Vandy-Tennessee, As It Happened

In another disappointing showing against a team it was favored to beat the Vanderbilt Commodores dropped a 20-10 defensive battle to Tennessee. Matt Zemek commented on the game as it happened.

14:11 left, first quarter: Myron Lewis comes up with yet another interception for Vandy's playmaking secondary. Now, the Commodores can pounce early and break Tennessee's will. You'd think that UT quarterback Jonathan Crompton, after several weeks of watching from the sidelines, would have been a bit sharper early on. Guess not. 
 
14:11: Timeout, Vandy, before the first offensive snap? Okay, okay, there are rivalry-game and senior day jitters, but that's still a bit unsettling. Confident, organized offenses shouldn't have to endure something like that. 
 
14:02: Love the QB draw on first down. Chris Nickson's legs need to be used as a weapon, as was the case against Kentucky. 
 
13:19: Good lord. Illegal block on a simple flat pass. Just get out of your own way, boys. 
 
12:52: Tennessee returns the favor with a pass interference penalty on that second-and-14 play. The bye week has evidently not made the Vols a better, more focused team. Vandy just has to play solid, no-frills football to win this puppy. 
 
12:04: Just like the Michigan-Ohio State game that I've been watching, it seems that the defenses are focused and the offenses are just not settled yet. It might take a long while for the offenses to get going today. 
 
11:18: Nickson gets hogtied by the Tennessee blitz. A field goal would be 50 yards here. Given the cold weather, Bobby Johnson needs to punt and play field position. 
 
10:28: Johnson makes the smart move, and punter Brett Upson does the job well with an intentionally low punt that bounces to the UT 4. It looked ugly, but that kick was purposefully planned and beautifully executed. Settle in for an ugly first quarter, sports fans. Don't expect any offensive artistry whatsoever for the next 20 minutes of your life. 
 
9:45: Pretty significant third-and-4 here from the UT 10. 
 
9:02: Good instincts by the Vandy defense to react to Crompton's run, but a poor job of tackling enabled the Vol quarterback to get a good body lean and nearly steal a first down. Fortunately, he's just short, and the Dores get the stop. 
 
8:36: Another drive start in great field position for VU, this time just four yards short of midfield. Points would be wonderful, of course, but with this kind of game flow, the only thing Vandy really needs is to keep Tennessee pinned deep. If Nickson can get going, so much the better, but right now, in the first quarter, Vandy needs to avoid the big mistake—that's the only thing that can give the Vols any hope of scoring points. 
 
7:03: Ugh! There's the big mistake. Fer cryin' out loud. Nickson tries to reach the ball forward, but the problem was that he got stopped a good two and a half yards short of the first down. What a waste of field position. 
 
6:55: Now that field position has been flipped, thoughts of a big early start can be shelved. It's now a matter of damage control.  
 
4:26: The Vols continuing to do their best Santa Claus impression. An illegal formation penalty on a converted third-and-9 gives Vandy's defense new life. Phil Fulmer is livid on the Tennessee sideline. The founders of the game of football are rolling over in their graves after the sloppy start to this contest. "Who can mess up worse?" is the theme of Vols-Dores '08. 

3:56: Good stand by the Dores, even though it was aided by UT's blunder. One has the feeling that a wacky play (which might not come for some time) is going to have a significant impact on the proceedings. For now, though, continue to expect nothing from either offense. Stay tuned. 
 
2:24: Does someone want to tell me why a slow, dropback pass is being called on third-and-4? Get Nickson out of the pocket and beyond the tackle box, with a run-pass option. 
 
1:46: Exhale. Almost a blocked punt. 
 
1:05: Uh, oh. Tennessee's O-line blows up VU's defensive front on two straight snaps. This is UT's path to victory—keeping the ball on the ground and gaining good chunks of yards without having to risk a pass.  
 
0:22: Another wipeout by the Vols up front. What's going on here? Simple power football hasn't worked for Phil Fulmer's team all year, and it shouldn't work today. Perhaps, after the early jitters, UT is finally feeling inspired. Whatever the reason for the surge from the Children of the Checkerboard, VU has to stop it immediately. 
 
