There For the Taking

Vanderbilt's season has fallen short of expectations through the first month of competition, but if Saturday's romp over Rice is any indication, there's still a chance for Bobby Johnson's bunch to "turn over" a new leaf… literally.

It is the subject of turnovers themselves that affords Vandy a path toward redemption as October comes across the calendar. While it's true that the Commodores found big-play lightning on offense this past weekend in Houston, the true takeaway from this tussle in the heart of Texas is that Vandy's defense can't just register defensive stops; the VU crew must become a bunch of ballhawking fools.

Don't let the visitors' 36-point showing at Rice Stadium fool you. Through roughly 40 minutes of game action, this cross-regional rumble stood at 10 points apiece. Rice might have been 0-3, but a plucky assemblage of Owls didn't embarrass themselves the week before at Oklahoma State. Much as Florida State coach Bobby Bowden ("They're a lot better than I thought…") clearly underestimated South Florida this past weekend, it appeared that the Dores—despite their face-plant against Mississippi State the week before—might have taken Rice a little too lightly. An offense that needed to show some life was stuck in the mud of mediocrity once again. It's instructive to point out, then, that when the Dores needed someone to light their fire, it was the defense that got the show rolling in the Lone Star State.

This 10-all deadlock—and with it, the perilous prospect of an all-too-real defeat—was broken when Vandy's Eddie Foster picked off Rice quarterback Ryan Lewis to set up the Johnson Boys in scoring territory. Larry Smith and Co. didn't do anything with the possession, but a Ryan Fowler field goal to nudge the visitors in front. It might not have seemed like much at the time, but that sequence quickly proved to play a central role in Vandy's surge over the last 20 minutes of regulation time.

As we learned in other marquee games from week four of the college football season, a little bit of timely pressure, in one direction or another, so frequently marks the difference between success and failure. Every team will make mistakes and at least a few big plays; the secret to Saturday happiness on the college gridiron is to strike decisively when an opponent is vulnerable, and to similarly find a positive turning point when getting outplayed.

Oregon struck before Cal knew what was happening, and when the Bears gained a gift turnover from the Ducks in the second quarter, they handed the ball right back to Oregon, and a rout commenced in Eugene. Miami was on the warpath in a comeback attempt at Virginia Tech, but a dropped 3rd and 13 pass in the Hokie red zone permanently derailed the Hurricanes' momentum, preventing Miami from turning up the heat on a Virginia Tech squad that was beginning to sweat bullets. Texas Tech had Houston on the ropes, but precisely when one mistake-free drive would have likely crushed the upstart Cougars, Tech spilled the rock and allowed Houston to work its way back into the fray, ultimately winning in the final minute of regulation. In moments of strength, one must maximize; in moments of weakness, one must seize renewed leverage whenever it's there for the taking… taking, as in snatching a turnover to flip the football script.

Rice was taking the fight to Vandy midway through the third quarter. Foster's precious pick gave this muddling and middling ballclub something to rally behind; more importantly, it began to rattle Rice's quarterbacks. With the Owls' offense fully grounded and the scoreboard once again leaning in the Dores' favor (even if it was only 13-10, it was better than a tense 10-all tussle), a small but meaningful amount of confidence began to flow to VU's offensive huddle. This change in the tenor of this tilt was cemented when Smith finally tossed a big-play dagger that Vandy's coaching staff's been waiting for—a 54-yard bolt to receiver Udom Umoh—that led to a touchdown and a two-possession lead at 20-10. When running back Warren Norman romped 58 yards to paydirt just minutes later, the Rice Stadium scoreboard read 27-10, and all was (reasonably) well in Vandyland.

Yes, the offense found some home-run heft and long-ball brilliance, but it was Eddie Foster's interception and the increased pressure applied by coordinator Bruce Fowler's defense that truly turned this game around. In the wars of the SEC that loom ahead, it won't be enough to bottle up an opposing offense; with Smith and Co. likely to still struggle, VU will need to produce points based on a kick-start from Fowler's forces. By pouncing on opportunities given by reckless quarterbacks and inattentive running backs from opposing teams, Vanderbilt can still make something of a campaign that stands on shaky ground. This season—like the eight games left in it—is there for the taking.

Vandy became appropriately and successfully greedy against Rice; now the Dores must cook up more instant avarice if they want to produce a credible showing over the next two months.

Photo by Stan Jones.

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