A lot of people were ready to shovel dirt on Vanderbilt football 2002 after the Commodores' 45-3 season-opening loss to Georgia Tech. But hold the phone... after a confidence-boosting 49-18 win over Furman, the Commodores' season may not be dead just yet.
No, the Division I-AA Paladins were nowhere near the level of competition provided by the Yellow Jackets one week earlier. But the Commodores' win was nonetheless convincing... and important.
How important was it? I think many of the 28,568 who attended the game did so half-expecting Vanderbilt to turn in another stinkeroo of a performance, as it had done against lesser opponents in home openers in 2000 against Miami of Ohio, and in 2001 against MTSU.
Instead, fans dressed in the home black and gold were treated to an offensive explosion, and the finest rushing performance by a Commodore quarterback since Ronnie Gordon totaled 126 yards vs. Georgia eight years ago.
Cutler torched the Paladins early with his arm, but later slayed them with his feet, scoring three rushing touchdowns including a breathtaking 61-yard run from scrimmage that Commodore fans will not soon forget.
Sure, Vanderbilt (1-1) needs to follow this victory up with a win against a Division I-A opponent, something it can accomplish as early as next week. For now, the Commodores will have to settle for a measure of redemption from a well-earned win before its home crowd.
It's an old cliché-- a great coach is a coach who can "take his'n and beat your'n... and then take your'n and beat his'n.
If that's true, perhaps Bobby Johnson can now be considered a great coach. Johnson coached Furman to the pinnacle when he took the Paladins into the Division I-AA championship game last Dec. 21. To turn around and beat that same team, and to do it so convincingly in only his second game as Vanderbilt's coach, has to be personally satisfying for the gray-haired Johnson.
Brandon Walthour and Brett Beard both returned to action after missing the opener with injuries. Beard, who had been slowed by a sprained ankle, played a good number of snaps at defensive tackle with the ankle heavily taped. He looked to have very limited ability to run.
For Walthour, the wait has been longer. The senior linebacker, due to a series of off-field incidents, had not played in a game since the opener vs. Alabama in 1999. He had regained academically-eligible status for last week's opener against Georgia Tech, but was held out when an injury to his thumb required surgery on Aug. 29. He played a good bit of the Furman game, with a cast covering his hand and wrist.
In typical Vanderbilt fashion, many people began leaving at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Those who did missed some offensive fireworks, and the first look at several freshman and reserve players.
Norval McKenzie took an option pitch going left, burst through the line and crossed all the way to the other sideline on a 57-yard scoring play. It appeared as though he'd be run out of bounds at about the 5, but he reversed his field and took it in for the score.
Bara Cola, a walk-on fullback who was a student equipment manager last year, scored Vandy's final touchdown of the night on a three-yard dive-- an absolutely heartwarming moment. (Talk about the "Joy of Cola".)
Two other walk-ons, tailback Jason Bourque and fullback Juan Rojas, got their first carries ever on the Commodores' final drive.
To those of you who left early... or who blew off this game thinking the Commodores were done after last week... shame on you!
I would hate to be Furman quarterback Billy Napier waking up on Sunday morning. The Paladin signal-caller took an untold number of hard hits from the Commodore defense.
Napier is one tough kid, though. The 6-3, 218-pound sophomore always bounced back up quickly, even once after being sandwiched between ends Jovan Haye and Chuck Losey. Several times he completed a pass just milliseconds before being hammered.
But back to that Commodore defense. It was as if defensive coordinator Bruce Fowler said, let's pin our ears back and go after Napier. The Commodores blitzed linebackers and safeties from all directions, and seemed to be blitzing on almost every third-down situation.
Dan Stricker's career receiving yard total now stands at 2,392 yards. The Furman game marked the tenth time in his career that he had gone over 100 yards.
One freshman who logged a lot more playing time this week was Chris Booker at left defensive end. So far, you'd have to consider him the biggest impact true-freshman on the defense.
Also of interest on the defensive line, Jovan Haye and Chuck Losey switched sides of the field since the Georgia Tech game. Haye moved to left end, while Losey moved to right end, just the opposite of the week before.
As for punter/kicker Greg Johnson, he continues to amaze. The true freshman was 7-for-7 on extra points, and averaged 45 yards on two punts. He did not attempt a field goal.
On kickoffs Johnson was replaced this week by walk-on Abtin "Ponch" Iranmanesh, who demonstrated good leg. It was the first appearance ever for Iranmanesh.
It certainly was odd to see all those signs for Coca-Cola around Vanderbilt Stadium! After years of having Beaman Bottling Company and Pepsi as a sponsor, the Commodores finally awarded pouring rights to Big Red for home games beginning with Saturday's game.