It's unknown whether or not Vanderbilt will play Middle Tennessee again any time soon. Andy McCollum's Blue Raiders refused to play the role of gracious guest, and have now slipped past Vanderbilt twice in successive years in Vanderbilt's own stadium. Hats off to them.
The two teams have no future games scheduled. But until a rematch occurs-- if it ever does-- Vanderbilt players and fans must live with the painful knowledge that in both 2001 and 2002, critical unforced errors late in the game cost the Commodores a chance at victory over their instate neighbors.
In 2001, Vanderbilt had the Blue Raiders on the ropes late in the game when receiver Nezih Hasanoglu dropped a sure touchdown pass from Greg Zolman on the goal line. It was as easy a chance at a touchdown reception as any receiver has had, but Hasanoglu lost concentration for a split second. MTSU blocked a field goal on fourth down, and MTSU went on to win, 37-28.
In 2002, the story of the game was penalties. Get this-- the Commodores, which entered the game leading the SEC in fewest penalties, were penalized for almost half again as many yards (141) as the offense gained the whole night (287). The infractions seemed to occur at the worst times, either keeping drives alive for MTSU, or keeping the Commodores from putting points on the board.
Successive offsides penalties inside the MTSU 10 kept the Commodore offense from putting up seven points instead of three in the first quarter. A personal foul penalty on Vandy's punt team gave MTSU great field position on what turned out to be its game-winning touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. And Benji Walker's unsportsmanlike conduct penalty-- which forced Vandy to go for one point instead of two-- will be remembered for years to come.
It's enough to make even a non-cussing man let out a few expletives. The loyal fans who live and die with this team died another quiet death late Saturday night.
This really is not meant to take away from the Blue Raiders' victory. It's really not. MTSU's offense scored when it had to, and the defense did what it had to do to preserve the victory. Again, hats off to them.
But... do you realize how many starters the Commodores did without Saturday night?
The obvious one was Jay Cutler, who sat out for a violation of team rules. But Commodore fans got another chilling blow just before gametime when it was announced that linebacker Brandon Walthour had also been suspended for the game for a team rules violation. (The rumor going around the pressbox was that he had been dismissed permanently from the team.)
Bobby Johnson's team suffered another loss when true freshman Chris Booker, who had been rotating in at left defensive end, suffered another one of those confounding "season-ending leg injuries." The Commodores had already lost three players this season to such injuries-- Jordan Pettit, Ronald Hatcher, and Norval McKenzie. It was a tough break (no pun intended) for Booker, who had missed a good portion of his senior year in high school with a broken leg.
Lastly, the defense did without the services of linebacker Moses Osemwegie and cornerback Dominique Morris. Both were questionable for the game; neither played.
That makes eight players who have started games at various times this season who were unable to play last night-- not to mention Grant Brigham, who "starts" at punt returner. Brigham was suspended for a rules violation along with Cutler.
Asked in the postgame press conference if Cutler's status had changed during the week, Bobby Johnson refused to comment. "I'm not talking about Jay Cutler tonight," he said flatly.
If there's a bright spot in the loss, it has to be the placekicking and punting of Greg Johnson. The true freshman from Lilburn, Ga. has to be Vandy's most valuable player of the MTSU game, if not the season.
Johnson was 2-of-2 on field goals, making him 6-of-8 on the year. When one considers that the Commodores kicked only four field goals in all of 2001, you'd have to say that Johnson has almost singlehandedly turned a team weakness into a strength.
Johnson also booted a 35-yard extra point after the Commodores were assessed a 15-yard penalty on their final touchdown. He is now a perfect 16-of-16 on PAT's
Two of his kickoffs were unreturnable-- something that never happened last year.
Finally, and perhaps most impressively, Johnson averaged 53 yards per punt on six punts. His long was a 65-yard bomb out of his own end zone in the second quarter. His 62-yarder in the fourth quarter should have been enough to pin the Blue Raiders deep in their own territory-- and would have been, if not for a critical 15-yard personal foul penalty.
"He's kicked well for us," said Johnson.
That's an understatement. On a night where almost everything the Commodores did seemed to go wrong... everything Johnson did seemed to go right.
Perhaps the other play that will make the highlight film was Aaron McWhorter's leaping interception in the end zone of an Andrico Hines pass. It was Vandy's second INT of the year, and at the time looked as though it would be the defensive play of the game. The 6-1 McWhorter snagged the ball with both hands at the top of his leap while falling out of bounds.
It snuffed out MTSU's drive, and gave Vandy the ball on its own 20. But when the Commodore offense failed to move, and Vandy's defense failed to stop an MTSU touchdown drive, the interception's value was for naught.
Redshirt freshman Marty Morgan from Canton, Miss. got his first start ever vs. MTSU, at linebacker in place of Brandon Walthour. He recorded a sack in the second quarter.