Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Vandy, thanks for 4 unforgettable years (and a bowl game)

After graduating from Vanderbilt University earlier this month, these are the four things I think.

1. I think the Class of 2009 just might be the most fortunate class in school history.

Seriously, has there ever been a better or more exciting time to be a Commodore fan?

Like the students before us, we have experienced an unhealthy amount of heartbreak and disappointment (special thanks to Georgetown's Jeff Green and Michigan's Alan Oaks). Fortunately, we have also experienced an excessive amount of triumph and celebration (for Vanderbilt standards, at least). Consider:

- The men's basketball team has beaten two No. 1 teams on its home court and advanced to two NCAA Tournaments, including a unforgettable Sweet 16 run that ended in heartbreak.

- The baseball team, perennial doormats prior to the arrival of Tim Corbin, captured a SEC regular season and tournament title in 2007 when it was ranked No. 1 for nine consecutive weeks and despite its postseason struggles, West End remains a preferred destination for elite recruits hoping to follow in the footsteps of Alvarez and Price.

- The women have continued their athletic dominance. The basketball team has served as a model of consistently, earning two SEC tournament championships and a pair of Sweet 16 berths over the past four years. In addition, the golf, lacrosse, soccer, and tennis teams have enjoyed success, while the bowlers captured the school's first ever national title.

- And, of course, how could we forget about Bobby Johnson's squad, which picked up the school's first bowl victory in 53 long years? Great to be gold, indeed.

2. I think that these are my 10 most memorable games:

a. December 31, 2008: VANDY 16 BOSTON COLLEGE 14

No explanation needed, is there?

b. March 16, 2007: VANDY 78 WASHINGTON ST 74

I'll never forget when Derrick Byars turned to the Vanderbilt section of the Arco Arena crowd and yelled, "We ain't going home!" following the Dores' double-overtime victory in the second round of the NCAA tourney. Just a surreal moment.

c. February 17, 2007: VANDY 83 FLORIDA 70

DB put it best when he said, "This is one for the ages. Twenty years from now, I'll be able to tell my little kids this. This is special. You can't explain it."

No, you certainly can't. The buzz in Memorial Gym that Saturday afternoon in mid-February was unlike anything I've ever experienced. And storming the court after trouncing Joakim Noah's Gators? One of the highlights of my college career.

d. November 15, 2005: VANDY 28 TENNESSEE 24

One of the greatest sentences in Vanderbilt football history: "Jay Cutler pass complete to Earl Bennett for 6 yards for a TOUCHDOWN." While the Commodores wouldn't go in to win a bowl game for another three years, this victory was monumental for the program.

"You see grown men crying and you realize how long it's been since we've won," Jay Cutler said at the time. "It tells us how much it means to this program."

e. February 26, 2008: VANDY 72 TENNESSEE 69

Memorial Magic is a crazy, unexplainable, and amazing thing.

f. October 4, 2008: VANDY 14 AUBURN 13

It started Friday afternoon with one of the best College GameDay crowds Lee Corso had ever seen and ended Saturday night with one of the biggest home victories in school history. The Commodores stunned the Tigers to improve to 5-0 and 3-0 in the SEC for the first time since 1950.

Who would have thought we'd see a day when Vandy was ranked higher in the Associated Press than U.S. News & World Report?

"This is what coaches live for," said Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson. It's what us fans live for, too. That was one weekend I'll never forget.

g. November 15, 2009: VANDY 31 KENTUCKY 24

D.J. Moore had two touchdowns and two interceptions as the Dores became bowl eligible for the first time since 1982.

h. March 5, 2008: VANDY 86 MISSISSIPPI ST 85

One of the greatest individual performances by one of Vanderbilt's all-time greats. Shan Foster scored 42 points on 16-for-25 shooting, including a ridiculous 9-for-15 from 3-point range, the last one coming with one second remaining in overtime and the Commodores trailing by two. Did I mention it was also on Senior Night? You couldn't have scripted it any better.

i. February 25, 2007: VANDY 7 BC 6, VANDY 67 KENTUCKY 65

Within a matter of minutes, shortstop Ryan Flaherty called his shot, hitting a walk-off two-run homer at Hawkins Field to keep Vanderbilt undefeated, while Byars and company rallied to beat Kentucky at Memorial Gym, giving the Dores their second straight season sweep of the Cats. Can't get much better than that.

j. TIE March 23, 2007: GEORGETOWN 66 VANDY 65 and June 4, 2007: MICHIGAN 4 VANDY 3

I didn't want to put any losses on the list, but I'm making an exception because these moments epitomize what it means to be a Commodore fan. Sure, both ended in heartbreak, but I've never been prouder of a group of guys than I was after these games.

