CUTLER'S CARDIAC COMMODORES END VOLS' TWENTY-THREE YEAR DOMINANCE
Saturday, November 19, 2005
It was an overcast, raindy day in Nashville as Vanderbilt quarterback Whit Taylor got into position behind his linemen in the Red Zone.
Though it was the fourth quarter, and though the Commodores were losing to the hated, cross-state rival Tennessee Volunteers, Taylor knew that he and his Black and Gold clad warriors would live to play another day.
Vanderbilt had, with its win over UT-Chattanooga the week before, secured its seventh win and a sure trip to a rare post-season bowl game.
With that knowledge, Taylor knew that it really did not matter whether he and his teammates beat UT.
But in his heart, and in the hearts of thousands upon thousands of Vanderbilt University students, alumni, and fans, defeating the loathsome Orange would be a fitting climax to what had become an historic season.
And with generations of Commodores past and present looking on, Whit Taylor called a quarterback sneak and walked into the end-zone -- and Commodore history.
That heroic day in November 1982 would become a milestone in Vanderbilt football history, marking the beginning of a generation of futility unprecedented in the Southeastern Conference.
For the next twenty years, Vanderbilt would see six head coaches and a combined win-loss record of 72-183 overall (39%), and an unbelieveable 25-142 (17%) in the SEC.
As the program continued to endure a veritable revolving door of head coaches, the Vanderbilt fanbase dwindled down into a small core of dedicated fans and boosters who seemed to support the program despite its mediocrity.
During this long sojourn in the wilderness, Vanderbilt managed to beat all of its SEC opponents at least once, except for their in-state rival, the Volunteers.
The University of Tennessee would not only dominate the series over the next twenty-two years, but it would do so in disgusting fashion.
It was not uncommon for Vanderbilt to be completely unable to score any points against the Vols, and during one particularly gruesome period, Vanderbilt went three years without scoring a single point, while UT hung up almost 100.
As the years passed, Tennessee's dominance over their neighbor to the west became the NCAA's second-longest losing streak, with only Navy having suffered longer at the hands of Notre Dame.
With the advent of Gordon Gee, and his radical yet supportive approach to the Vanderbilt Athletics program as a whole, some Commodore fans saw the potential for resurgence.
Under former Athletics Director Todd Turner, Vanderbilt -- with the approval of Gee and a unanimous Board of Trust -- hired Bobby Johnson, a dark-horse candidate for the position, who came to Nashville from Division I-AA Furman.
Johnson's arrival irked some in the fanbase, who wondered about the commitment of an Administration who dipped into the I-AA to find a head coach for an SEC program.
And after Johnson's first two seasons at the helm of the Commodores' ship, those early critics seemed justified in their doubt.
In 2004, however, during Johnson's third year on West End, things seemed to change, and some in the then largely dormant Commodore Nation wondered if Gee and the Board of Trust might be proven correct in their full-fledged support of the Coach from Carolina.
Though they finished a season that began with talks of a bowl with a disappointing 2-9 (1-7), many commentators noted that a few different plays scattered through the season could have yielded a much different outcome.
Some believed the corner that Commodores fans had been hoping to turn for so many years was finally in sight, and that the dawn of a day of hope and respectability was at hand.
CUTLER AND THE CORNER
As the 2005 season dawned on "the city's west'rn border," Vanderbilt fans looked back to flashes of greatness that they had seen during the previous year and many believed that this could finally be "The Year."
The Commodores showed them that they were right.
After two come-from-behind wins at Wake Forest and at hostile Arkansas engineered by Commodore quarterback and three-year captain Jay Cutler, Vanderbilt had a five-game home stand in front of it, of which three games seemed very winnable.
And Vanderbilt, again under the brillant leadership of Cutler, proceeded to march to a perfect 4-0 start for the first time since 1984.
After a disappointing and morale-crushing loss to perennial antagonist Middle Tennessee State, the Commodores made Top 10 opponents L.S.U. and Georgia sweat before national television audiences.
With bowl hopes still alive, the Commodores' attempt to come from behind in Columbia against Steve Spurrier's newly revived Gamecocks fell just short, leading Vanderbilt into what many supposed would be a rout by Top 20 Florida in the Swamp.
