Sunday, November 20, 2005

Another article: "Fate finally falls on Vanderbilt"

by Chris Lee

KNOXVILLE -- I'll admit it -- I didn't really want to go.

I thought of a million reasons to say "no" when, late last night, a friend asked me to get media credentials and accompany him to Knoxville.

The question was how to justify my "no." There were plenty of reasons. I'd just spent the whole fall traveling and wanted to rest. There's an enormous pile of leaves in yard that needs attention. And I would have to find someone to take my dogs for a night.

But those weren't the real reasons I didn't want to go.

When time ran out on a winning season against Kentucky a week ago, I already knew how Saturday would end.

And I sure didn't want to travel three hours to see it.

It's not because I'm not down on Bobby Johnson, his staff, or his team. While some had soured on Johnson after a six-game losing streak, I remembered the train-wreck-of-a-team he inherited from Woody Widenhofer.

At Vanderbilt, you simply don't rebuild a program in two or three years a la Oklahoma, Nebraska, or LSU, and in year four, there were undoubtedly some signs of progress.

Nor am I superstitious. I could juggle 13 black cats underneath a ladder without losing sleep. The old Cubs Curse of the Billy Goat? Give me a break!

But Vanderbilt football is... well, just inexplicably different. The Bermuda Triangle has nothing on Vandy in the way of mystery. It's not just the number of ways that the Commodores can lose, but also the sheer improbability of those ways.

Remember the infamous 1982 game in which Stanford lost to Cal when their band stormed the field on a kickoff? Perhaps more shocking than the play itself is the fact that Vandy didn't invent this particular collapse first.

And after all, the Vols are the anti-Vanderbilt, winning games with the frequency and improbability in which the Commodores have lost them. Remember Clint Stoerner? in 1998? How about the infamous Gator Head Slap a year ago? And I won't even go into the staggering number of hearbreaks the Vols have dished out to Vandy over the years.

But I said "yes" anyway. "It's a good chance to spend some time with a good friend," I told myself as I packed my bags and left Nashville late last night.

Fast-forward to Saturday afternoon.

When the Commodores watched an inept UT offense turn a 14-point deficit into a three-point lead, I knew it was over.

Was this Vandy team good enough to win? Sure, but that was beside the point. Something would happen -- an ill-timed turnover to stop a drive, a blocked kick, a blown coverage. Perhaps a phantom holding call or even an excessive celebration penalty. If all else failed, maybe a meteor would fall from the sky and smite Jay Cutler, or a pack of wild dogs would storm the field and tear Earl Bennett limb-from-limb.

Sure enough, it happened. With star kicker Bryant Hahnfelt already injured while making a tackle ("Only at Vanderbilt," I thought), linebacker Moses Osemwegie and safety Reshard Langford –- perhaps Vandy's two best tacklers -– both went down (at the same time, no less) just before a late-game third-and-short play.

If the Commodores couldn't stop the Vols with those two in the game, how would they do it now?

Sure enough, the improbable became the inevitable. But this time, there were some twists.

There was Jared Fagan -– a third string cornerback -- making a tackle on UT star Arian Foster to force a fourth-and-one punt and keep Vandy's hopes alive.

There was Kyle Keown –- who lost his job to Hahnfelt earlier in the season –- hitting a big late-game punt.

There was Patrick Johnson -– the same kicker who couldn't even hit a simple extra point last season -– nailing an extra point on Vandy's final TD. This meant the Vols would have to play for a touchdown on the game's final possession.

There was Bill Robertson -– a walk-on -- coming in cold and booming the ensuing kickoff into the end zone.

And finally, there was Fagan again, intercepting a Rick Clausen pass in the end zone to seal the deal after Herdley Harrison and Andrew Pace -– two players who didn't even play their current positions a year ago –- applied pressure to force the throw.

And if things in Knoxville weren't surreal enough, I heard this gem from a Vol fan filing out of a very quiet Neyland Stadium: "Johnny Majors wouldn't have lost that game!"

I wasn't alone in my disbelief. "Hey Chris, I'm at the DC airport just coming back from a business trip to Europe," came the voice mail message from a friend. "I just happened to check Yahoo sports to see the score, and I had to call my wife to make sure I wasn't hallucinating or that Yahoo got the score wrong. I can't believe it."

Believe it.

So this team lost to Kentucky and MTSU. So they didn't give Commodore fans a bowl game for Christmas. Who cares!

They gave them something better than that: proof that just when all hope seems lost, good times –- and perhaps even better times for Vandy football -– are a lot closer than we ever knew.

Editor's Note: This article is from To read my thoughts about the big game, see my post below, "Vanderbilt beats Tennessee 28-24." ~DB


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