From Derrick Byars and Dan Cage to David Price and Pedro Alvarez, we've been able to follow some pretty special individuals who have taught us all how to handle adversity with dignity and class.

Disagree with my choices? I'd love to hear your top 10s in the comments section below. I'm confident that your rankings will be better than mine. And stay tuned for my top 10 favorite athletes in the coming week.

3. I think the past four years went by way too fast.

It seems like just yesterday I was getting ready to interview (if you can even call it that) star quarterback Jay Cutler for my first football article. I ended mumbling and stuttering my way through a series of incoherent questions.

Since then, I've had the privilege of interviewing (gradually more successfully) hundreds of remarkable student-athletes. Intelligent, driven, respectful and well-rounded, these young men and women represent the best in college sports, and I extremely grateful to have attended one of the few universities that values the balance between academics and athletics and refuses to compromise its ideals.

I've also had the privilege of road tripping across the country with an amazing group of friends to root on the Commodores. From the Southern college towns of Athens, Knoxville, Gainesville, Lexington, Oxford and (unfortunately) Starkville to the big cities of Sacramento, New York, Atlanta, and Tampa, I have learned that Commodore Nation extends well beyond Nashville and that there is nothing better than rooting for the underdog.

Finally, I've had the privilege of getting to know some truly great people, from the dedicated athletes and coaches to the hilarious and hard-working guys like Brandon Barca, Larry Leathers, and Thomas Samuel in the Vanderbilt Media Relations Department to Brett Hait, Chris Lee, Jesse Johnson, Maurice Patton and the rest of the Nashville media members from whom I've learned so much.

4. I think The Sports VU is back.

Not to the three-post-a-day variety (things like friends, a job, and a life make that more difficult these days), but to the extent that you should begin checking back here daily. (I think).

I missed you guys (or maybe just writing) too much to give it up for good. So yeah, spread the word, and if you're interested in joining The Sports VU team, just shoot me an email at jarred.amato@gmail.com. Thanks, and as always, Go Dores!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A farewell of sorts

When I launched The Sports VU on March 9, 2008, I had no idea what to expect. My life had just been turned completely upside down, and creating this site was one of the only things that seemed to make sense.

Six months and nearly 400 posts later, I can't begin to describe how much The Sports VU has meant to me. That's why it's with some sadness, along with much excitement, that I inform you, my loyal readers, that we're moving to ConquerAndPrevail.com.

The decision to join SB Nation, a prominent network consisting of more than 100 sports bloggers, was a no-brainer. In addition to the new, fresh-looking website, we'll have the opportunity to attract an even larger audience without giving up anything. It's still going to be the same great guys bringing you the same great coverage.

The only downside? We needed a new name, although to be honest, I think this one might be better. There's nothing quite like putting my arms around my friends and swaying back and forth as we recite the alma mater, making sure to scream "Conquer and Prevail."

So while this isn't exactly a farewell, I figured it was a good opportunity to say thank you. Thank you for believing in me, for supporting me and, most importantly, for reading.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

SEC Power Rankings: Week 2

After two weeks of play, here's a look at how this committee of one thinks thinks the Southeastern Conference teams stack up. Who would have thought that Vanderbilt would be ranked this high? For another power ranking, check out our good friends at MrSEC.com.

1. Florida (2-0): The only concern is that the Gators still haven't found a running back other to take the load off that Tebow kid. Oh yea, and Warren Sapp called Urban Meyer a "classless dirtbag."

2. Georgia (2-0): This video says all you need to know about Knowshon Moreno.

3. LSU (1-0): Football just hasn't seemed as important after Hurricane Gustav swept through Louisiana. The Tigers return to action for the first time since August 30 when they smashed Appalachian State.

4. Auburn (2-0): Looks like the Tigers are going to stick with quarterback Chris Todd, who impressed in his first start last weekend against Southern Miss. But, as much as talk as there's been about the revamped offense, Auburn's strength is still its "D."

5. Alabama (2-0): The Tide didn't look nearly as impressive against Tulane, but a win is a win.

6. Vanderbilt (2-0, 1-0 SEC): The best part about Vanderbilt's 24-17 victory over South Carolina? Watching the offensive line dominate when the game mattered most. How often have you seen a Commodore squad do that?

