Fear and Loathing in Vanderbilt

Hunter Thompson, the large-living Gonzo journalist who made a major impact on presidential politics in the 1970s, wrote a well-known novel called "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." After a sickeningly familiar and stomach-churning loss to Duke, the 2008 season has become a tale of "Fear and Loathing in Vanderbilt."

The Commodores needed to be in a giving mood if a long-sought sixth win was to slip through their fingers. Bobby Johnson's team had to stumble in classic Vandy fashion in order for the plucky, gallant, resourceful, and well-coached—but still physically inferior—Blue Devils to dump VU into a deep, dark ditch of disgust. Given the way Vandy had been performing in 2008, a mammoth meltdown did not seem likely. Surely, this Vandy team would finally put its demons to rest in a home game it figured to win.

Instead, the dark cloud hovering over this program—dispelled in the 5-0 start—came back to cover the Commodores at the worst possible time. The long shadow haunting Vanderbilt football fell over the Nashville campus after David Cutcliffe once again ruined the best laid plans of the Black and Gold.

It's enough to make a grown fan cry.

But for the players left with four more games to finish a task that remains undone, there's no time for crying. This is a moment when Vandy's football team must choose between fear and loathing. The direction the Dores take will determine whether they rise or fall in November.

The train wreck of a 10-7 loss to Duke came from absolutely awful performances on offense and special teams. The complete collapse of two units gifted the Devils with gridiron gaffes that carried a maximum of magnitude. Despite the typical heroics of Myron Lewis, Chris Marve, Greg Billinger, and the rest of Vandy's dynamic defense, the Dores found ways to hand this contest to Coach Cutcliffe and Co.

A fumble gave Duke one field goal, while Vandy missed two field goals, one of them a near chip-shot of 34 yards. Mackenzi Adams—who simply needed to display ball security—couldn't do the deed, as his two picks, one of them an unnecessary risk on 2nd and 10 from the Duke 39 in the final minutes, crushed the Commodores' chances of claiming a come-from-behind win. Not much more needs to be said about the kind of loss that Vandy fans thought to be a part of the past. Evidently, stage fright and flop sweat are still parts of the equation in Nashville.

Back to Hunter Thompson and the "Fear and Loathing" decision facing this football team. Vanderbilt can either choose to play with the fear of failure it displayed against Duke, or the Dores can choose the route of loathing, the path taken by a team that turns a horrible performance into a positive turning point.

Great people, and great performers on the grand stage of history, use fall-on-your-face moments as motivational tools, turning the darkest hours into the great triumphs of the future. Very simply, Vandy needs to steam and stew in response to this clunker against Cutcliffe's crew. Instead of allowing confidence to evaporate, the Dores—in the aftermath of this disaster—need to use their bye week to vent some anger and re-establish a culture of leadership and discipline, particularly in the offensive huddle. Special teams performers have to accept nothing less than excellence, certainly on makeable kicks and billy-basic plays.

With fear, this is a 5-7 season that no one around this program will ever be able to forget. With fear, the unimaginable—even for Vandy—could come true, producing a nightmare no Halloween horror flick could possibly reduplicate.

But with loathing, Kentucky and Tennessee—and maybe a decidedly struggling Wake Forest offense—can all be taken down. With anger and disgust leading to vastly improved levels of performance, this season can still be salvaged.

It's up to the Dores, and it's gone far beyond Xs and Os. Bobby Johnson has to get his Jimmies and Joes or—more specifically—his Grahams, Adamses and Hahnfeldts and demand every ounce of effort in November.

The prize Vandy's chasing is still significant, but now, this team knows—and there's no point in trying to deny it—that it is also playing to avoid a collapse of epic proportions.

Fear, or loathing. Slumping shoulders, or raging anger.

The Commodores have met the enemy, and it is found in their very own selves. A football team has to look in the mirror and decide how it wants to be remembered.

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