 yard line was a thing of beauty.  It's the type of play that can bring a team together to do great things.

 

Prior to the last drive, Nickson completed a pass to Sean Walker that looked like two all-conference players hooking up.  I've reported in this forum all year my belief that Walker would make a big play before the year is out.  Maybe, that's not the end of his heroics this year.

 

The intermediate and long-range pass will force defenses to play looser and drop their secondary players off.  Nickson will have more confidence going deep now, and Vanderbilt will more than likely go deep at least two times a game and to the intermediate areas more than they have to date.  Give Earl Bennett an extra two yard cushion and watch the All-SEC player become an All-American.

 

Vandy After A Major Win

 

So, how has Vanderbilt fared the following week after a major upset victory that gave fans the belief that their beloved Commodores had turned the corner?  Let's take a look at past history (of course, this team destroyed all historical precedents three days ago).

 

Virginia Tech 1965

 

This was not the turnaround for Commodore skipper Jack Green.  After the Commodores beat the undefeated Hokies, nobody believed they had turned the corner.  Most people saw the game as a nice win over a team that was not in the class of the SEC in those days.  It was no surprise when Vandy lost 24-7 at Ole Miss the following week.

 

Army 1968

 

Things were a little different three years later.  Second year coach Bill Pace had made believers by this point.  Quarterback John Miller tore apart Army with a passing day few Vanderbilt quarterbacks have enjoyed.  With a chance to go 3-0 for the first time in a dozen years, Vandy led North Carolina for most of the night before surrendering a late touchdown and two-point conversion, losing 8-7.  A win in that game might have given the Gold Men a chance to go bowling that year, as they would have finished 6-3-1 instead of 5-4-1.

 

Alabama 1969

 

After a rough start losing to a great Michigan team and so-so teams in Army and North Carolina, the Commodores pulled off the national shocker of the week against an undefeated Crimson Tide team that had just beaten Archie Manning and Ole Miss the week before.  Fans expected the Commodores to follow that up with a respectable showing against Georgia.  The Bulldogs ripped Vandy all night, finally allowing a score in the final minutes of a 40-8 win.

 

Georgia 1973

 

A big homecoming upset over The Bulldogs had fans thinking new coach Steve Sloan would turn the corner in his first year.  At 4-2, Vandymite faced an inferior Ole Miss team in disarray.  Former coach John Vaught had been forced out of retirement after the firing of coach Billy Kinard.  Vanderbilt didn't have the guns, and Ole Miss prevailed 24-14. 

 

Florida 1974

 

By 1974, "we believed in Steve."  The Commodores were loaded with talent and were ready to compete in the SEC.  After manhandling an undefeated and Top 10 Florida team, the Commodores ventured to Georgia to face a Bulldog team that was not as good as the previous year's team.  This time, Vandy fans expected the Commodores to win and not just play a good game.  The Bulldogs built a 31-7 lead in the third quarter before the Commodores came back with 24 unanswered points in about 20 minutes.  Alas, Georgia drove down the field with the winning touchdown in a 38-31 game.

 

Florida 1982

 

After enduring a 33-game losing streak in the conference, Vandy began to turn things around with the new passing game in 1981.  By 1982, the Commodores were good enough to compete for the conference title.  If not for an injury to fullback Ernie Goolsby, which ended the Vandy running attack for the season, this team might have won the SEC title.  A big win over a tough Gators squad set up what would be a battle for the conference title a week later in Athens, Georgia.  The Bulldogs suffered three fumbles early in the game; all three gave Vandy the ball deep in Bulldog territory.  Goolsby may have been able to score touchdowns with his power running, but Vandy was forced to try to throw in the end zone.  Instead of going up 21-0, the Vandy lead only went to 13-0.  Georgia came back and won 27-13 to take the SEC title.  Had Vandy won, the two teams would have both finished 5-1-0, and Vandy would have gotten the Sugar Bowl bid.

 

Virginia Tech

 

In a game billed as a bowl eliminator, Whit Taylor and Allama Mathews hooked up for four touchdown passes, and the Commodores looked like Southern Cal of 2004, pasting the Hokies 45-0.  With members of the Hall of Fame Bowl Committee watching the following week and waiting to extend the bowl invitation following an easy win over UT-Chattanooga, the Commodores laid an egg for three quarters.  The Mocs led for most of the day, while Vandy could do nothing right.  As the committee members openly discussed the availability of New Mexico, Vandy came back with a couple of late touchdowns to win and get the bowl bid.  A few minutes later, California forced the Hall of Fame Bowl to look elsewhere when Stanford kicked off to the Bears, and their tuba player couldn't make a game-saving tackle as the clock ran out.

 

Maryland 1984

 

Commodore quarterback Kurt Page passed the Terrapins dizzy for 60 minutes, and Vandy emerged with an upset victory.  A week later, Vandy looked like a Top 20 team when they demolished Kansas 41-6 bringing on a 15-minute long "wave" around the stadium.

 

Georgia 1991

 

Gerry DiNardo's I-bone offense began to pay dividends in year one, as the Commodores finally won a close game after dropping three close ones earlier in the season.  The following week, Vandy's running game couldn't be stopped and it led to a victory over Ole Miss.  It was the second of four consecutive wins.

 

Ole Miss 1999

 

Greg Zolman directed a comeback win in overtime to give the Commodore faithful hope that Woody Widenhofer's team was turning the corner.  The following week, the Commodores dominated Duke in an easy win.  It appeared the ‘Dores had turned the corner and were headed to a bowl.  A late fumble against Kentucky seven weeks later crushed the hearts of the black and gold faithful.

 

Georgia 2006

 

How will Vandy perform the following week after pulling off an unprecedented win on the road against a ranked opponent?  The game with South Carolina is one where Vandy could continue to roll and make something of this season.  It also could be another game where the fans get set up for another heartbreak.  The coaching staff will not let the team suffer a letdown.  Vandy may lose this game, but South Carolina will have to earn it.  The Commodores won't lie down and hand it over to the Gamecocks.  On the other hand, Steve Spurrier and company could be walking into an ambush.

 

Regardless of the outcome this week, the coaching staff deserves a lot of credit.  They deserve something unprecedented in college sports—tenure.


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