7. Kentucky (2-0): Coach Rich Brooks thinks the Wildcats deserve more respect for their 2-0 start. If UK wins in SEC play, the notoriety will come.

8. Tennessee (0-1): Tennessee seems to do best when it's counted out. At least that's what Phillip Fulmer and the rest of Vol Nation is hoping...

9. Ole Miss (1-1): The Rebels were three seconds away from pulling off a huge win in Winston-Salem. Despite the loss, there's a lot to like about this squad, Jevan Snead in particular.

10. South Carolina (1-1):
Forget click-clack. For Steve Spurrier, it's more like tick-tock. That is, time's running out in Columbia, especially if he keeps losing to Vandy.

11. Mississippi State (1-1): The Bulldogs bounced back with a 34-10 victory over Southeastern Louisiana, but I'm still not sold on their offense.

12. Arkansas (2-0):
Don't let their record fool you. The Razorbacks are not very good.

Last week:
1. Florida 2. Georgia 3. LSU 4. Alabama 5. Auburn 6. South Carolina 7. Kentucky 8. Ole Miss 9. Vanderbilt 10. Tennessee 11. Arkansas 12. Mississippi State

Monday, September 8, 2008

A win to remember: Vandy makes home statement

There was no need to ask Bobby Johnson how it felt to beat a Top 25 opponent at home for the first time since 1992. The look on his face following Jared Hawkins’ seven-yard run on third-and-five in the closing minutes, which sealed Vanderbilt’s 24-17 victory over South Carolina last Thursday, said it all.

“I'm sure glad we got (the first down) because I hadn't figured out exactly what I was going to do, whether I was going to punt or take a safety,” Johnson said Monday. “So when (Hawkins) went across that line, I went, ‘Whew!’ That's one decision I don't have to make. That's why I was so happy on the sideline.”

Johnson smiled as he made that final comment and the room full of media members broke into laughter, knowing full well that his display of pure emotion on the sideline was the result of something much bigger than one play. Even the players could sense it.

“He's a native of South Carolina so I know that every South Carolina game means something to him, maybe just a little bit more than the others,” said senior quarterback Chris Nickson. “To please him, that's all you want to do. That's the guy who brought you here, the guy who recruited you, who gave you a great education.

“You want to try to do your best for him, and to see him happy makes you happy. That's all there is to it.”

Senior safety Reshard Langford saw a replay of the game on ESPN and said he felt the same way while watching an elated Johnson tear off his headset and embrace anyone in sight following Hawkins’ game-clinching run.

“I was extremely happy for him and the rest of the coaches because they work so hard and put so much work into preparing the game plan for us and preparing our practices and setting stuff up for us so that we just have to go out there and execute,” Langford said. “My hat goes off to those coaches. It's a great reward for them as much as it is for us.”

That’s quite the statement, one that shows just much how the players respect Johnson and his staff.

And one of the best parts about beating Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks on ESPN? The rest of the country got to see what Langford, Nickson and the rest of the guys already know.

Johnson was on the road recruiting over the weekend and seemed to relish his newfound celebrity status.

“I'll tell you one thing that I realized even more, even though I thought I knew it, a lot of people watch ESPN,” Johnson said. “I was in the Dallas airport and people were stopping us left and right, and in Shreveport and in Nashville. It was kind of cool.”

Asked if anyone mistook him for comedian Steve Martin, Johnson replied, “Not a soul.”
Vanderbilt did not get over any magical hump with the victory, nor is it guaranteed any future successes because of it. Still, it is impossible to downplay its significance.

“For the Vanderbilt community, we finally stepped it up and did something to make them proud,” Nickson said. “They could actually see and feel it for themselves.”

The Commodores have been close to winning these games in the past. This time they finished it.

“We expected to win,” Langford said. “We don't expect to lose going into any game and certainly didn't expect to lose Thursday night. We work hard and put that work in so we know that we're going to get the results out of what we put in.”

Johnson knows that too.

“I think we are now playing good enough to compete with everybody we play against,” Johnson said, “and I think that in itself is a charge to our players to say, ‘Hey, play as good as you can play. If you do, you've got a chance to win.’"

One-on-one with Chris Nickson

Had a chance to chat with Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson this afternoon. The fifth-year senior touched on a number of topics, including what it was like to beat South Carolina, what makes the Dores' offensive linemen so "nasty," and why he has so much respect for coach Bobby Johnson.

What did you see with the offensive linemen up front in that last drive that allowed you guys to close out the game?

