7:40 pm, Central time: Vandy playing pure power football and moving the ball on the first several snaps. But now, a third down. Can the Dores convert?
7:41: No, a pass into traffic doesn't work. Kind of discouraging when you try something different, and can't have success with it.
7:42: A mediocre punt. Field position essentially wasted. Gotta get something out of a drive which generates two first downs and gains nearly 30 yards.
7:43: The Dores are all over South Carolina on the first two snaps. Forcing the Gamecocks into third and long will really help in a home night game.
7:44: Gamecock starting quarterback Chris Smelley can't hit SC's star receiver Kenny McKinley on a crossing route. The throw was there, but VU's Broderick Stewart applied pressure.
7:45: D.J. Moore with a solid return to regain good field position after a booming Carolina punt. Nothing on the scoreboard after the first pair of possessions, but Vandy definitely carried the play. Can the Dores now sustain and get a scoreboard lead at home? It's a fired-up crowd, given that it's a season opener and a national TV contest. Landing the first big punch is important. VU must establish momentum and gain confidence early on.
7:50: Disaster. South Carolina reads an option play, but a five-yard loss is nothing. A fumble, however, is a huge deal in what figures to be a low-scoring game. Carolina ball on the Vandy 20. The Dores have to force a field goal here. The last thing VU wanted to do was hand free points to USC's struggling offense.
7:52: Vandy's Greg Billinger with a clutch, clutch sack. Now 3rd and goal from the 14.
7:53: Timeout, South Carolina. Steve Spurrier and his son will try to call up a ball play. Vandy needs to ensure that it doesn't work, or the air will go out of the balloon pretty quickly in Nashville.
7:55: Good thing Vandy called that timeout, or USC would have been gifted a first down.
7:57: False start, Carolina. Still in comfy field goal range, though.
7:58: Dagger. McKinley beats VU corner Myron Lewis in a one-on-one matchup, a fade to the left corner of the end zone. That hurts big-time, a classic Lucy pulls the football from Charlie Brown scenario that Vandy fans have sadly gotten used to over the years. 7-0 Carolina.
8:02: Let's see if Vandy can answer. Momentum, or at least field position, needs to be changed immediately. If USC gains confidence after its shaky opener against N.C. State, it will be long night on the ranch for the home team.
8:04: A third-down throw by Chris Nickson zooms wide of its intended target. Without that immediate response to Carolina's touchdown, it appears that Vandy is just going to have to stand in the ring, play the Gamecocks to a standstill, and perform damage control for the next several minutes. Nickson and the VU offense do not seem ready to crack Carolina's quality defense, especially not with the passing game.
8:07: Smelley hits tight end Jared Cook for a sizeable gain, down to the VU 34. This is on the verge of getting away from Vandy far too quickly (and far more quickly than a lot of people might have thought when this game started).
8:08: Myron Lewis swats a ball away. Mammoth stop needed here on 3rd and 10 at the 34.
8:11: What's the penalty? Drum roll.... and..... what is it? Oh, OFFENSIVE pass interference, and the Reshard Langford interception stands. The return gives the Commodores a great drive start, too. Gigantic play by the blackshirted defense. Now, some points need to be put on the board.
8:12: Carolina's Jasper Brinkley drops the easiest interception that will ever touch his hands. But a holding penalty puts Vandy in a 1st and 20. Very sloppy and undisciplined football right now, with two nervous-nellie signal callers panicking all over the place.
8:13: Shaky offense abounds. The defenses are a step ahead, for the most part.
8:14: Chris Nickson throws yet another pass that should have been picked. How it wasn't, I'll never know. VU dodging some major bullets.
8:16: And there's a dumb interference penalty, preventing the Carolina punt returner from being able to catch the ball. Bobby Johnson has to settle down a lot of players on offense and special teams.
8:18: End of the first quarter. It's a quarter that could have been even worse for Vandy.
8:21: Oh, there's a pick that almost materialized, but it's not a play that should have been made. Jasper Brinkley's near-pick? That was a ball that should have been caught. Not this one. Good job by Vandy of filling the passing lanes. More interception opportunities will surely emerge as the night goes on. Neither one of these quarterbacks has much of any command or confidence right now.
8:24: Smelly rifles a ball high, even though he's getting great protection. Vandy must apply more pressure, even though USC's quarterback is misfiring.
8:25: Patrick Benoist stops Mike Davis to force a punt. Damage control being done successfully... for the moment. This is a game where the defenses are just as likely to score a touchdown as are the offenses (if not more so). Whoever drops fewer game-changing interceptions might turn out to be the winner, unless one of these two quarterbacks decides to start making good throws and sound decisions. Chris Nickson, the ball's in your court.
