Tennessee’s only conference loss on the season came at the hands of the Crimson Tide, and it wasn’t pretty. Since then though, the team had regrouped, and now the Vols had begun to think of a rematch with Alabama. They would have to get through Vanderbilt first though, and no other team in the country had a greater margin of victory than the Commodores.
The Vanderbilt team buses, led by Tennessee State Trooper squad cars, rolled down I-40 toward Knoxville passing the blur of evergreens and winter-ready, bare trees on the hills and dales miles away from their destination. Upon arrival the team would eat dinner, go over last minute game planning, and retire to their hotel. The scene had become commonplace for the team, but tomorrow’s game was different. For many years, this game had lost its rivalry status due to the one sided nature of the outcomes.
“Willy,” Joey said tapping him on the shoulder. “What are you listening to?”
“Call in show.”
“What call in show?”
Willy pulled out his ear buds.
“Knoxville. I think it’s called ‘Vol Calls’ or something.”
Joey shook his head. Why did Willy refuse to adhere to Coach Michaels’ advice and let the fans do the game watching and talking? Willy and Joey had their own worries. But Willy’s curiosity got the best of him as well.
“So what are they saying?”
“You really want to know?”
“Sure. That’s why you’re listening isn’t it?”
“I want this edge,” Willy said as if he might be considering himself what compelled him to eavesdrop on the thoughts of fans. “I need to know they are out to get us, you know? This one though, this game, I really want to show them. I don’t like the arnj,” he said.
The Volunteer fans might be the most fickle in the nation. When the team was good, they were downright obnoxious. They took ownership of the team during those times, and when they won the Tennessee Valley won. The people became champions. When the team was bad, the fans threw up their hands in sarcasm and looked for scapegoats. Vol football was life itself in East Tennessee. Right now, the team was good, and the fans were rowdy.
“They say they’re going to shut you and me down. They say they’ll hurt us if they can. They say we’ll quit. Want me to go on?”
“I think that’s enough.” Joey thought about Glenn. He gritted his teeth and looked out the front window of the bus toward the Smoky Mountains.
Over 108,000 fans packed Neyland Stadium, and when the home team ran through the power T it seemed as though the stadium might come crashing down. Joey watched as the Vols ran by. Big. The biggest team they had played yet. His mind wandered to the Bama game. How had they trounced this team the way they had?
Standing in front of the checkerboard end zone, Joey watched the opening kick fly over his head for a touchback. The first, scripted set of downs began. As if expecting the very play that was called, a dive off tackle, UT’s big defensive linemen swarmed through the outnumbered right side and dropped Joey for a three yard loss. For the fans the result seemed to be deliverance of a covenant. The second play, a play action pass that should have been a quick hitter in the flat to Willy, got the same result. No one bought the fake, and two men covered Willy. The line swallowed the quarterback couch for another ten yard loss, and he limped back to the huddle in a daze. The noise now was deafening.
“Jesus, what was the third play?” he asked.
“Forget that,” Willy said, out of breath. His hands were shaking, and he looked up into the towering levels of seats painted orange. “On second thought.”
The clock ticked, but no one said a word. Linemen leaned on their knees. Joey knew where this was going. The play was a quick slant to Willy, unlikely to get the twenty yards needed for a first down. It was as if the defense knew the plays even if Vandy’s quarterback suddenly didn’t.
“Couch, shotgun, pitch right. Block that way, guys. Willy, slant then cut up as fast as you can run. I’m throwing the ball to the other thirty. You be there when it comes down. No one act like it’s not the scripted play.”
Vandy went to the line with ten on the play clock. Couch took the snap and pitched right. Joey put his head down and ran for the right sideline with what seemed like the whole Tennessee team in pursuit. After a few steps, he slammed on the breaks and heaved the ball into the air. When it came to earth, Willy was all alone under it and he went into the end zone for the score. The kick made the score 7-0.
“What was that?” Michaels screamed at Couch who didn’t seem like he knew what to say. “That wasn’t the play.”
Willy appeared with Joey by his side.
“Audible,” Willy said.
“Audible? There was no audible,” Michaels screamed even though he didn’t really need to now. The stands had grown quiet.
“Coach, I don’t know how, but I think they know the plays.”
Michaels turned away and then back to the players at once.
“You run the plays I call,” he said. “That’s what I get paid for.”
Tennessee took the ball and began to march at once with running plays over the tackles. Joey cheated up and made tackles along with the linebackers, but the Vols were eating up chunks of yardage on each try. Vandy’s package seemed to focus on the gun-slinging arm of the Tennessee quarterback, but it was evident the Vols planned on using their size to run over and over at the smaller team.
Vandy got a break though, and a bad snap and fumble gave the Commodores the ball inside their own ten. Now they could get some separation with one big play. In the huddle Willy had plans this time. For some unknown reason, his radar had gone off. Something was up.
“Play’s pitch right,” Couch said.
“Make sure you all go that way,” Willy said. “Joey, reverse out of that if they clog things up. I’ll cut across and be ready to crack back. The rest is on you. Everybody’s going right, you’ll go left.”
Willy’s play worked perfectly. The play did clog up, and when Joey reversed his field all he had to do was outrun three men in containment to the edge. Willy laid the linebacker out, literally knocking him out cold and out of the game. Ninety yards later, Joey gave the referees the ball in the other end zone.
So it went that way throughout the first half. Using Joey and Willy’s cunning and speed, Vanderbilt ran busted plays for a total of over 400 yards. The score was 42-0 at the half and the stands were largely empty. Vandy’s second team unit played Tennessee even the second half and the final was 49-7.
Only Alabama smokes cigars after defeating Tennessee. Vanderbilt settled for their own locker room celebration now that the team had eleven wins and no losses. They were the Eastern Division champs and would play in the SEC Championship game. Regardless of the result of that game, unless it was a blowout, it looked like Vanderbilt would be included in the final four-game playoff for the national championship. Next week, they would play lowly Middle Tennessee State. They would most definitely be 12-0. If number one Bama could defeat Auburn, the two teams would meet in Atlanta the following week. Vanderbilt would finally face the man the fans called Satan. What they didn’t know was they had probably been dealing with him the whole season already.