Chris Nickson: I remember talking to them before that series and I told them that this is a time where you're in the trenches and you've got to step up and become a man. I told them that on the drive that Hawk scored on. The next drive I told them, "Do you remember what I told you on the last drive?" and they was like, "Yeah." I was like, "Well, forget it. This is the time." (Laughter)

While I was sitting there and talking to them all I saw was eyes and nods and I knew they understood exactly what I was saying. After that, they took it on themselves to finish the game. No one finished it but the o-line and their attitude towards the situation -- they weren't nervous, they weren't scared, they were just ready to kick somebody's butt, and that's what they did. They took it down the field and opened up some holes, large holes, biggest holes of the whole game,, and it showed.

Did you know you guys would run the ball on the last drive?

CN: I knew we were going to run it. Our confidence is in our running game, whether it be me or the running backs.

Surprised to see the young offensive line step up the way it did?

CN: I wasn't surprised, but I was very happy to see them grow up like that. I was very excited about watching them grow up and I think they did a tremendous job and stepped their game up to another level and I hope they can just continue to grow like that.

Is this the nastiest offensive line you've seen here?

I hope so. We've got some nasty guys and they grind it out. With Vierling leading them, I wouldn't be surprised if they were the nastiest bunch we've had.

What is it about Vierling?

CN: Cause he's a nasty boy. He's an aggressor.

How did it make you feel to see coach Johnson so emotional at the end of that game?

CN: He's a native of South Carolina so I know that every South Carolina game means something to him, maybe just a little bit more than the others. To please him, that's all you want to do. That's the guy who brought you here, the guy who recruited you, who gave you a great education, you want to try to do your best for him, and to see him happy makes you happy and that's all there is to it.

What it was like to accomplish exactly what you said you guys were going to do?

CN: For the Vanderbilt community, we finally stepped it up and did something to make them proud. They could actually see and feel it for themselves. We've felt it before when went to Georgia and South Carolina and the people there felt it with us, but we've never been in that situation where we were in the perfect atmosphere so everyone could feel the excitement and joy that we've had.

To beat South Carolina in such an atmosphere it makes us very happy, it makes the Vanderbilt community happy and everyone's pleased with the way the program's going so we're excited about it and looking forward to another big game.

What impresses you most about Jared Hawkins?

He's tough. Jared has been through a lot here and hasn't really gotten a lot of reps like he's probably wanted to. He's just been working his tail off and doing everything the right way, going about things the right way, being a great man, a great man of faith. His opportunity has finally presented itself and what he did was he came out and he put the team on his shoulders and carried us down the field. It showed that hard work pays off. I can't say enough about him.

One-on-one with Reshard Langford

Caught up with senior safety Reshard Langford this afternoon. The co-captain talked about a bunch of topics, including his admiration for Bobby Johnson and the rest of the coaching staff, the great play of his roommate Jared Hawkins and why he did not consider the Dores' 24-17 victory over South Carolina an upset.

What have you learned about your defense through two games?

Reshard Langford:
We learned that everybody out there wants to win. If I'm tired, I'm pretty sure my defensive linemen is tired and I know that they're not going to give up. We have that bond between each other as teammates that we're not going to give up regardless of what's going on out there. That willingness to win is what's going on right now with our defense.

Can you describe the feeling you had on Thursday night?

RL: It was fun. It was a great win. I'm not so much speechless, but there's just not much I can say about it. It was a great win and great for our program.

While last week's game should give you guys confidence, do you try to forget about it now?

RL: We can't play last week's game this week. We played South Carolina, that was a good win for us. Now we have to prepare for Rice because we know they're not who South Carolina was. I think you've just got to forget about it and prepare for the next week.

How many text messages do you think you got after the game?

RL: I charted this as a matter of fact. Miami of Ohio game I think I had 17 text messages. I had 19 text messages and one call after this past game so it was fun.

What did it mean to you to see how excited coach Johnson was after the game on Thursday?

RL: I was extremely happy for him and the rest of the coaches because they work so hard and put so much work into preparing the game plan for us and preparing our practices and setting stuff up for us so that we just have to go out there and execute. My hat's off to those coaches. It's a great reward for them as much as it is for us.

I feel like you guys don't see last week's game as an upset. Is that accurate?

We expected it. We don't expect to lose going into any game and certainly didn't expect to lose Thursday night. We work hard and put that work in so we know that we're going to get the results out of what we put in. We weren't expecting anything less.

What about the defense has impressed you most?