8:29: This Commodore offense is an absolute mess right now. Miscommunications aplenty, and Nickson running around like a headless horseman. Utter chaos, with no one stepping up to take a leadership role.
8:30: An easy sack. Brutally bad football, and there's no use sugar-coating or minimizing right now. Just a poor effort from the VU offense. Someone on defense or special teams might have to be the game-changer tonight.
8:32: A pitch-and-catch from Smelley to Cook gives Carolina a big gain to the VU 35.
8:33: Oh, a bust in the Vandy secondary, but Smelley missed a wide-open Cook down the left sideline.
8:34: THERE'S YOUR GAME CHANGER, LADIES AND GENTS! Darlron Spead takes an underthrown crossing route and scoots up the sideline for 41 yards into SC territory. It couldn't have happened at a better time. Just think: If Smelley doesn't underthrow the previous ball, it's either 14-0 or Carolina has first and goal. Instead, Vandy now in business. How quickly things change.
8:37: There's a solid, aggressive play on first down. A fake to the fullback and a Nickson keeper for 9. A fast-attacking play instead of a slow-developing play. Vandy needs to return to the power game that created those early first downs. VU offensive coordinator Ted Cain getting the message.
8:40: On a huge 3rd and 4 from the USC 9, Cain gives Spurrier a taste of his own medicine. That quick-hitting flanker run is called an "X Quick," and that was one of Spurrier's favorite plays at Florida. It's well blocked and executed, and it gets a first and goal just inside the 5. Huge.
8:42: 3rd and goal from the 2. Nickson needs to keep this ball and make a play going to the boundary.
8:43: Nickson does keep it, but can't hit his tight end, Austin Monahan, who got held up coming out of the backfield. Without that little trip, that play's a touchdown. Too bad.
8:44: Field goal is good by Bryant Hahnfeldt. At least Vandy gets some points in a game where they will come at a premium. 7-3 Gamecocks.
8:49: I'm frankly listening to Jerri Spurrier for a bit. Fascinating to hear from Mrs. Head Ball Coach.
8:50: Vandy stacks up SC on second and short, then third and short. A manly stand from a defense that's more than carrying the load.
8:51: Should have known with Spurrier in enemy territory. A fake punt gets a first down. In Vandy's defense, a tackle was made at the marker, but the ballcarrier had just enough leverage to stretch for the first down anyway.
8:52: Oh, my. Kenny McKinley is out for the rest of the game. He has shed his uniform and is on the bench.
8:53: Ryan Succop nails a 41-yard field goal at the gun. It's 10-3 Carolina at halftime, but Vandy should be happy to be down just seven when one considers that the Dores have just 50 total yards. The key for the second half is for Nickson to establish the run game, but to then spring a big pass play or two on the Gamecocks for large gainers. And if Nickson can't get anything going? Well, some interceptions are still waiting to be had. Smelley's decision making still leaves a lot to be desired.
9:17: Vandy's defense gets the much-needed stop to start the second half.
9:18: That very easily could have been a personal foul on Carolina for a late hit on Commodore Moore, Vandy's star kick returner.
9:21: Nickson with pure speed to outrun a few Gamecock linebackers to the boundary for seven yards. Still zero action with the passing game. Nickson's legs are VU's biggest weapon right now.
9:23: Another pass play that does nothing.
9:24: Christmas in September. A punt hits the leg of a South Carolina special teams player trying to set up a return. Vandy ball in field goal range, with a great gift-wrapped chance for a touchdown and a tie. Time to capitalize.
9:27: Vandy doesn't waste time. Nickson lobs a perfect pass downfield to tight end Brandon Barden for a 31-yard touchdown. The PAT ties it at 10. Vandy's offense has been very poor, but untimely USC turnovers have kept the Dores in this thing. Give credit to Nickson for keeping his chin up and holding his head high.
9:33: That's what life is like as a Vandy fan. USC gets a first down by 3 inches.
9:35: In all candor, that truly was a good call (uncatchable ball, no pass interference). The "uncatchable ball" provision is enforced much less often than it should be.
9:36: Carolina moving the sticks anyway, now inside the VU 40. Momentum, not to mention the lead, hanging in the balance.
9:37: Wow, out of nowhere, the Gamecocks are beginning to gash the Dores on the ground. Mike Davis with two straight runs of over 10 yards. This is not how a defense sustains momentum for a team. One has to credit the Gamecocks for stepping it up instead of shriveling after losing a touchdown lead. Very impressive display of mental toughness.
9:39: Huge stop from the defense.
