At 8:28 p.m. in the Georgia Dome the Alabama kicker pooched a high end over end kick that Vandy fielded on a fair catch at the 33. Vanderbilt tried to run through the line, around the end, and then tried to pass before Joey punted. Alabama ran up the middle twice then ran a screen and was forced to punt.
That was the first half in a nutshell. Try something, try something else, repeat, and then punt. Neither team scored and each trotted to their locker rooms with the hope of figuring out a way to win the game. Both teams realized Alabama was winning the game even though it didn’t show on the scoreboard.
The right side of Joey’s neck had begun to ache, he thought and oddly enough, from one of the several vicious tackles he had made. Alabama’s Heisman contender, a 235 pound running back with over 1,600 yards rushing had dished out as much punishment, if not more, than he had taken. When Joey had the chance to square him up and take him down, the big man had driven so hard Joey could feel it from his head down into his legs.
Vanderbilt decided they would have to somehow get another man in the box, up to the defensive line, to stop the rush. They hoped they could stunt a linebacker on any running down. Surely, Alabama couldn’t throw away from Joey all night. The Commodores also decided to commit more double coverage away from Joey and let him operate all alone on receivers.
On the offensive side of the ball, Vandy decided to use Joey in a wildcat formation more often. Joey would take the direct snap and could pass the ball or run it. When he passed, if the defense spread out, he would have more room to run.
Even though Joey hadn’t seen Al watching the game, the sight of Sadan roaming the sideline was enough. The coach was as close to battling the devil as any team would ever get the chance.
Joey began to think about the Heisman, not exactly wondering if he was doing enough to win it because that didn’t really matter to him, but still contemplating what the broadcasters and voters might be thinking of his performance. Thus far, his play had been solid but not noteworthy. It might be easier if he didn’t win. What he wanted was to win the game.
Joey walked behind his teammates as Vandy exited the locker room and walked up the long concourse toward the field, and Joey did spot Al, leaning against the wall and chewing on a toothpick with the light of the field illuminating him from behind and casting a heavenly glow around his head. He was smiling.
“My lad, you’re hanging in there. Even better than I thought you could,” Al said straightening to his full height.
“They’re good,” Joey said.
“They are at that. My friend Coach Sadan has them ready,” he said then added, “as usual.”
“I still haven’t decided,” Joey told him.
“I think you still have a little time. Not much, but a little. It appears that forty days has come in handy.”
“We’ve got some work to do today if we’re going to win the SEC Championship,” Joey said. He was the last one in the tunnel.
“I never said I would make a success out of this rag-tag team you play for,” Al said. His smile had disappeared, and Joey seemed to be able to see a more sinister side of Al that had become more and more apparent as time had passed.
“I guess not,” Joey said. “The outcome is up to us.”
“Just don’t be too disappointed if the game doesn’t turn out the way you hoped. That wasn’t part of the deal.”
“I won’t, Al. Don’t you be too disappointed either if we win.”
“We’ll see, I suppose. We’ll see.” Al looked out through the gate as the crowd cheered and the teams took the field. “We’ll see. I do believe your destiny and your team await,” he said motioning with his hand.
Alabama took the opening kick, and as play began they recognized Vandy’s tactics and began to dump the ball to receivers away from Joey. The running game was gone, and now they were eating up chunks of yardage with short passes. The first drive culminated with a quick slant for a touchdown, and the Tide led 7-0.
Vanderbilt’s first drive was successful as well. Joey, operated out of the shotgun, was able to throw a few passes and also to scramble for two long gains. But when the field grew short, Vanderbilt sputtered and had to settle for a field goal by Joey. The score was 7-3.
Bama’s second drive was like the first. This time they scored on a twenty yard fade, away from Joey once more, and the Tide led 14-3.
Vanderbilt’s next drive was also like their first. They kicked a field goal again as time expired in the third to make the score 14-6.
Vanderbilt finally held Alabama on the third drive, and when Joey scooped up the bouncing punt and raced to the Bama five it looked as though the Commodores might be able to tie the score with a touchdown and two point conversion. Bama stiffened though and the kick made the score 14-9. Vanderbilt still hadn’t tasted the end zone.
And that’s the way the score stayed. And stayed. And stayed. Until Vanderbilt took over at their own 18 yard line with four minutes remaining in the game. As if the crowd was no longer in the stands, Joey’s concentration came into focus. He hit Willy for a twenty yard gain. Then, he scrambled for 25 more. After an incomplete pass, Joey saw the field open up like the Red Sea, and after he won the footrace to the end zone Vanderbilt was up for the first time 16-14.
