Beaten, But Not Wrecked

The Rambling Wreck from Georgia Tech exacted a toll on the Vanderbilt Stadium scoreboard Saturday night, but as strange as it may sound, a 56-31 loss didn't do damage to the Commodores themselves.

Call this an extreme instance of glass-half-full sunshine pumping if you must. It would be understandable to perceive as much after the Dores endured a 25-point tail kicking at the hands of Paul Johnson's finely-tuned offense, the same offense that gave Bobby Johnson fits when Georgia Southern played Furman. This all-Johnson joust, reminiscent of Division I-AA days for the two coaches, stood at a stalemate after 30 minutes, but when an hour of game time had run its course in Nashville, an all-Paul pallor was cast over Bobby, not to mention the larger proceedings themselves.

You know the story: Vanderbilt, up against the No. 11 team in the United States, went into the locker room for the intermission locked in a 28-28 tie. In a first half filled with haymakers, the Dores actually dealt blows as frequently and as effectively as they received them. In the second half, however, one set of Johnson Boys from Nashville couldn't keep up with a collection of cousins from Atlanta.

In a second half that produced as many points—28 of them—as the first, the Yellow Jackets unleashed the diversity of their arsenal, which held sway from start to finish but found multiple ways to score. Usually stuffing the ball down Vandy's gut but sometimes breaking out the pass with devastating effects, Tech became the first team—and, it should quickly be noted, very likely the only one—to truly undress coordinator Bruce Fowler's defense in 2009.

Rushing for 404 yards (12 more than Oregon gained against USC, as a point of comparison) and accumulating 597 total yards, the Jackets—who are virtually impossible to prepare for without at least one bye week—simply used the resources at their disposal and deployed them with enough deftness that Vanderbilt couldn't ever clamp down. There's a reason for the "(11)" next to Georgia Tech's place on a score sheet or a game recap page. Paul Johnson took his winning formula from Georgia Southern to Navy, and gained almost-instant results despite manifest recruiting limitations. Now at Georgia Tech, in a power conference, "the other Johnson" has quickly risen to the top of the ACC and has his team poised to make a BCS bowl.

It should be clear, then, that Vanderbilt got waxed by a team worthy of high national acclaim. No shame in getting beat by a first-rate football team; that's part of the reason why Tech wrecked the scoreboard on Halloween night, but not the spirits of the VU crew.

Against most teams—particularly those from the SEC—giving up 32.17 yards per pass completion would be absolutely unacceptable. Yet, against a Georgia Tech juggernaut that just doesn't throw very often, it's hard to be ready when quarterback Josh Nesbitt "breaks the bone," so to speak, and abruptly darts backward into the pocket after beginning to simulate a sideways-flowing option play. Tech's tricky yet fundamentally-rooted offensive variations threw a nasty curveball to the Commodores' back line of defense, and that's why Nesbitt could complete just six passes, but for 193 yards and two touchdowns. Against Georgia Tech—especially with just one week of preparation—getting cut up by Nesbitt and the rest of a clicking, clear-headed, and crisply-organized offense just isn't a football sin.

Or at least, it shouldn't be thought of in such a fashion.

Conceding 56 points can't be considered a good effort, but when one also realizes that Tim Tebow and Florida (VU's next opponent) aren't half as good as Nesbitt's thermonuclear forces, this October-ending loss becomes easier to shrug off. Vandy's defense knows this was a one-of-a-kind opponent that tore through town. As long as Oregon doesn't also enter a future Commodore schedule, VU's defense should be fine in coping against the competition.

All this talk about the visiting team's pyro-Technics obscures one other important reason why this loss shouldn't shred Vandy's collective psyche: Yeah, the Dores had what was by far their best offensive performance of the season.

You saw Larry Smith lead a superb touchdown drive before going down with an injury. You saw Mackenzi Adams average 12.7 yards per completion and avoid any interceptions. You saw Zac Stacy tear off a 62-yard touchdown run in a first half that produced 21 offensive points. True, the second half fizzled, but one really good half of offensive football is more than the number of good halves Ted Cain's collection had previously produced in 2009.

Yeah, that's right: Saturday night's game marked the first truly good half of offensive football against an FBS opponent. Vandy was dandy against Western Carolina on Opening Night, but the Catamounts naturally hail from the FCS. Even though the Commodores absorbed a numerical beatdown at the hands of Georgia Tech, the ability to establish any kind of consistency on offense—which had to rate as the number one priority for this program before the end of the regular season—makes this game at least a partial success.

The road back to winning ways—which will hopefully reach its intended destination in 2010—wasn't going to become a primrose path in the remaining weeks of 2009, but it did need to see some firm and forceful forward steps. Despite the unappealing look and feel of a losing "56-31" scoreline, it really is true that Vandy and Bobby Johnson achieved a meaningful goal in this game. If an offense that existed in no man's land can continue to make its presence felt in the remaining three weeks, the Dores and their coaching staff will know that they might have two sides of the ball, two whole units, who can compete successfully in 2010.

Bobby Johnson—frustrated so often by Paul Johnson when at Furman—just might wind up thanking his old adversary in the longer run of Vanderbilt football history. Wreckage at the hands of Georgia Tech might wind up feeling less negative—and more beneficial—than anyone can currently imagine.

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