9:40: Blocked field goal! Greg Billinger got it. Didn't seem as though the ball got off the ground. Well, momentum sustained by the Dores... if not increased. Huge turn of events. South Carolina's special teams killing the Cocks.
9:43: Oh, what a great juke move from Sean Walker! He leaves a few Carolina jock straps on the field as he scoots for a significant gain inside the USC red zone.
9:44: Jared Hawkins barrels down to the 1. Big Mo is all on the Vandy side of the tracks right now, and South Carolina is getting steamrolled.
9:45: Touchdown! The PAT makes it 17-10. Opportunistic ball from the Dores, who have received three game-altering plays (the INT, the recovery of the live ball on the punt, the blocked field goal) and have converted them into 17 points. USC has had to put Vandy in position to score, but when given the chance, Vandy didn't miss. In early September, games are still sloppy, and you have to simply win by hook or crook. The Commodores are doing what they need to, even though it doesn't look pretty.
9:58: Carolina moving the sticks, slowly but surely. Drama slowly building early in the fourth quarter.
9:59: 3rd and 10. One more play, and the lead is safe for a few more minutes at the very least.
10:00: It's safe. Vandy consolidating more and more momentum.
10:07: A huge defensive penalty on Carolina gives Vandy a first down in SC territory. Vandy might not be effective or explosive on offense, but it's very, very clear that the Commodores have tightened up their game and have made far fewer mistakes than the Gamecocks. Bobby Johnson's team is like a steady tennis player who doesn't have huge weapons, but can keep the ball in the court and is able to wait out an error-prone opponent who eventually misses. That's what this game is reminding me of.
10:10: Another defensive penalty on the Gamecocks for another VU first down well within field goal range. The Dores are watching USC implode, in shades of last year's game in Columbia. Steady play is all that's needed to bring home a victory. Nothing spectacular has to be called for... not with Carolina digging its own grave.
10:15: Touchdown! The Dores have all the energy, all the focus, all the momentum. Still a lot of ball left to be played, but safe to say, better to be up 14 than down 14. No time for a letdown here.
10:21: Carolina moving swiftly downfield.
10:23: In just a handful of plays, the ball is approaching the VU red zone. Exactly what Bobby Johnson didn't want to see from a defense that has been outstanding and determined.
10:26: After the timeout, touchdown Gamecocks on a pass to a wide-open receiver, Freddie Brown. 24-17 in a heartbeat, halfway through the fourth quarter (7:39 left). Very disappointing sequence right there, the mark of a team that doesn't know how to finish. That's been VU's waterloo in recent seasons.
10:30: Stuffed again. Tentative play from the Dores' offense. They're playing not to lose. Commodore fans of all ages begin to sense that familiar but disgusting feeling.
10:32: This team has gone into a mental shell. Passive football. You'd never know that Vandy was up by a touchdown. This is precisely what happens when a team has not yet learned how to win.
10:33: USC starts in Vandy territory, at the 48. Someone in black has to make a play and refuse to lose. It's statement time for the defense with just under five minutes left in regulation.
10:34: The Carolina offense is in a groove. First down at the VU 34. Um, excuse me, but have we seen this movie before in Nashville? Just a few times over the years?
10:35: Greg Billinger with another key play. He's your MVP if Vandy holds on, and Vandy just might do that after Billinger's big paw swipes Smelley enough to send the quarterback to the turf and cause a 3rd and 17 at the VU 41.
10:37: Steven Stone with a sack for the Dores! The defense gets it done under difficult circumstances. Billlinger and defensive coordinator Bruce Fowler would deserve game balls if this lead stands.
10:38: Jared Hawkins for seven on first down. Titanic play. Time to milk the 40-second play clock with 2:15 left and Carolina having two timeouts.
10:39: First down, Hawkins and Vanderbilt! With the 40-second clock, the Dores frankly don't have to get another first down. Two runs would bring about third down with roughly 55 seconds left, and fourth down with roughly 10 seconds left. It's virtually over. Just get off a punt (distance not really a factor), and it's just about a done deal.
10:43: No punt needed, as Hawkins pounds out a first down! The biggest game of VU's young season, and the Dores pull it out of the fire. Bobby Johnson beams on the sideline, as he should. On national television, with hopes riding so high yet waiting to be punctured as in seasons past, this program takes a big leap forward. A lot of "season" left, but this was a monster game, and Vanderbilt won it.
Chris Fowler says, "'V' stands for victory." And a sweet one at that for a program that has walked in the football wilderness for so long.
Now, the new key? Remember what this feels like and keep winning these kinds of close games that have been tough-luck losses in the past. If you win close games in football, you'll have winning seasons. This is how the subculture of a program finally changes for the better. A triumphant night for the Commodore community.