Zemek: The emerging, new Vanderbilt

The Vanderbilt football team has an offense that's 25 points better than the Miami Hurricanes. Sure, Bobby Johnson might not be thinking about other teams in the wake of his own ballclub's solid 17-point victory over Duke on Saturday, but he might want to bring up that fact as the Dores turn their attention to Florida on November 4.

It's not a cheap rhetorical device or an empty statistical comparison. It's real: Vandy scored 45 points at Duke, Miami just 20. The Hurricanes won by five against the Blue Devils, and needed to sweat out the final play of the game before surviving. The Dores, on the other hand, slammed the door shut on an impressive and emphatic touchdown drive with just over four minutes remaining. True, the Canes have had to deal with their fair share of suspensions and distractions, but then again, Miami's wretched offense has stayed in the doldrums all season long. Vandy's 45-point output against the Dukies is real proof that the Dores have legitimate talent, a fact that's been fairly obvious throughout this encouraging Autumn. Now, as the season enters its home stretch, Coach Johnson is finding out--much to his delight--that this talent is being unwrapped and fulfilled on the field. He has a lot of motivational tools at his disposal before a Florida game that could bring Vanderbilt to .500 on the season, and put this program in position to snare a bowl game with a win over Kentucky the following week.

Here's the reason why this Duke game--and its final score, which makes this game deceivingly close--should be looked at with more than a casual glance: just as Vandy has historically failed to make big plays in key, game-defining moments, this contest in Durham showed just the opposite. In past Vanderbilt seasons--and earlier in this 2006 campaign--Bobby Johnson's team would get big stops when down seven but not when tied; when down 10 but not when down three; when momentum had already been lost, not when momentum was still waiting to be won. Commodore scores came in those same kinds of situations; the touchdown when down 10 and the field goal when down six mean little; it's the game-tying or game-winning scores that possess lasting value, and for far too long, these kinds of game-turning plays were absent from the Vanderbilt portfolio.

But then came the Georgia game, when the Dores were opportunistic and courageous under fire. On that blessed afternoon in Athens, a young team learned how to win, to persevere when a fragile football fight was up for grabs. South Carolina simply played too well the following week, but against Duke, these hard-working kids proved that they're getting better at closing the deal. If Vandy didn't deserve the benefit of the doubt in prior losses that were unbearably wrenching, these same Dores deserve praise now that they're on the other side of the divide.

In short, one must view the dust-off of Duke in this fashion: the step-off-the-gas-pedal fourth quarter should not be emphasized, and accordingly viewed as a sign of immaturity. What should instead be stressed in the wake of this game is how Chris Nickson--superb all day long--took a team downfield for a dagger-delivering touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, precisely when Duke had crept within ten points at 38-28. It was the kind of timely, grab-the-jugular touchdown that Vandy rarely gets, and it should serve as a point of profound inspiration for a team that's clearly growing emotionally as well as technically. The Dores--on both sides of the ball--often execute well. It's a matter of supplementing good technique with poise and resolve in clutch situations. If Vandy can put together the technical and the mental sides of this game, Bobby Johnson's ballclub could spring a November upset and reach the six-win and .500 plateaus.

Therefore, the fact that Vandy showed some resolve in the fourth quarter against Duke--even if it was needed only because things got way too interesting for Bobby Johnson's comfort level--should give this team a boatload of Commodore confidence as this season continues. Ignore the big Duke comeback that turned a rout into a 10-point game with just over seven minutes left. Focus on a touchdown drive that revealed the emerging new personality of Vanderbilt football. Bobby Johnson can only hope this new personality remains intact for the next three regular season games. It it does, a postseason party could actually enter the world of this long-suffering program.


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