End of first quarter: VU 0, UT 0. 
 
14:00 left, second quarter: Huge third-and-4 from the VU 27. 
 
13:22: Vandy's defense slow to react. Why aren't the Dores loading the tackle box? 
 
12:03: Still poor tackling from VU. Instead of making a solid stick on B.J. Coleman, three yards short of the marker, the quarterback spins away and gets within a yard of the first down. It's not very complicated: Tackle, stop the run, and don't be expecting a pass anytime soon. Vandy isn't getting the memo on any of those three counts, in what has been a frankly shocking defensive series for the Dores. 
 
11:25: Well, this writer said that Vandy might get intimidated in the first quarter and a half. That's exactly what has happened. Now's precisely the point when Vandy needs to look at its 6-4 record and dig into a deep well of fresh confidence, down 7-0. 
 
10:24: Vandy's offense is AWOL against John Chavis's charges. VU is not about to move the ball. The good news, though, is that Tennessee's offense is not likely to sustain much of anything. Merely staying within seven points—even until halftime—would be okay for this team. 
 
9:40: Well, staying seven down would be more than okay now. Upson shanks a punt that goes out of bounds at the VU 36. 
 
9:30: Pure panic in VandyLand. Tennessee is stuffing the ball down the Dores' throats. I didn't think this was humanly possible, but I have to say it: "This thing could snowball out of control." 
 
8:20: VU finally rises up with two good run stops. Now, a mammoth third-and-goal for the Vols from the 8. A Tennessee touchdown here, and the Dores would be on the ropes… even though it's only the middle of the second quarter. 
 
8:08: Oh, no. Broderick Stewart being helped onto a cart. He's in control of his emotions and seems angry more than distraught—that's a good thing—but he's not coming back into this ballgame. A significant loss for the Dores. Now, everyone else on the VU sideline needs to play with passion, passion that's been lacking up to this point.  
 
7:51: Tennessee has to pass, and unsurprisingly, the Vols look inept again. Big stop from the defense, and very nearly a fumble-producing sack. 
 
7:45: The Vols do get a 10-0 lead, but Vandy avoids total disaster. The Dores have shriveled and shrunk in the face of Tennessee's toughness for a quarter and a half. Now, the ballgame begins anew, and this team's personality has to change against its longtime in-state nemesis. Play calling has to be aggressive again, with Nickson running option plays and looking like a liberated field general. 
 
7:37: Huge return by Josh Allen near midfield. Desperately needed. It has to translate into points.  
 
7:00: Vandy with four total yards so far. 
 
5:56: A sick, sick feeling is coursing through the stomachs of Vandy fans. That snowball scenario has fully arrived. Nickson—after having a third-down conversion wiped out because of a holding penalty—throws an absolutely awful interception (the kind that got wiped out by a Kentucky roughing penalty a week ago) for an Eric Berry pick-six and a 17-0 Tennessee lead. Make no mistake, Vandy is still assured of a bowl game. That's a stone-cold lock. But failing to beat Tennessee at home—this season, this game—will hurt a great deal. 
 
5:29: It's an obvious question, but an unavoidable one: How can the same Chris Nickson who lifted this program past the threshold against Kentucky, in a game that will make Vandy fans eternally grateful, come out of the tunnel the following weekend and look this bad? Chris, you're still a special player in the history of Vandy football—nothing's going to change that. Play with confidence, son. You're too talented to get so down on yourself so quickly. 
 
4:33: I've pinched myself and slapped my face hard. No, I'm not waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. This is all real, and it's a football version of hell. 
 
1:08: Fulmer gives Vandy a mini-lifeline, kicking a field goal instead of trying for a first down. Vandy ball at the 34. A field goal here, and perhaps the emotional dynamics of this game will change. Mackenzi Adams in under center, and Bobby Johnson had no choice, to be brutally honest. 
 
0:41: Adams throws a three-yard pass between the hashes and the numbers, not wide enough to get out of bounds. If you're not going to throw to the sideline, you have to move the sticks. Vandy now forced to use its third and final timeout. Horrible football instincts by Adams. 
 
