NASHVILLE-- An epic college football contest came to an end Saturday with the sickening thud of pigskin meeting body. In the blink of an eye, a courageous comeback attempt by Vanderbilt-- not to mention an effort to reach the school's first 5-0 start since 1943-- had been unceremoniously blocked.
When MTSU safety Jeremiah Weaver swooped in unblocked from the left side to get in the way of Bryant Hahnfeldt's attempt at a game-winning field goal, it sealed the Blue Raiders' third win over Vandy in five seasons. (And MTSU wants Vandy to come play in Murfreesboro? No need... MTSU has proven it can beat Vandy just fine in Nashville, thank you.)
No question, the game was among the most thrilling ever played at Dudley Field. Had a casual fan merely wandered in off the street hoping to see a great football game, he assuredly got far more than his $20 worth. Though neither team would have been mistaken for a great football team, the two teams battled back and forth for three hours like a pair of heavyweights, in an "Instant Classic" that wasn't decided until the final play.
The sluggish Commodores, a double-digit favorite, had watched little Middle build a 14-3 lead in the second quarter before battling back to take a 15-14 lead in the fourth. Not to be outdone, Andy McCollum's Blue Raiders marched into field goal range and kicked a 29-yarder through the uprights with 6:41 left.
In its first two games this season, vs. Wake Forest and Arkansas, Vanderbilt had found itself in this position... behind by four points or less in the fourth quarter. Vanderbilt teams of old would have folded, but against the Demon Deacons and Razorbacks, the Commodores had found the wherewithal to come back and win. The comebacks fueled hope among the 37,257 paying patrons, most of whom had worn gold, that these Commodores could do it again.
And doggone if they almost didn't. As the late, great Don Adams / Maxwell Smart might have put it, they "missed it by that much."
Vanderbilt couldn't move on its first possession, but would get the ball back on the one-inch line with 2:40 to play. With its back literally to the wall, Vanderbilt pulled off one of the gutsiest, most beautifully executed two-minute drills the old, historic field has ever seen.
Six first downs, seven completed passes and 81 yards later, cucumber-cool Jay Cutler had positioned Vandy at the MTSU 18-yard-line with the clock showing 0:03. In came the true freshman Hahnfeldt, who had already been perfect on three previous field goal tries, for a 36-yard attempt to win the game.
It all happened in a flash. Hahnfeldt said the snap, the hold and the kick were all pretty much perfect.
"To me it felt like one of my best hits of the night," said Hahnfeldt. "They [MTSU] needed to make a play, and they did. It could have happened on any of the other field goals, but it happened on that one."
The slo-mo replay showed Weaver and another Blue Raider lined up outside Vandy's left flank, two men going up against a single Commodore wingman. The wingman blocked the outside man, while Weaver, the inside player, got around the blocker and into the backfield full speed. His lunge was perfectly timed.
Hahnfeldt, who has been an answer to Vandy's special teams prayers this season, had been cool, collected and pumped about finally having a chance to kick a game-winner for VU.
"I was definitely excited," he said. I knew we were going to hold them, and once they made a field goal, I knew it was probably coming down to me. But it was just like any other kick. I just did what I had to do, and unfortunately it happened."
Instead of the Vanderbilt bench erupting in a fit of joy, it was the MTSU sideline that exploded as time expired. The Blue Raiders (1-3) of the Sun Belt Conference had nabbed their first win of the season. Commodore fans, their faces reddened by losses to Middle in 2001 and 2002, were forced to leave the stadium to chants of "Same Old Vandy (clap, clap, clap clap clap)" from the Blue Raider throng.
The field goal attempt will no doubt be scrutinized, but the ugly truth is that the game should never have come down to a last-ditch field goal. Along the way the Commodores squandered numerous opportunities to seize control of the game, and allowed a middling Middle Tennessee squad to hang around until the very end and take the lead in the fourth quarter.
"Even though Middle Tennessee played extremely well, we made some mistakes that kept us from getting into the end zone and kept us from getting momentum," said Bobby Johnson. "They had a lot to do with those... but some of them were [pass] drops, and some were missed tackles and things like that.
"It's a great lesson for our team. You've got to play every play. We played great at times, but we've got to be more consistent to have a chance."
For Vandy's long-suffering fans-- who certainly did their part by nearly filling Vanderbilt Stadium for the second straight week and cheering at all the right times-- the ending was a painful flashback. All week the team and fans had been reminded of the 1984 Commodores who had started 4-0, but whose train had wrecked in an unforeseen game-five loss to Tulane.
Game five may turn out to be the undoing of the 2005 Commodores; only time will tell. But if there's any consolation for the moment, it's that the loss occurred out-of-conference.
"We've still got a great opportunity," stressed Johnson. "A great opportunity. And I don't think our guys will let that pass by without putting in the effort. I have no fear at all that they'll come out and work."
Maybe by Monday or Tuesday, disheartened Commodore fans will realize that their team is 4-1, still far ahead of most reasonable preseason expectations. Though the sledding gets unquestionably tougher from this point, the chance for a bowl bid is still there. The next two weeks present grand chances to knock off Top 15 foes before national TV audiences.
But this loss will sting for a little while, for two reasons: because of the nearby rival at whose hands it came... and because the Commodores were so close to 5-0, they could taste it.