Thrill of Victory

Huge wins from Titans, Vandy highlight the football weekend

It was mostly a good weekend for Nashville football fans as Vanderbilt and the Titans each picked up close wins, though the Vols disappointed in a blowout loss to Alabama. Here’s a look back at those ballgames as well as everything else in the Southeastern Conference.

Hasselbeck’s heroics lead Titans past Bills
This one was exactly what we thought it would be: a matchup between two defenses that couldn’t stop the other’s offense. Fortunately, the Titans got the last word: quarterback Matt Hasselbeck hit Nate Washington in the end zone with a fourth-down pass with about a minute left, and the defense hung on for one of the few times all day for a wild, 35-34 road win that suddenly has Tennessee within a game of .500 with a very winnable home contest with the Colts up next.

The best news, though, is that Chris Johnson finally looked like the Chris Johnson of old, rushing for 195 yards and two scores. Granted, the Bills’ run defense is awful, but Johnson showed flashes of his old speed with an 83-yard scoring run, and that’s encouraging.

Hasselbeck had a nice day, hitting 22-of-33 passes for 205 yards, but will probably sit next week as Jake Locker returns from injury. That should make the Titans a better team, but what the Titans really need is for the defense to start playing significantly better if there’s going to be a snowball’s chance at a playoff berth.

Vandy hangs on to beat Auburn
When Zac Stacy fumbled with under three minutes left as the Commodores were trying to run out the clock against Auburn, I thought it and you probably did, too: here goes Vandy snatching defeat from the jaws of victory… except it didn’t turn out that way. The defense allowed Auburn to move the ball a bit, but stopped the Tigers on a fourth-down attempt with under a minute left, preserving a 17-13 win and getting the Commodores halfway to bowl eligibility.

Stacy led the way with 169 yards rushing, vaulting past Frank Mordica for first place on VU’s all-time rushing chart. It helped that his linemen threw some great blocks, led by center Joe Townsend, a Hendersonville High School graduate, who was named the Southeastern Conference’s Offensive Lineman of the Week for his fine performance.

Here’s what’s most notable, though: Vandy didn’t bring its “A” game and still won; most significantly, VU lost the turnover battle 3-0. It doesn’t often happen that the Commodores do that and still win against anyone, much less an SEC team. If that’s not a sign of the program’s progress, then I don’t know what is.

Alabama hammers Vols in Knoxville
After yet-another long kickoff return by UT’s Cordarrelle Patterson set the Vols up for a score (they got a touchdown on the drive), Neyland Stadium was rocking as the Vols trailed just 20-10 and had some momentum. Could a program-changing win be on the horizon?

Not by a long shot, it turns out. Alabama scored the game’s next 24 points en route to a 44-13 win, and as the total offense indicates (539 yards to 282), it was every bit as lopsided as the score indicated. In fact, it could have easily been worse: kicker Jeremy Shelley missed a pair of field goals that were within his range, and another touchdown was called back because of a senseless penalty that didn’t really affect the play.

As bad as things have seemed, UT is only 3-4 on the season with plenty of winnable games on the horizon. But the Vols probably won’t beat South Carolina on the road this weekend, which begs the question: will they have the right frame of mind to win those games, especially with the howls for coach Derek Dooley’s head growing even louder?

Elsewhere in the SEC…
Florida 44, South Carolina 11 – Question: how does a team get out-gained 191-183 and win by 33 points? Answer: its defense and special teams set it up for touchdown drives of 1, 2, 11, 44 and 59 yards. That’s life for the Gators, No. 2 in the BCS rankings, these days. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks’ national title dreams have been erased, and Connor Shaw’s second-straight subpar game may have ignited a quarterback controversy in Columbia.

LSU 24, Texas A&M 19 – LSU couldn’t afford to lose another game and stay in the national title hunt, and the Tigers got that by becoming the first team to make A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel (three interceptions) look mortal. Now, the Tigers just need to wait patiently through an off-week until that Nov. 3 home game against Alabama. Meanwhile, A&M is what we thought it was: a team with a terrific offense with a defense that’s not deep enough to be championship caliber – at least this year. This time next year, though, it could be the young Aggies talking about titles.

Mississippi State 45, MTSU 3 – The Blue Raiders gave it a nice run in the first half without star runner Benny Cunningham, and trailed only 10-3. Three MSU touchdowns in a 5-and-a-half minute span of the third quarter, however, removed any thoughts of a significant upset by the Blue Raiders in this one. MSU is 7-0, but we still don’t know how good it is since the 4-3 Blue Raiders and 4-3 Troy are the best teams the Bulldogs have played so far. Back-to-back-to-back games against Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU should settle the issue soon.

Georgia 29, Kentucky 24 – How in the world a Georgia team with light-years more talent than a beat-up, young Kentucky team could win this game by just five points is beyond me, but welcome to the befuddling world of the Bulldogs, who look like Tarzan but play like Jane too often. Should UGA play like that against Florida next week, and it won’t be pretty. Meanwhile, give UK credit for playing hard despite having just one win and a talent gap the size of John Calipari’s ego between itself and its opponent.