0:34: Tennessee gives Vandy five free yards, with the Dores not needing to spike the ball. It's now at the UT 33. A good 15 more yards, and VU will be in comfy field goal range. 
 
0:15: Goodness gracious sakes alive. Jamie Graham has a perfect Adams throw (inside the UT 20) bounce right off his hands and into the mitts of a Tennessee defender. A long interception return takes the ball to the Vandy red zone. A promising Dore drive then delivers a dagger. 
 
0:04: Field goal, as Fulmer, with some degree of justification, fears an interception and insists on kicking the ball. 20-0. 
 
Halftime: In first or second grade, I recall reading a book: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. This is Vandy's version of that story. Commodore nation feeling physically ill and mentally numb. 
 
13:25 left, third quarter: Just when Vandy was generating some momentum on its first drive of the second half, a holding flag (again) puts the brakes on the Dores' momentum. 
 
11:55: I'm finally seeing a sense of urgency in the VU huddle. Just 16 yards from paydirt.  
 
11:32: Two near misses to the left corner of the end zone. Timing just a hair off. 
 
11:27: On a third-and-4, that's a good call. On third-and-10, that QB draw is a bad call.  
 
11:07: Points on the board for Vandy, but that's a disappointing drive down 20. Down 17, a field goal would carry much more value. 20-3 UT, and Vandy's defense simply can't be anything less than awesome the rest of the way. Three-and-outs are a must, and at least one turnover will probably need to be plucked at some point. Still 26 minutes of football left, and Tennessee—last time I checked—still doesn't have any passing game whatsoever. Load up the box, fire off the ball, and smother the UT ground attack. Strip the ball, but only when in a pile, and only when the runner has no chance of getting a first down. 
 
10:30: Good. Grief. What else is there to say after a backbreaking UT first down?  
 
7:13: While Tennessee faces a third-and-long, one note: While the Vols have 20 points, do remember that 13 of those points were gift-wrapped by VU's offense and special teams. Even though coordinator Bruce Fowler's defense has allowed UT to run the ball more effectively than many expected, Vandy's "D" has only allowed seven points, in essence. Still not a bad performance from this defense, as horrible as this day has been. 
 
6:03: Not a good time to fire blanks after the previous point-producing drive. Spirits sag in a quiet Vanderbilt Stadium. Just to comfort Vandy fans a bit, North Carolina—playing for a division title—is getting crushed at home by N.C. State. The Dores aren't the only team to suffer as a home favorite in a rivalry game today. 
 
5:00: Turnovers. Gotta force turnovers.  
 
4:20: THERE'S ONE TURNOVER!!!! A PICK-SIX FROM RESHARD LANGFORD! Sweet Fancy Moses, why do you throw the ball if you're Phil Fulmer? Bobby Johnson won't mind. 20-10. Ballgame, anyone? VU can't be celebrating or anything. The Dores just have to ramp up the determination and focus so they can close with a strong 19-minute, 20-second finishing kick here. Down by just 10, victory is attainable. 
 
4:11: Terrible kick coverage at precisely the wrong time. A stack of missed tackles brings the ball near midfield. Sigh. 
 
4:05: Tennessee has to be in mortal fear of throwing the pigskin right now. All running plays, all the time. VU can gamble in playing against the run. If UT beats you with a long pass, just tip the cap.  
 
3:18: Exactly like that, boys. They can't throw, and they don't want to throw. Load up against the run, and UT has no chance. 
 
2:39: The Vols have lost any of the momentum they once had.  
 
1:32: With Tennessee already looking like a team that just wants to hang on for dear life, Vandy has a great opportunity. A touchdown drive here, and even with a three-point deficit, the odds would (gasp!) favor the Dores in the fourth quarter. Mackenzi Adams and the rest of this offense have to stand up and be counted. Right now. 
 
1:25: A dropped pass by Brandon Barden. Not now. We're all imperfect, but good teams have to bring their A-game when they really need to. Vandy still not able to master that art on a consistent basis. 
 
1:15: Go for it, Bobby Johnson. Just half a yard. You have to pull the trigger. C'mon! 
 
0:37: First down. Good move, and good execution on the sneak. Don't drop passes, and make the routine plays.  
 