RL: The toughness has impressed me the most. Thursday night was a hot night and I know a lot of guys were going out cramping and when they went out, other guys came in and the tempo was still going the same as it was.

How pleased have you been with the younger players thus far?

RL: The way that we practice is the way that we play. Everybody's been practicing hard and it's just showing up on Thursdays.

On the other side of the ball, what it was like watching Jared seal the victory with two big first downs?

RL: Me being his roommate, I know Jared a little more personally than everybody else and I know that his willpower and how he plays is going to show. I know that he works hard and he showed it Thursday and obviously he was one of the better players on the offense and he helped us a lot.

How does it feel to see him enjoying success that you know he deserves?

RL: It makes me feel good because I know his struggles and things that he goes through. Him playing good, him doing well, has been great for us and great for him too, and I'm hoping it's building his confidence as a running back.

What do you like most about the way he plays?

RL: His attitude. He's very humble about what he does and he's a great running back.

One-on-one with Brad Vierling

Had a chance to catch up with co-captain Bradley Vierling this afternoon. The Commodores' starting center touched on a number of subjects, including the improved play of the offensive line and the career day from his good friend Jared Hawkins.

Talk about how much you've seen the offensive line improve in just two weeks.

Bradley Vierling: Every day in practice we get better and better. We're young and we're just starting to flow. With two games under our belt now, we're really starting to get a feel for each other and I'm pretty excited about what we can do.

What was it like to dominate the line of scrimmage when it mattered most in the fourth quarter and keep South Carolina's offense off the field?

BV: We knew we could do it and it was put on our shoulders. Our offensive line coach told us the only way we're going to win is if we do well. In the second half, we started to really get a feel for what they were doing and started being aggressive and had some fun.

What impresses you most about Jared Hawkins?

BV: I wasn't surprised by anything that Jared did or what he can do because I know he's always been a great back for us. I'm just excited whenever he gets that ball. You never know what's going to happen, if he's going to break it for 30 yards for a touchdown or slam it in there for four and just get us a first down. No matter what I know he's going to make great decisions back there and do a great job.

How would you describe Jared as a runner?

BV: Jared's fearless. When he gets the ball all he wants to do is just gain yards. It doesn't matter if he's breaking to the outside and running past people or trying to run them over through the middle, no matter what he's going to get the job done.

How does it feel to see him have success?

BV: It's very exciting for him personally to get the extra carries and extra yards and all that kind of stuff, milestones for him, and I'm just excited to be a part of Jared Hawkins' life and it's just a pleasure blocking for him.

What's your relationship like with Jared?

BV: We came in together, we've been through everything together, we're the same year, we're going to graduate together. It's just great to see him do well and as soon as we get Jeff back, we're going to have a very, very good tandem, and I'm really excited about it.

Do you think he has deserved more carries than he's gotten in the past?

BV: That's coach Kitchings. I have nothing to do with that. I'm not in their meeting rooms, I don't make the decisions. Whoever gets the ball, I'm just blocking for them no matter what.

What area of his game has Jarred improved the most over the past 3-4 years?

BV: I think whenever a running back comes in to college the No. 1 thing they have to work on is pass protection because in high school I don't think you really have to deal with that. You're always stronger and faster than everybody else. It's their hardest job to pick up all pass protections and blitzes and stuff like that.

Has he gotten a lot better in that area?

BV: Absolutely. He's improved on that more so than I'd say anything he's done. Knowing the offense better, knowing where blitzes are coming from, just getting your pads down and blocking better, he's really improving and he's looking good.

What type of person is Jared?

Jared's one of the hardest workers on the team. He's non-stop, go hard, always on the grind. Whatever that guy gets, he deserves.

Catching up with Bobby Johnson

Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson spoke with the media this afternoon and touched on a number of topics, including the significance of Thursday night's victory over South Carolina, the loss of defensive back Darlron Spead, the play of his linebackers, offensive line and special teams, the superb performance from Jared Hawkins and how to prepare for Rice's dynamic offense.

With you guys finally playing a game on Saturday, is there something to be said for getting back to a sense of normalcy?

Bobby Johnson: A lot to be said for it, especially academically. We went to class Thursday at least all the way through the morning and then got them over and settled them down in the hotel after that. It was pretty tough. And then the next day, you've got to get up and go to class. And they had to do the same thing the week before after the Miami game so it's been pretty tough. And then the weekend, you're practicing on Saturday and Sunday and then we went Monday night, so yes, I'm very happy to be back on the regular schedule.

