October 6, 2008

Views from Saturday's sidelines

Here's a view from the sidelines of Vanderbilt's exciting 14-13 win over No. 13 ranked Auburn Saturday.

Winning the old fashioned way
Vanderbilt's 5-0 has been achieved the old fashioned way: Defense and special teams. While Auburn fans and media rightly criticize the Tigers' awful offensive production, Vanderbilt's defense has shut down everything thrown at them this season. They did nothing but raise the bar on Saturday.

After watching Auburn average over 10 yards a carry in the first quarter, Vanderbilt held the Tigers to an eye-popping eight yards on the ground for the entire remainder of the game. Despite their obvious deficiencies at the quarterback position, Ben Tate is a formidable foe who can single-handedly run over even the biggest linebacker.

Not on Saturday. Time and again, Vanderbilt's defense swarmed all over Tate. Not only did the group sniff out almost every move Tate wanted to make, they hit with a power rarely seen on West End.

Toe to toe in talent
The last time Vanderbilt was in this position, I watched them get blown off the field by a Mississippi State team that was clearly in a completely different league in terms of size, strength and speed. Last night, it was Auburn that could not control the line of scrimmage.

One thing is now completely obvious: the talent gap between Vanderbilt and the rest of the SEC is no more. Standing on both sidelines, I could compare and contrast -- and there simply was no contrast. On the lines, in the secondary and on special teams, the Commodore recruiting and redshirting plan has clearly put VU in the hunt for an SEC title.

Corso not so happy on the sidelines
ESPN College GameDay co-host Lee Corson won the ire of Vanderbilt fans by tossing the Commodore mascot's head to the side and picking Auburn to win Saturday. As Vanderbilt's defense strengthened down the stretch, Corso grew noticeably more irritated
as he saw his curse again come true.

After Vanderbilt took the lead in the fourth quarter, Corso turned to his co-host Lee Fowler with a frustrated stare. Fowler, loving the moment, pointed to the scoreboard with a smile...which Corso did not appreciate.

At the end, of course, Corso praised Vanderbilt and coach Bobby Johnson in a gracious post-game interview.

I chatted with Fowler on the sidelines as VU appeared to take control late in the game. Fowler admitted that he was very impressed and surprised with how VU really made the comeback stand, and said he had a great time in Nashville. While he said they had obviously been in front of many much larger crowds, the entire staff recognized the unique atmosphere of Vanderbilt, the beautiful VU campus, and the great city of Nashville.

I also spent some time talking with the lead ESPN videographer prior to the game. He said they had a blast this week. "It's great to come to a city, he said. "Usually we go to these college towns where there's nothing there but the campus. What a great city Nashville is! We spent time at the Ryman, the Hall of Fame, and lots of other places."

I then noticed his yellow T-shirt, bearing the Pancake Pantry logo. "I see you had breakfast, eh?", I said with a smile. "Yeah, and some of the players were there, too," he said. Look for some impromptu interviews later in the week, as the GameDay crew prepares for next week's Texas-Oklahoma game.

Pinch me
I had the chance to spend a little time with several families at the Star Walk. John Stoke's family was proud to admit that a family member spent the night at The Commons so they could get their "Got Stokes?" sign front and center for Friday's GameDay broadcast. Likewise, Thomas Welch's family was all smiles as they recalled seeing their son being interviewed on ESPN for the pregame wind-up.

"We didn't even know he was on until this morning," said the elder Welch with a huge grin.

Kudos to Mack
While Mackenzi Adams has endured playing second fiddle to starter Chris Nickson for the last three seasons, the junior stepped up to the plate last night and delivered the gutsiest, grittiest performance of his career.

While Mac still had several off-target throws and one nearly-disastrous fumble down the stretch, his touchdown pass to Brandon Barden was the stuff of legends. While under enormous pressure, Adams waved for Barden to find the back of the end zone. Adams then threw a bullet off his back foot to the only spot that only Barden could find.

