Thursday, January 1, 2009

Fifty-three years in the making: Vanderbilt beats Boston College in the Music City Bowl

For the first time since 1955, and for only the second time in the 118 years of intercollegiate varsity football at Vanderbilt University, the Vanderbilt Commodores are bowl champions after beating the Boston College Eagles 16-14 in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl in Nashville.

And the game could not have been more emblematic of this roller-coaster season to remember.

Larry Smith made his first collegiate start in Vanderbilt's bowl game against Boston College. Photo by Vanderbilt Athletics.
The Commodores started with a strong showing, with redshirt-freshman Larry Smith getting his first collegiate start and moving what had become a moribund Vanderbilt offense down the field with relative ease.

The offense's early-game success was marred, however, by an inability to score touchdowns -- which turned out to be foreshadowing of how the rest of the game would develop.

The defense came out strong as well, holding Boston College scoreless until a touchdown late in the second quarter.

As 54,250 iced-but-loud fans (52,250 of which were wearing Black-and-Gold) looked on and shivered, the Commodore offense slowly seemed to seek parity with the outdoor temperature. Despite their red-hot start, the Men from West End hit a brick wall in the second quarter.

Boston College's seventh-ranked defense swarmed around Vanderbilt as they attempted to get a running game started, and three-and-outs plagued the home team.

At halftime, there was a distinct mood of unease amongst the Commodore faithful as a gnawing sense of inevitable collapse loomed throughout LP Field.

They'd seen this game before. They knew how this story ended. Vanderbilt would fight the good fight, valiantly strive and put on a good show, but victory would remain just out of reach. The devastating feeling of utter failure would return for the twenty-seventh consecutive season.

The Commodores, with all their alumni and fans, would be losers, once again.

* * *

It wasn't until a surreal special teams play, orchestrated by bowl MVP Brett Upson, that Vanderbilt scored a touchdown to take the lead, 13-7.

The play developed on a punt by Upson, who used one of his signature rugby-style kicks to send the ball sailing toward the north endzone of LP Field.

There, it grazed the thigh of a Boston College player, who apparently didn't notice that he had come into contact with it. A host of alert Commodores did see the contact, and ultimately freshman Sean Davidson fell on the football in the endzone to score Vanderbilt's only touchdown of the game.

The defense continued to fight, but they were starting to tire. Having already lost All-SEC defensive back D.J. Moore, the Commodores struggled to stop the Eagles as the visitors tried to answer Vanderbilt's score.

At midfield, Boston College quarterback Dominique Davis finally connected with receiver Colin Larmond, Jr., and the freshman burned Vanderbilt's Myron Lewis for a BC touchdown toward the end of the third quarter.

As it happened, a great groan went up at LP Field. Somewhere, Dan McGugin rolled over in his grave. Dr. William Dudley did, too. And every Vanderbilt man and woman in attendance knew that the Commodore Curse had struck again.

Everyone, that is, except the Commodores themselves. Just as they did against Ole Miss, against Auburn, and all season long, they looked at the scoreboard and went back to work.

Bryant Hahnfeldt's third-quarter field goal put Vanderbilt ahead, 16-14. Photo by Vanderbilt Athletics.
It would take a face-mask penalty and a phantom roughing-the-passer penalty (perpetrated against Mackenzi Adams, no less, in his only play of the game), to do it, but Vanderbilt went 45 yards to field goal range.

Then Bryant Hahnfeldt calmly and confidently walked onto the field to kick the winning field goal. And it went straight down the middle, giving Vanderbilt a 16-14 lead.

* * *

Boston College had the ball once more, with less than two minutes in the game. Everyone in the stadium was holding their breath. On their second play of the series, BC quarterback Davis went to throw another pass to Colin Larmond -- the same play with which the Eagles had scored their last touchdown. The same play during which Larmond burned Myron Lewis for the 20-yard score.

But Myron Lewis wasn't going to be burned a second time.

In an instant of time barely perceptible to human senses, Lewis stepped in front of Larmond, intercepted Davis' pass, took just enough time to keep both feet on the ground and in-bounds, and then fell out of bounds.

In that moment, no longer than a heartbeat, the entire stadium was silent.

Looking back in one's mind's eye, it is easy to hold that moment, like a still photograph, and examine it. There was the offense, unsure whether the defense would hold and terrified that the outcome of the game would fall to them -- and that they would fall short of victory.

There were the special teams players, proud of their achievements, but powerless to do anything with so little time remaining.

There was Bobby Johnson, huddled for warmth inside a black, insulated coat emblazoned with the Star-V logo that he had brought back to the Commodore sidelines from the deep dreams of Vanderbilt glories-past -- the man upon whom the weight of the world had rested since coming to the helm of a ship that was not only decrepit, but half-sinking when he arrived.

There were the fans and the alumni. For an entire generation, nothing like this had ever happened in their lifetime: no Vanderbilt team had been to a bowl game since 1982 (a fact which they all know by heart). For their forefathers and -mothers, none had known a post-season victory in their generation's memory, save those few who were alive and able to understand the Commodores' triumph over Auburn in 1955.

And there was Myron Lewis. Holding the ball after staying in-bounds just long enough to register possession, tip-toeing his way into everlasting fame and Vanderbilt legend.

The silence lasted for the smallest of moments.

And then cacophony.

Chaos.

Eruption.

Mind-searing jubilation.

It may be possible in the hindsight of history, perhaps five to ten years down the road, to understand the implications of what took place along the icy banks of the Cumberland River that night.

But in that moment, for 118,000 living Vanderbilt alumni -- almost half of whom made the pilgrimage back to Nashville to see what for many was something they had almost given up hope would occur in their lifetime -- there was absolution. There was release.

As Larry Smith took the Commodores back onto the field and into victory formation, the Vanderbilt family around the world embraced one another in their hearts and exorcised fifty years of hell.

* * *

Coach Bobby Johnson and the 2008 football team captains triumphantly hoist the Music City Bowl trophy after defeating Boston College, Dec. 30, 2008. Photo by Vanderbilt Athletics.
The future remains bright for the Vanderbilt football program. Bobby Johnson is firmly ensconced as the commander of the Commodores' ship, and the Black and Gold lose only a handful of starters from this historic team.

And certainly the gleam off the black-onyx Music City Bowl trophy and the dazzle of the post-game victory fireworks will help this season shine in the hearts of Vanderbilt faithful everywhere.

Around Commodore Country, there is little doubt: the Return began December 31, 2008. It was fifty-three years in the making, but the Vanderbilt Commodores are champions once again.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow.

Beautifully written.

Go Dores.

Anonymous said...

Ha. Homer would have been proud of this article.

sports bookmaker said...

I didn't know that it was so long since they were the champions. It is sad that some of the old people didn't have the chance to see their team win.