Again before a national television audience, the Commodores flexed their muscle, coming from behind to tie the game, and force over-time. And though Florida finally won in the second over-time period, it was difficult for Commodore fans not to be proud of their valiant Black and Gold.
A tragic loss to Kentucky off yet another attempt at coming-from-behind ended the Commodores' bowl hopes, but Cutler's team was not ready to give up.
ONE LAST COMEBACK
The quickest way to pass into legend in Commodore Country is to defeat Tennessee; doing so in Knoxville secures one's place in glory for years to come.
At halftime, the Commodores led at Neyland Stadium, 21-14, but the Vols seemed to have recaptured their momentum and their confidence.
In the third quarter, the teams traded punts, and Tennessee got itself into position to score in the Fourth.
They did just that, first tying the game, then taking the lead off of a Colquitt field goal.
It was time for Cutler's Cardiac Commodores to work their magic again.
The Vanderbilt leader marched his men 64 yards in 3 plays, and with a 6-yard pass from Cutler to freshman Earl Bennett, the Commodores scored a touchdown and took the lead, 28-24.
With only a minute left in the game, Vanderbilt punted the ball back to the Vols, who quickly moved the ball down the field to the Commodore 16-yard line.
From there, the Vanderbilt defense held off four tries at the endzone. The Vols' had one last chance, with 0:01 left in the game, to secure the win.
In an instant that seemed frozen in time, Commodore cornerback Jared Fagan, a true freshman, intercepted UT quarterback Rick Clausen's final pass to end the game -- and the streak.
It was the first time that Vanderbilt had defeated the Vols in twenty-three years, and the Dores' first win in Neyland Stadium since 1975.
Other Commodore records fell as well:
• It was the first time that Vanderbilt had scored points at Neyland Stadium since 1999;
• It was the Dores' first lead in Knoxville since 1995;
• With the win over UT, Vanderbilt notches three SEC wins for the first time in divisional play, and for the first time since 1982;
• When Vandy went ahead 21-7 in the second quarter, it was the first time that the Dores had seen a double-digit lead in Knoxville since 1987;
• Vanderbilt's 28 points were the most that the Dores have scored in Knoxville since 1987;
• When true freshman Earl Bennett scored the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter, he extended his Southeastern Conference (and Vanderbilt) record number of receptions to 79;
• Senior Commmodore quarterback Jay Cutler ended his Vanderbilt career with more than 20 team records, including total offense (9,658), career touchdown passes (57) and total passing yards (8,697); and
• With 107,487 fans in attendance, it was the largest crowd ever to witness a Vanderbilt win in the history of the program.
The Commodore victory did not take all of the record-breaking spotlight from the Big Orange. With Vanderbilt's victory:
• The Volunteers' hopes for a bowl bid were ended: the first time that Tennessee has not been to a bowl since 1988 -- it was the third-longest streak in the nation;
• Tennessee head coach Philip Fulmer suffered his first loss to Vanderbilt; and
• Regardless of the outcome of next week's game against Kentucky, the Vols will finish behind Vanderbilt in the SEC East for the first time in divisional play.
A SIGNATURE WIN
Like it did a generation ago, today's win over Tennessee will likely mark another milestone in the history of Vanderbilt Football.
Instead of a program mired in defeat and disarray, the Commodores will be able to point toward this season's progress and broaden their recruiting capacity more than any time in the past twenty years.
And it will certainly be difficult for Coach Bobby Johnson's critics to come up with material to continue to urge his removal.
Today's victory over the Volunteers, and one of college football's most winning coaches, seems to suggest that the support and trust placed in Johnson by the Vanderbilt family have been merited.
Johnson understands the significance of the win for himself, his players, and the entire University.
"There are grown men crying in that dressing room," Johnson said. "All the people who have been involved in the series have had it held over their heads a lot. We have said it’s our responsibility to make the series more competitive. I think we just did that."
Like Whit Taylor and the magical season of 1982, the 2005 Commodores today began writing a new chapter in the story of Vanderbilt -- a story whose happy ending seems more certain every day.