Vanderbilt: A Story of Internal Struggle

Sorry for the late posting!  Life got in the way this week...

Respect is really the key to a great college football rivalry.  We certainly don't like Alabama, but for the most part, we respect their program.  With Vanderbilt...there's no respect.  There's not even any big brother, little brother rivalry going on for Vol fans...we are supposed to beat Vanderbilt and it shouldn't even be close.  Sometimes the 'Dores refuse to comply and they make it unnecessarily stressful, but at the end of the day, the outcome is generally the matter how plucky or feisty Vandy is, the Vols (almost) always win.

I think the above is the prevailing sentiment among the majority of the UT fanbase.  For me, though, it was always a bit different.  My mom went to Vanderbilt, and while this didn't make me bleed black and gold by any stretch of the imagination, I would quietly root for them when they played Alabama, Florida, and other teams that I despised.  When the Vols and 'Dores played, though, my loyalties were never in question.  I can't say the same for my mother, however.  I distinctly remember sitting next to her during one of the Peyton Manning games (1995, I think) and SCREAMING at her, somehow convinced that she was secretly cheering for Vandy and keeping it close (while Peyton was famously unable to beat Florida, he struggled badly against Vanderbilt, too).  She would always assure me that she'd been to many more UT games than Vanderbilt games, but I'm not sure I believed her!

The subliminal mind tricks might not have worked on football, but they did on me.  When it came time to pick a school, I went to Vanderbilt. Adding Vanderbilt as my other team was convenient in some ways (I could still hate all the same teams I grew up hating), but it made me feel much more conflicted on that one November Saturday for one simple reason: Vanderbilt students/fans really despise UT.  While I think I understood this at a high level before going to Nashville, I'm not sure I internalized the intensity of the ire until I got there.  Believe me when I tell you that it's serious!

Anyway, now that you know all about my life, let's move on to some specific games!

The bad: Similar to the opponents I've reviewed over the last couple of weeks, as a UT fan, there's only one game from the last 25+ years that can go on this list.  By the time we reached the Vanderbilt game in 2005, I think we'd pretty much given up.  Sure, at 4-5 it was likely we'd win out and go to a low-level bowl game, but the season started with legitimate national championship aspirations.  We did not embark on that season's journey to end up in the Music City Bowl.  By Vanderbilt standards, it had been a rough season, as well.  A promising 4-0 start was derailed by a home loss to MTSU (on a blocked FG on the game's final play, no less), kicking off a 6-game losing streak and keeping the bowl-less streak alive.  Hope, that flighty temptress, had been given to us students and fans only to be snatched away.

But not all was terrible.  One of the greatest things about being a Vanderbilt student was having the entire week of Thanksgiving off.  One of my Vandy friends, John, and I loaded in the car in Nashville on Friday afternoon and headed to Knoxville to hang out for the week.  On Saturday morning, we went to a brunch at the Convention Center hosted by the Vanderbilt Alumni Association.  I dutifully wore my Vanderbilt hoodie and enjoyed the breakfast.  On the way to the stadium, I added a Tennessee hat to my ensemble and away we went.  John and I sat in my parents seats in section Y8 and watched the game unfold.

What I had already forgotten about this game was that Vanderbilt jumped out to a 21-7 lead on the strength of a couple of Jay Cutler to Marlon White touchdown passes.  What I did remember was that before we all hated Arian Foster, he was the shining light at the end of a terrible season.  On his way to 40 carries and 223 yards, he scored a couple of touchdowns to bring the Vols back to even at the start of the 4th quarter.  When the Vols got a FG on their next drive, it looked like they would yet again escape Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt tried to give the game away.  They went nowhere on their next 2 drives and had to punt it away.  But Tennessee also did not want to win, failing on consecutive drives to get a 1st down and run the clock out.  And then suddenly, Jay Cutler and Earl Bennett wrote themselves into Vanderbilt lore.  Taking over on their own 37 yard line with 1:40 to go, Cutler found Bennett for 15 yards.  And then they did it again for 31 yards.  And then Tennessee interfered with Earl Bennett.  And on 1st and goal from the 6, Cutler squeezed in a slant route to Bennett to put the Commodores ahead.  I've seen some crazy things in Neyland, but I don't know that I've ever heard a more stunned crowd than at that moment.

Rick Clausen tried to save the Vols.  He passed and scrambled the Vols all the way down to the 16 yard line in the final seconds.  After a scramble, a delay of game, 2 incomplete passes, and an interception in the end zone on the game's final play, it was over.  Vanderbilt had won.  100,000 fans were shocked.  Tennessee players were throwing helmets.  On my friend John's first trip into a real college stadium, he'd seen 23 years of misery come to an end (and almost got into it with a UT fan sitting next to us for shaking his gold shaker, too).  It's unbelievable to me to this day that this game happened and that I was there.

The good: 2 years later, a similar game played out with a lot more on the line for the Vols.  The Vols needed to win out for the SEC Championship game.  Vanderbilt was 5-5 and just needed one more win to go to a bowl game for the first 1982.  And for 3 quarters, it appeared that they were going to get there.  The Vols were playing terribly, highlighted by Vanderbilt's touchdown with less than a minute before the half, Ainge fumbling on the first snap afterwards, and Vanderbilt getting another 3 points before the half.

They came right back out after halftime and piled on another 7 points.  Vanderbilt was up 24-9 and John was so sure he was going to go 2-0 in Neyland.  I believed him until Vanderbilt made one stupid mistake: roughing a Colquitt.  Don't ever rough a Colquitt.  I could feel the groundswell of energy at that moment as the stadium came alive...I felt at that moment that Tennessee was going to win.

A touchdown, another touchdown with a failed 2-point conversion, and a FG put the Vols ahead 25-24 with less than 3 minutes to go.  The 2007 team never made things easy, though, and DJ Moore returned the ensuing kickoff into Tennessee territory.  Vanderbilt drove down to the 31 yard line and stalled out, being forced to try a long field goal.  Bryant Hahnfeldt had some big kicks while at Vanderbilt, but this wasn't one of them...the kick drifted left and drifted left and drifted left and hit off the outside of the goal post, keeping the Vols' championship hopes alive.

Poor's a good thing they have 2005 to look back on because after being unable to beat a terrible 2008 team and probably being unable to beat another down Tennessee team tonight, it's going to be a while before they get another win.  Oh well...go Vols!  Go 'Dores (don't hate me)!

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