Yeah, running back Ronald Hatcher was lost for the rest of the season on Saturday against Furman.
Yeah, Jordan-Hare Stadium, Cadillac Williams, and Auburn loom next… and after that, Eli Manning and Lou Holtz.
Yeah, the defense gave way in the second half on Saturday.
But you know what? A freshman quarterback played really, really well, an offense looked very balanced, and a team grew up.
Saturday's 49-18 win for the Commodores over their current coach's old team, the #4 team in Division I-AA, was sweet, special and significant because of the way the week evolved. In the days leading up to the game, the columnists and prognosticators in SEC-area newspapers had this game as a nail-biter. I saw a lot of 27-24, 24-21, 27-21, 24-23 predictions with snide, snickering comments ridiculing just how bad Vandy was.
Keep this in mind for the sake of comparison: Rutgers, the cellar-dweller in the Big East—and with access to prime talent in New Jersey—found itself losing to Big East basketball rival Villanova, a team with a program so small it can't even compete with Rutgers (and let's not forget Temple) in Big East football.
And not only did Rutgers lose to Villanova, they lost to Villanova at home. And not only did Rutgers lose to Villanova at home, they lost to Villanova at home by eighteen points! Villanova 37, Rutgers 19! I tell ya, Rutgers football just hasn't been the same since the ol' Scarlet Knights beat Princeton 6-4 in the first recorded college football game back in 1869, before modern and standardized scoring methods were determined.
To bring the focus back to the Vandy-Furman pregame build-up, you'd have thought from all the commentary and analysis in both SEC-area papers and national college football publications that the Dores would be lucky to win this game, and that Bobby Johnson had a team on his hands as wretched as Rutgers. Freshman quarterback Jay Cutler was going to be cut to pieces by the powerful I-AA Paladins, the team Coach Johnson built himself.
For his part, Johnson was going to match wits with a staff that certainly knew his tendencies. Moreover, considering the intensity and depth of his friendships with the Furman staff, a less than complete performance on Saturday would have been more than understandable. There were a lot of distractions this past week, none of them in Vandy's favor. Another embarrassing early-season home loss to a team that should be crushed was a possibility voiced by entirely too many people.
And then came the game.
Whether it was his 107 rushing yards, his 215 passing yards, his consistency, or his ability to make big plays with Dan Stricker, Jay Cutler—in only his second game—put forth an effort that will be a blueprint for Vanderbilt's success two and three years down the line. By pounding Furman's defense into a ground beef cutlet, to the tune of 557 yards, Cutler epitomized the resilience, grit and attention to detail that promised to be the hallmarks of the Bobby Johnson era in Nashville.
Yes, it would be jumping the gun to say that the team and program have turned the corner.
Yes, the snickers and giggles and—in some cases—the deafeningly loud respectful silence will re-emerge in future weeks, when the SEC will undoubtedly dish out some hard knocks.
But the reason why this game was, is and ever will be significant in the life of Vanderbilt Football is that it showed, amidst a lot of distractions and doubts, that Bobby Johnson-coached teams will get off the mat, work their butts off, never give up, and improve week to week.
The previous Saturday in Atlanta, Vandy's defense gave way in the second quarter after a first-quarter shutout. Against Furman, the defense sustained its effort in the second quarter before bending in the third. Against Georgia Tech, Cutler and Benji Walker were looking for answers, and not finding them. Saturday, Cutler faced an inferior defense, but he still played at a level few expected in just the second game of his Commodore career, and he discovered what it was like to excel in all phases of a quarterback's game at the collegiate level. He won the way you have to win: by doing a little bit of everything, showing on-the-spot gameday resourcefulness, and improving week to week in practice.
As long as those basic qualities remain, they will be refined and improved and exponentially magnified as Cutler's career continues. Then, in 2004, Vandy's quarterback will be able to go into a Jordan-Hare Stadium and leave Tommy Tuberville shaking his head… and out of a job. Bobby Johnson, on the other hand, will be firmly ensconced in the head coach's chair in Nashville.
And then where would the jokes and snide comments be directed in SEC country?
The future of Vanderbilt Football was best expressed after the Furman game by none other than Cutler himself. If there's a way out of the SEC cellar and a football climate lacking in success and prestige, Bobby Johnson will show the way by creating a new attitude, the kind of outlook that took root in a team, and its young freshman leader, Saturday night.
''We worked hard all week," Cutler said. "We were never thinking about losing. That's the way Coach Johnson is going to get us to play.''
Notice how Cutler looked to the future when he uttered that statement. Everyone else in the Vandy family is doing the very same thing after Saturday's significant statement on the football field.