For a moment, it appeared as though Jay Cutler had somehow managed to slip his way back onto Dudley Field to pull a second coming of his TD pass to Earl Bennett to defeat Tennessee.

Star Walk
The atmosphere around the Star Walk was something to behold. While big state schools like Auburn, Alabama, Florida and LSU clearly have bigger numbers, the special-ness of Vanderbilt was just that Saturday on that short walk between the McGugin Center and the Stadium tunnel.

Many young and old VU fans crowded into every square inch around the sidewalk, cheering and chanting as they waited for the VU players to emerge in one long single file line. While I certainly do sometimes wish VU was "more like" its SEC bretheren, Saturday's pregame showed me that different is sometimes better.

Auburn sidelines should be ashamed
While I certainly don't expect to be treated with kid gloves by visitors on the opposing sidelines, Auburn's general sideline attitude Saturday left much to be desired.

First, Auburn's players and coaches routinely ordered sideline photographers to move even out of the prescribed areas for the media so they could essentially take over the entire territory to practice kicks and long snaps. At one point, a long snapper actually grazed a photographer's lens with a hiked ball, and responded with a glare and curse.

In the second quarter, a security guard politely but firmly repeated a request for the Auburn cheerleaders to move back away from the field, to make room for the media. A big oaf male cheerleader snapped off a smart remark about Dudley Field being "a high school stadium." While I pride myself in not interacting with visitors, that comment on that particular day got the best of me. I turned and said, "If you don't like it here, leave."

The cheerleader, clearly shocked that someone confronted him, stood silently. Then, he muttered an insult, to which I responded, "Seriously. You don't have to be here!" He then said, "I would rather be at Auburn," to which I responded, "You're welcome to go home."

More was said, which I shall not repeat. But I admit I succumbed to my lesser angels after the game, and he stood stunned on the Dudley turf. "Not so bad for a high school stadium, eh?," I remarked. If looks could kill...

Game ball to Upson
Prior to the game, I predicted that this would be a low-scoring defensive battle that would ultimately be decided by special teams mistakes. I was right.

In the end, Auburn's missed extra point proved to be the margin of victory for VU. That, coupled with another perfect performance by VU punter Brett Upson allowed VU just enough room to eke out a win. Upson's booming coffin corner kick - and Alan Strong's stellar stick at the three yard line - proved to be the difference.

John Ingram has his day
It's no secret that the Ingram family has almost single-handedly led the financial way for VU athletics over the last two decades. Following in his father Bronson's footsteps, John Ingram has put his money where his mouth is time and again.

This past week, John graciously hosted Chris Lee and I for lunch at his West End office. We recounted many memorable moments over the last few years, including baseball, basketball and of course football.

At the end of our lunch, John asked Chris and I to come up to his office. "I want to show you guys something," he said slyly. Chris and I of course were happy to oblige. After stepping into his office, John proudly turned us around to view a nearly life-sized photograph of his young son standing in the end zone of Dudley Field donning a Denver Broncos Cutler jersey, watching a Vandy game in the distance.

"That's your photo, Mike," he said, smiling with pride. Gotta admit, it made me feel pretty good, too.

David Williams is the glue and the oil
Make no mistake about it: Vice Chancellor David Williams should get most of the credit for what has happened around VU athletics over the last five years. Vanderbilt is the only Division 1 school to have a top 20 baseball, men's and women's basketball and football program.

After the game I was editing photos for our post-game stories, and Williams was saying his goodbyes to friends and boosters. I called him over to take a look at some of my more memorable photos, including a series of close-ups of Alex Washington's victory celebration. David smiled and quietly said, "The kids, they are so happy!"

He also said he called his former boss Gordon Gee to rib him about VU getting GameDay over the Buckeyes.

"You are the reason for this," I said. Williams, of course, deferred. "Lots of people are playing a part." Then, he turned to leave and said over his shoulder:

"And we aren't done. We've just begun."

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