Saturday, November 19, 2005

Article: "Vandy ends 22 years of misery, Rocky Top hits rock bottom"

by Matthew Zemek

KNOXVILLE -- Vanderbilt couldn't go to a bowl, so the Commodores made sure Tennessee -- yes, Tennessee -- couldn't go to a bowl, either.

In a game whose outcome was as shocking as it was significant, Vanderbilt — the same team that lost to Middle Tennessee State and Kentucky while missing out on a bowl and a winning record, two goals it frankly should have attained — did manage to win its rivalry game for the first time since 1982 and leave 2005 with one very satisfying and considerable accomplishment.

In a weird and twisted way, it's actually appropriate that this game is the last one for Jay Cutler, because the decorated quarterback will now be able to look back on his college career and point to this moment — clearly the sweetest of his four years in Nashville — as his final memory from a life spent in the SEC.

While the Commodores obviously wanted to play in the Music City Bowl or another game that would have been a big prize for an historically downtrodden program, it's also undeniable that a bowl game would have been anticlimactic compared to this game against the Volunteers.

Indeed, this game was more of a bowl game for Vandy than any official bowl game would have been. That Bobby Johnson's team won in Neyland Stadium only makes this bowl "win" even more special.

Beyond the win itself, this stunning triumph for Vandy was amazing because Cutler and the Commodore offense had been summarily throttled by John Chavis' defense throughout the second half.

After blitzing the Vols with 21 first-half points, Vandy stalled throughout the second 30 minutes of play, as a proud Big Orange defense took total command of the proceedings, enabling an inconsistent offense to spit out a late field goal for a 24-21 lead.

All the anger that fueled Cutler's early dominance evaporated, and Neyland was bathed not only in Orange, but momentum that was flowing squarely in the Volunteers' direction. For all of their considerable struggles in 2005, it seemed hard to believe that Phil Fulmer's boys would lose this game and experience the humiliation of a losing season in Knoxville. The Vols were much worse this season than in recent years that witnessed their own fair share of hardships, but no one thought that Tennessee would be as bad as 5-6.

No one, that is, but Cutler.

When he got his hands on the ball one last time with a buck-thirty-two left and the ball on his own 37, Cutler had one final chance to erase the bad taste of another losing season. One more opportunity to wipe away the frustration of not being able to go to a bowl. And perhaps most importantly, one last opportunity to beat the hated rival from Rocky Top, the team Vanderbilt had not been able to conquer for nearly a quarter-century.

It didn't take long for Cutler to make some history for himself and his program.

With four decisive and gutsy passes to true freshman Earl Bennett — one of which drew a pass interference penalty on the Vols — Cutler guided his team 63 yards to paydirt and a four-point lead.

And while Rick Clausen directed the Vols' offense to the Vandy 11 in the final moments, an ill-advised, clock-draining scramble crippled Tennessee's hopes of victory.

Having had a position of strength earlier in the drive, the Vols instead had to attempt a desperation have from the Commodore 16 with one second left. When a pop-up from Clausen's left arm was intercepted, the deed had been done, and a bowl game more meaningful than a battle with a sixth-place Big Ten team had been won.

Yes, Vanderbilt had beaten Tennessee... in Knoxville.

And that same Tennessee team that was picked by many to be the "UT" team playing USC in the national title game (not UT-Austin) is now a team that won't even go to a bowl.

It will have to beat Kentucky to merely avoid going 4-7 for 2005.

Vanderbilt's season wasn't nearly as special as it could have been; there's no question about that. But after a win against Tennessee in Neyland Stadium, those other frustrations just won't seem to matter very much when these Vanderbilt players look back on this season 25 and 50 years later.

When today's Commodores tell their children and grandchildren about their 2005 season, they'll talk about what just happened on an afternoon in Knoxville: by any and all objective standards — record, head-to-head matchup, and bowl game fortunes — Vanderbilt became better than Tennessee. The little ones might not believe it, but their daddies and granddaddies will be telling the truth.

Editors note: You'd better believe that I will be one of those telling my children -- who will be legacies at VU? -- all about the day I watched Vandy beat Yew Tee. This article was quoted from; to read my thoughts on the history and the meaning of today's win, see the post below, "Vanderbilt Beats Tennessee 28-24." ~DB


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