The secondary has obviously played well. Can you talk about their play back there and how the injury to Darlron Spead is going to affect things.

BJ: They have played well and we expected them to play well. They were a good group last year, made a lot of big plays for us, and a lot of the things we do on defense are predicated on the fact that they can give you pretty good coverage on almost every play.

Losing Darlron will certainly be a blow to that group. He was sort of a specialist at the nickel back position and did a great job at it and had a knack for rushing the passer when we were blitzing and also had a knack for getting underneath those underneath routes. The other night (he had) a beautiful interception, read it the whole way. I'm pretty sure he was hoping for the quarterback to throw it to his man because he was ready for it.

We'll figure out a plan that we're going to use to try to replace him and it'll probably be several different scenarios, maybe several different players playing that position.

The other night after the game you talked about upping the ante a little bit and having a responsibility now. Did you talk to your guys about that and what does that mean exactly?

BJ: We've worked hard to try to get us a big win at home and now that we've done it, we've got to prove that that's what we've been preparing for. If we have been preparing for it, we'll go out and practice this week and practice hard and learn what Rice does offensively and defensively and be ready to play when gametime comes here Saturday. You just can't hang your hat on one or two games here or there, or one performance or one big win. I thought it was two big wins. I thought Miami was a big win for us on the road and I think it helped us win the South Carolina game. We just have to keep it going.

Do the stakes need to be raised for a program to move forward, where all your guys do play with that urgency every week?

BJ: I think we've always played with a pretty good sense of urgency. I think we are now playing good enough to compete with everybody we play against, and I think that in itself is a charge to our players to say, "Hey, play as good as you can play. If you do, you've got a chance to win."

Talk a little about Chase Clement. Is that one of the best quarterbacks you'll face this year?

BJ: He does a lot of good things for them. He's fearless and he can throw the ball extremely well, but he also runs the ball very well and makes a lot of plays with his legs. He's a lot like Chris. They're not all scrambles, they're designed runs and he does a good job of running their offense. I guarantee you he's seen every kind of defensive formation you could probably throw at him during his career there.

What has impressed you the most about Jared Hawkins?

BJ: I expected Jared to have a good year. I said earlier that I thought we would be better at the running back position than we were last year, and Jared was going to be a big part of it. Jared runs bigger than he looks. He's 195 pounds. He's a stout kid, but he doesn't look that way if you just look at him on the field. I think he surprises a few people with his power. He doesn't mind at all running between the tackles and bouncing off tacklers and he did a great job of that the other night.

Did Hawkins respond well to the extra carries?

BJ: Oh yea, he's in a great shape. In the preseason he had a little problem with some shin splints and didn't get to practice as much as he or we would have liked, but the strain on his body didn't bother him. He's in great shape.

Do you think the players responded positively to Chris Reinert's injry?

BJ: I think we responded to his gestures. We were a little bit upset, that was a pretty tough injury, and when you've got your teammate down there, everybody's concerned about it. We were certainly glad to see him in great spirits when they took him off, but that was a tough, tough injury. Chris Reinert is a tough guy. He's just one of those guys who's always running around and always has a lot of enthusiasm, and it's kind of contagious to the other guys. I definitely think it helped us out a little bit, and the next run, I don't know...you have to ask Jared, but the next run he bounced off about three of them and got in the end zone.

How hard is it for defenses to prepare for Chris Nickson?

BJ: It's the same problem we're having with Chase Clement. How do you defend everything that they do? I think Chris presents a lot of problems to defenses because a lot of is designed, some of it is off the cuff, and in the passing attack, if you can get some protection, I think Chris is a very fine passer. He'll continue to get better. What I've been really pleased with is his demeanor and how he's run the offense and his leadership ability I think has stepped up a tremendous amount, and that's just what you want out of a senior quarterback.

Schematically, what does Rice do offensively?

BJ: They have a stable of wide receivers that are used to being in that system where they catch a lot of balls and they see a lot of different coverages and react to coverages and they do a great job of that. But, they run the ball too. They make you stay honest.

You just can't drop eight of them back there and play against the pass, you've got to do both, and I think they have a tremendous amount of confidence right now in what they do. They feel like they can score points in bunches and they can do it anytime they need to do it. In the fourth quarter against Memphis, I think you saw that confidence, just step up and say, "Hey, we're gonna get it done," and they got it done.

Talk about the similarities between Vanderbilt and Rice.