End of third quarter: Tennessee's probably not going to throw another forward pass in this game, so Vandy can't expect another pick-six. Adams—or perhaps D.J. Moore on a reverse—is going to have to give a spark to this offense. The Dores have misfired on their last nine pass attempts. With just one completion, VU could go to a no-huddle and change the tempo of this contest, but that single completion just isn't happening. 20-10, Tennessee. 
 
Start of fourth quarter: That pass wasn't anywhere close to a receiver. Vandy with only 93 total yards today. And as bad as the Dores have been when they've had the ball, they haven't even needed to do much to stay competitive. The 10 points VU's offense has gifted to UT—on two interceptions—represent the difference in this contest. When you also consider the fact that Jamie Graham—had he not dropped that pass to bring about the day's second interception—would have carried the ball to the UT 15, it can be said that VU turnovers have resulted in a net loss of 13 points: three missed by VU, and 10 given to the Vols. 
 
12:49: More agonizingly bad tackling from the Dores' defense, even though Bruce Fowler's boys have been solid this afternoon. Solid just doesn't cut it when you're down by 10, and that UT first down just bought the Vols two more minutes of clock time. 
 
11:44: Well, make that an additional 65 seconds of clock time, because the Vols cough up the pill and give VU a path toward salvation. Now come on, Mackenzi. This is your season. 
 
11:00: Adams holds onto the ball and takes a crushing sack. For the love of God… 
 
10:35: NOW THERE'S SOMETHING! Adams looks inspired on a bold first-down run. THAT is what a championship play looks like. More of those, please! 
 
10:00: Another bad sack taken. How can there be this many breakdowns and bad decisions on November 22, near the end of the season?! Such a fundamental lack of organization in game No. 11? Just awful. 
 
9:45: Coach Johnson has to put Nickson back in the next offensive series. Not because he has any good options left, but because Nickson—if a play breaks down—can pop off a long run and keep UT's defense honest. What an exasperating stretch. Tennessee gave Vandy multiple chances to make this a close game heading into the final minutes, but the Dores—needing just one good drive on a day when they've been horrible offensively—just can't muster anything.  
 
7:58: Arian Foster rumbles for 20 to the VU 39, and it would appear that the Dores' window of opportunity is gone, barring a turnover that gets returned for a touchdown or something close to it.  
 
5:40: Adams with two good throws. No margin for error, but a good start to this latest drive. 
 
5:01: Sure enough, no consistency. Now third-and-9. 
 
4:57: On third down, any pass has to be placed where a receiver has a chance to catch it. 
 
4:50: On fourth down, Adams stands in and takes the huge hit, while Moore makes the catch to move the sticks in UT territory. Vandy still with life. Credit Adams for a big-time play. He shows the occasional flash of brilliance. Consistency is, as always, the big key. 
 
4:32: Two errant throws to create third-and-10. Up and down. Up and down. From one play to the next, just no reliability from this Vandy offense, particularly under center. What's a coaching staff to do?  
 
4:23: Sean Walker is short of the marker, and with VU having just one timeout in the bag, that's your ballgame, barring a miracle. 
 
4:00: There's really nothing positive to take from this loss. No one expected style points, but there was a hope in Vandy Nation that this team would find a heightened level of maturity and break Tennessee's spirit with superior poise, toughness, and execution in crunch time. It didn't happen, and it didn't even come close to happening. 
 
2:40: One thing can be said for the defeated and deflated Dores: They haven't had to face a psychological situation as complex and as new as the one they faced today. They entered this game against UT as a favorite, and bearing a 6-4 record. At least the Johnson Boys now know what it feels like to have something of a bulls-eye on the back. It's terrible that VU couldn't respond the right way, but at least the Dores did have this experience. At least this team has finally played a game with six wins. At least this team has now tasted the strange sensation of being expected to win, and then falling short. Perhaps this agonizing loss to UT will create the jump in maturity that hasn't yet taken place in the world of Vandy football. 
 
End of game: There's still Wake Forest on the schedule. Time to take the lessons learned today and apply them to the Demon Deacons. 
 
 
 


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