Northwestern Review: A Blow To The Head

Well, the memories of 2008 must feel even more distant right now. Saturday night's 23-21 loss to Northwestern felt like a kick to the teeth, a punch to the gut, or… well… a blow to the head.

Speaking of a blow to the head, let's go back to the video tape and check out these videos. First, Vandy linebacker Jay Fullam's hit on Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa in the final minutes of Saturday's Academic Powerhouse Bowl in Nashville:

Gee, looks like a solid hit from the side at a 90-to-105-degree angle in which a good portion of Persa's shoulder pad got whacked. Maybe there was a glancing blow to the helmet if you had a different video angle, but the shoulder area received the first thrust of contact. Moreover, notice how the official BEHIND THE PLAY is the one who threw the flag. What really defines the issue for me, though, is the sideways angle of the hit. That's clearly an example of a player pursuing a ballcarrier to make an urgent tackle in a late-game situation.

If you want to see what a real blow to the head looks like, try this video from late Thursday night's week-one football action:

Michael Morgan of USC is clearly headhunting in this vicious cheap shot against Hawaii quarterback Bryant Moniz. Each of the three looks at this play suggest little if any attempt on Morgan's part to re-calibrate the direction of his shot. Realize that Moniz was running in the open field and made no substantial juke move before the hit was delivered. Morgan sized up Moniz and plainly failed to exercise due restraint (or directional care) in the administration of force. That hit would have drawn a suspension and a mid-five-figure fine (at minimum) in the NFL.

No flag was thrown.

Yes, this two-point loss to Northwestern was as painful as the blow to the head Jay Fullam did NOT deliver to Dan Persa. Even the Northwestern loyalists who came down from Evanston, Illinois, to watch this game in person would be hard-pressed to think they saw a proper call in the dying moments of a thrilling yet predictably uneven season opener for both teams. Yet, while Vandy got jobbed in a moment of significance, there are plenty of things the Commodores could have done to avoid a position of peril against the Wildcats.

The VU crew could have made an extra point and not butchered a late 2-point try. Quarterback Larry Smith came up with an encouraging performance, but his interception robbed the Dores of momentum. The drive that had Vandy poised to take an 18-17 lead (when Ryan Fowler barely missed his 46-yard field goal attempt midway through the fourth quarter) was blunted by a sack at the worst possible time.

Robbie Caldwell coached a really good game on Saturday. He got his team to perform at a level which exceeded a lot of people's expectations. Yet, Caldwell easily could have resisted the temptation to chase an extra point late in the third quarter, with his team down 17-15 and having just scored a touchdown. A lot of game-management students will tell you that you don't go for two in a two-point game until the final 8-10 minutes of a game. It might not be psychologically comfortable to be down by one point on the scoreboard in the final minutes of the third quarter, but when you realize that being down by one enables you to stay in the game if your opponent scores seven points, the outlook should change considerably.

It's worth saying, then: Had Caldwell not chased that extra point late in the third quarter, VU would have been in position to kick a PAT for a 23-23 tie. No, this was not a brutally bad decision. It's fair to contend that since point production is not a guarantee for Vanderbilt under any circumstances whatsoever, Caldwell stood on solid logical ground when he tried to attain a tie with just under 17 minutes remaining in regulation. It's credible and reasonable to think that Vandy was not assured of scoring again; hence, the decision by Commodore Caldwell. Let's realize, though, that the bogus call on Fullam was preceded by a lot of pendulum-swinging sequences.

Finally, let's also note – with the intellectual sobriety befitting two distinguished academic institutions from Illinois and Tennessee – that even if Vandy had gotten the ball back, the Dores still faced the burden of having to mount a long drive (in all likelihood) without timeouts and set up a field goal, which is an anything-but-certain prospect for this team… not just this year, but in larger historical terms.

The moral of the story is the same as it's always been: If you're going to get hosed by a call, be in a position on the scoreboard where you will still enjoy leverage.

So, let the venting continue for 24 more hours. Expunge the legitimate and rightful outrage from the blown call on Jay Fullam.

Now, let's move on and acknowledge the need to tighten things up on the field and not allow the pain of this loss to cripple the locker room atmosphere.

It would be a shame if this loss drags down morale on the team, because this was frankly a very solid performance from the boys in black.

Caldwell and offensive coordinator Jimmy Kiser did a nice job of shifting between vertical and horizontal pass routes. They would at times stretch Northwestern wide and wear out the flat, but then hit a 12- to 15-yard intermediate route in the middle third of the field. Jonathan Krause really emerged for VU as a result of the horizontal passing approach, while tight end Brandon Barden – doing what Austin Monahan had hoped to do – provided balance and ballast for Larry Smith by getting into the middle of the field. This threw Northwestern out of alignment in the second half and turned VU's offense into an entirely credible yard-eating force. It took Tim Fugger's caused fumble to finally jump-start Vandy's offense late in the first half, but once Smith and Co. got that pick-me-up, they found some things that – if sustained – will serve them well for the rest of 2010. There's a lot more hope for the coming weeks than many had a right to think.

The defense, which did make Persa look very good, was still quite resilient. When an opposing quarterback goes 19-for-22 and runs wild in the fourth quarter, you'd expect a lot more than 23 points to be conceded. Yet, Vandy's front four outplayed a veteran Northwestern offensive line, showing the same physicality and grit that defined the VU program in the Bobby Johnson years. If there were any doubts that Johnson-style resilience would drift away under Commodore Caldwell, those doubts were expunged on Saturday.

This loss was indeed a blow to the head (that wasn't), the kind of "how-are-we-going-to-lose-next-time" cartoon-raincloud special which always seems to visit bewildered Vandy fans each season. Okay, we get it.

When you peel back that outer layer of woe-is-me frustration, however, one should realize that Vandy played pretty darn well as a shorthanded team on Saturday. More performances like this, minus a few kicking-game misadventures and other select slip-ups, will win a lot more than the two games many pundits predicted for the Dores this fall.

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