BJ: We're smaller schools, but we have 85 scholarships just like everybody else. I've never bought into that small-school thing. They're a good program, they're up-and-coming. Coach has done a great job of getting his guys refocused. They've played two good games, just swamped SMU and has a great victory at Memphis. I think that says a lot for their team and their confidence.

Rice used to be in the Southwestern Conference and had to compete with Texas and Texas A&M and all those guys. Just like with Vanderbilt, it's tough to compete with those guys way back when everybody had more scholarships. Now, everybody has a little bit more even playing field I think and that's why you see so many upsets every week, and you see so many teams that used to not win are winning now. It's just a whole lot different than '61 or '62, whenever they went to a bowl.

When you're not playing on Saturday, how much do you pay attention to the college football landscape?

BJ: I actually was working this past weekend so I didn't get to see a whole lot, but yeah, I'm a fan. It's fun to watch, especially after you've won a game and you kind of relax that weekend. It's a whole lot more fun, to tell you the truth. You look at it like a fan, but you also look at it as a coach. What would you do if you were playing these guys and oh my gosh, look at that. How would we defend that? What are we going to do? It's still fun.

Thoughts on what happened to Washington?

BJ: It's a tough rule. I think that was a pretty obvious violation of the rule. If you want to say that rule was a bad rule, we can debate that, but it's a rule and they violated it. We came close to violating it and probably should have been called, I don't know. That's the thing -- I think you have to have very consistent enforcement of the rules by all the officials in the all the conferences.

The clear thing to me is, in our situation, we didn't violate the rule. We had a guy celebrating with his teammates and that's all he did right there. When you throw the ball 25 feet up in the air, that's a violation.

Thoughts on how the offensive line has done so far?

BJ: I hope we got better. I think we got better in the second half especially in the South Carolina game. I expect them to get better and better as we go along. I've really been pleased with Thomas Welch. I think Thomas has blocked extremely well. I thought Reilly Lauer and Ryan Custer had very good games this past week so if we can continue to develop some depth and if somebody gets dinged up, be able to put somebody in there and not miss any execution of off that, I would really be happy.

Surprised at the way they've controlled the first two games in the fourth quarter when you've needed to?

BJ: I don't know if I was surprised. I was very hopeful that we would be able to get a couple first downs, but that's pretty tough to do. We started at the five-yard line after the punt and then one first down is pretty good, but then to get the second one, I'm sure glad we got it because I hadn't figured out exactly what I was going to do -- whether I was going to punt or take a safety or what we were going to do.

So when he went across that line, I went, "Whew!" That's one decision I don't have to make. That's why I was so happy on the sideline. (Laughter)

Thoughts on the play of linebacker Patrick Benoist, who was named SEC Player of the Week?

BJ: It's a tough job. Against South Carolina, who does a good job of running the football and passing the football, he had a tough matchup. He was having to hang on to Jared Cook and that's a big target to try to settle in on right there. He kept battling and battling and got in and made some big plays for us. Patrick is really smart, and he knows exactly what we're doing, he knows what checks to make, he knows what the other team is going to do most of the time, and that's why he is as effective as he is. He's a smart player.

Thoughts on how John Stokes and Chris Marve have done, stepping in to a starting role?

BJ: It's a lot easier to say you're going to do that than getting in there and playing under the gun and being a starting linebacker in the SEC and they both played very well and are getting better every game. Chris was kind of hesitant in the first part of the Miami game and you could see him get better in the second half and he played much better against South Carolina than he did against Miami.

Thoughts on the play of the linebackers as whole?

BJ: They're pretty savvy. Patrick's had the advantage of playing a lot more, but all three of them study it just like you want your linebackers to do. You want them to anticipate what's happening and be ready to direct things out there on the field, and they're doing a good job of that even though they are young.

Talk about how pleased you are the special teams' performance through the first two games.

BJ: That was one of our goals over the offseason, to try to make our special teams better -- more sound first, and then hopefully make some big plays. The field goal block, that was just an individual effort by Greg (Billinger) getting in there, but I think that pressure and the pressure we had coming from the outside hopefully put a little bit more pressure on (Ryan) Succop on the next one that he missed.

There's always a benefit from blocking one. I think it scares them a little bit for the rest of them. And to tell you the truth, the play off of the punt was a fluke and it the South Carolina player, but our guys were very alert and jumped on it.

How did you go about improving your special teams?

