Dores prove 'ready for prime time' in opener

In a football stadium in Denver, Barack Obama was throwing his hat into the ring for the U.S. presidency Thursday night. Meanwhile in another stadium a thousand miles away in the heart of MAC country, Vanderbilt was throwing its hat into the ring as a contender for a bowl game from the SEC.

Vanderbilt in a bowl game in 2008? Now that would indeed be "change."

Let's get it out of the way up front-- this was the best a Vanderbilt team has looked in an opener in ages. So methodical, so well-prepared were these Commodores in a 34-13 road win over Miami of Ohio, that the inconsistencies that have haunted VU teams of the past were momentarily swept under the rug and forgotten.

Before a nationally televised audience on the ESPNU network, Vanderbilt ushered in the college football season by doing to Miami exactly what a Southeastern Conference team is supposed to do to a team from the Mid-American Conference-- paste 'em. And given the way Vandy has struggled with MAC teams over the years, it was nothing to roll one's eyes at.

When starting tailback Jeff Jennings fumbled the ball away on Vandy's first possession, leading to a 3-0 Miami lead, there were no doubt many Commodore fans around the country ready to punt on the 2008 season. Here we go again, you could hear them saying. But hold the phone! After that miscue, the game quickly turned into a one-sided cakewalk, a thing of beauty for relieved Commodore fans.

The defense produced some takeaways. Special teams contributed some big plays. And the offense-- largely the Chris Nickson show-- proved more than the Redhawks were equipped to handle.

Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the game was the re-emergence of Nickson. The Brundidge, Ala. senior resembled the flashy, elusive Nickson from 2006, and not at all the inconsistent Nickson from 2007 who was benched halfway through the season.

Nickson, named as the starting quarterback only two days before Thursday's opener, proved himself worthy of the selection by rushing for a pair of touchdowns and throwing for a third. In racking up 257 all-purpose yards Nickson made the Redhawk defense, studded with all those Butkus Award contenders, mostly look silly all evening.

Vanderbilt's much-maligned kicking game-- dare I say this?-- was absolutely sound in every phase. Bryant Hahnfeldt drilled a pair of field goals. Brett Upson overcame his recent illness to keep the Redhawks backed up most of the night. Coverage? Mostly terrific.

It was in fact a special teams play that broke the game open in the first quarter. The electrifying D.J. Moore took a punt on the Vanderbilt 8, made a cut for the sidelines and returned the ball 92 yards to the Miami 1-yard line. The resulting touchdown, a sneak by Nickson, put Vandy up 17-3.

But perhaps it was the opportunistic Vanderbilt defense that offered Vandy fans the most encouragement. The stop corps, featuring a mostly raw and inexperienced front seven, produced three turnovers. In classic bend-but-don't-break style, Bruce Fowler's defense allowed some big passes by Miami QB Daniel Raudabaugh, but only one of those went for a score.

Vanderbilt was penalized only twice all night. Only twice?!? In an opener? That's nearly unheard of.

I'll admit, I was worried going into this one. Lots of us had questioned the decision to open the 2008 season on the road, going to a place (Yager Stadium) where no SEC team had gone before. In retrospect, maybe opening up on the road was the right move. The Commodores have played their best football on the road in recent years, and the road opener gave a young team a chance to build its confidence against a quality team, in a TV showcase game at that.

How good is Miami? That remains to be seen. And just how good is this Vanderbilt team? Its long-suffering fans will know a lot more after next Thursday night's ESPN-televised home opener against SEC foe South Carolina.

But Bobby Johnson and his team deserve all A's for their prime time performance in Week One. After such a stirring performance in an opener, the season is bursting with promise. It was a refreshing "change," one of which even Barack Obama would be proud.

But was it "change we can believe in"?

Ask me again next week.

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