BJ: We just examined each one of them. We sat down as a staff and we got the tape out and we looked at it and we've got some pretty smart coaches and when we get everybody in there and everybody gives their input on what we could do better or what they've seen before maybe at another school or another program and come up with what we want to do with our players. I think our coaches do a good job of getting our players in the right situations so they can be successful.

It was must have been pretty cool to be on the road this weekend in your Vanderbilt gear after Thursday night's victory.

BJ: It was. I'll tell you one thing that I realized even more, even though I thought I knew it, a lot of people watch ESPN. (Laughter). Going through airports. I was in the Dallas airport and people were stopping us left and right, and in Shrveport and in Nashville.

It was kind of cool, but it just goes to show you what exposure you get when you play Thursday night games, even though they're a little tougher to do. They're something we've got to be willing to do and we're pleased with the opportunity to have that this year.

Did anyone mistake you for Steve Martin?

BJ: Not a soul.

I'll have interviews with Chris Nickson, Reshard Langford and Brad Vierling up this evening so be sure to check back later.

Photo [The Tennessean]

Friday, September 5, 2008

Q&A with Greg Billinger

Defensive tackle Greg Billinger talked to the media yesterday after a career game against South Carolina, where he blocked a field goal and also had two sacks.

On blocking the field goal
It was pretty fun. I just tried to penetrate the gap as hard as I can, and I just got my hands up. The kicks were pretty low all game.

On this being a personal breakout game on a big stage
It felt really good. I never had a sack before. That kind of surprised me. I'm proud of my D-Line, I'm proud of the defense and offense. We just try to play as hard as we can, every play, every series. The whole summer, I don't really read the newspapers that much, but they didn't give us much credit out here. We took what we built over the summer and took it to the game today.

On what the win means for the team
We love it. I mean, we're...I'm kind of speechless right now. We went out there and played really hard like we always do in practice, we just do what we do in practice, it just takes care of itself. Like I said, I'm kind of speechless.

Emotions before the game
We came in and we looked at a lot of film from last year and tried to bring that same intensity as last year in their home stadium. We had to close ranks in the D-Line with as many D-linemen as we lost last year. We tried to the best of our ability to do that.

What's it like to see the Blackout
It felt really good. I don't think I've ever seen the place that packed. To have South Carolina's fans in that one little area and see black everywhere else felt pretty great. We heard them in the locker room actually, going "Who ya with, VU" and "Go Black." That's very motivating. I love the student body, I love our fans, I love all the parents and family members who come out and watch us from all different areas of the U.S. That's very motivating.

On the win being a confidence-booster
It gives me a lot of confidence. I'm going to go out there this week and have the same attitude next week. That's all I can do right now. You don't want to be cocky but you don't want to stay grounded.

Commodore Banter: Christmas Day Edition

No, you're not dreaming.

This morning Vanderbilt (2-0, 1-0 SEC) finds itself on top of the world, or at least the SEC East, after stunning South Carolina 24-17.

For the past few years, the Commodores have been looking for a signature home victory. They finally got one last night, beating Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks for the second straight year.

With Erin Andrews and the rest of the ESPN crew in the house, the Commodores overcame a 10-3 halftime deficit to pull off their first home win against a Top 25 team since defeating No. 25 Ole Miss on Sept. 19, 1992 — a span of 16 years.

“We owed it to (our fans),” said Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson. “We’ve had some great wins away, then we’ve come home and stunk it up. It’s a great win for us. We needed it.”

“We’re trying to defend our house,” said defensive end Steve Stone. “That’s a big point for us this year. We catch a lot of bad breaks here at Vanderbilt, but tonight we made our own breaks.”

Vanderbilt’s defense was as good as advertised, recording two first-half interceptions and four sacks, including two huge ones by Stone on South Carolina’s final drive.

In a game that tested their resilience and resolve, the Commodores played their best when it mattered most, which isn’t something we’re used to seeing, writes The Tennessean’s David Climer. And as he said, maybe, just maybe, “that glass ceiling is sporting a crack.”

It was the Commodores’ first win was its first in eight appearances on the ESPN flagship network, The Tennessean writes in its football notebook.

Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson was refreshingly honest in his post-game press conference, and at one point wondered out loud why everyone thought it would be impossible to beat South Carolina after winning 17-6 in Columbia a year ago.

“I was surprised that so many people thought it would be real hard for us to beat them,” he said. “We beat them last year, and I don’t know why everybody thought they got so much better than we were getting. I was glad to get out there and play the game.”

Added tailback Jared Hawkins: “We’re not a blowoff team. We’re going to hit you in the mouth.”

That they most certainly did.