Now all Vanderbilt had to do was hold one more time.
“Do your assignment,” Michaels told the defense. “You don’t have to be a hero. You do your job and if everyone does we’ll win this game.”
It was easier said than done.
Downtown got blasted all the way to the ground by Alabama’s mammoth left tackle, not once but twice. The Tide had abandoned the pass. With two minutes remaining, they planned to get close enough to kick a field goal and they planned to do it on the ground. The big halfback plowed into Joey two times in a row after managing to evade all other defenders, and by the time the clock sat on 21 seconds remaining Bama had the ball on the eight yard line. Third down and six yards to go. Bama had one time out remaining.
The play seemed as though it happened in slow motion. Alabama’s big back took the handoff as if he would run over the left side of the line. Instead, it was a counter back to the right. Vandy’s front line of defense collapsed, leaving a linebacker in pursuit and Joey who was tied up with a wide receiver. It was clear that the running back would outrun the linebacker, and by the time Joey got free to face him he was in full stride and bearing down like a Mac truck.
Joey bent for the impact and realized that the running back was leaving the ground. As he launched his body, Joey sprung upward, an immense collision that turned the pair in the air and toward the sideline. The running back landed with a thud at the three, and Bama called its last time out with ten seconds on the clock.
“We have to block the kick if we want to win the SEC championship,” Michaels said on the sideline. Every defensive player had taken a knee and most of them looked into the coach’s eyes.
“We’ve kept it close,” one of the defensive backs whispered. “We’ll surely still make the playoff either way.
Like a cat, Willy sprung across the mass of players and came to rest in front of his whispering teammate. For a split second, Joey thought Willy was going to punch the player in the face. Instead, he put a finger not an inch away from his nose.
“We’re not losing this game!” he said, gritting his teeth in a snarl. “Not now! We’ve come too far.”
“Willy, let’s get our plan together,” Michaels said glaring at the whole team.
“I can boost Willy into the air, and he can block it,” Joey said.
“Not legal,” Michaels countered.
Willy seemed to be thinking, his eyes downcast as if a sweet memory might be crossing his mind.
“Coach, I think I can get it from about where the linebackers stand,” Willy said.
Michaels reminded the linemen of their assignments. They had practiced field goal blocks throughout the season, but no one could have predicted how important the play’s success might be. As Vanderbilt took the field, their hopes of an undefeated season rode on the most improbable of plays. Alabama had not had a kick blocked in three years. The teams took their positions.
“Willy, the middle?” Joey asked looking to Willy who stood far away where the right cornerback might have stood in a normal defensive set up.
“I used to high jump in high school,” Willy said. He was eyeing what looked to be his steps in the run up to the bar. “You try to go in from the right. If you don’t get it, I plan to.”
The official blew his whistle. The noise in the stadium was deafening. The eyes of the college football were watching.
Bama snapped the ball cleanly and the sound of pads on pads resonated. Joey launched himself from the right side of the Tide’s line and he flew past the right-most defender. Yards away he leaped, sprawled straight out like Superman. As he flew, he heard the thud of the kick, and the ball flew through his outstretched hands. He didn’t touch it.
End over end, the short kick was and on its way. Willy had begun bounding, then running. Passing a linebacker he tapped his shoulder in a split second as if to say, “I’m behind you.” Then, planting his left foot at a forty-five degree angle with his knee straight like a high jumper, he drove his right leg into the air and launched with his back to the line. His right arm stretched, as if he might be reaching for the back of the high jump pad. But instead of reaching out with his hand he turned it straight into the air. Looking over his shoulder, climbing into the air, he could see the ball as it careened toward the field goal. The ball hit the back of Willy’s hand near the pinky and ring finger and immediately spun in the opposite direction, sideways now like a helicopter, but still toward the uprights. Wobbling, it veered right. But would it be enough?
In less than a second, the ball hit the lower bar and the right upright with an audible ting, then spun crazy… away from the bar…toward the sideline.. and the horn sounded.
But before the celebration could even begin, the officials began scrambling together. One blew his whistle. Sadan complained from the sidelines, and even though the Commodores had stormed the field the game didn’t appear to be finished.
“The previous play is under review,” the official announced. “The ruling on the field is a blocked field goal resulting in the end of the game.”
“Hey, hey,” Joey yelled to one of the referees. “What’s going on?”
“The Alabama coach has challenged the block saying the player was aided illegally.”
How could it be? In fact, Willy and Joey had considered it but declined when they realized it was illegal. He had not seen Willy tap the shoulder of a teammate, appearing as if he pushed off and into the air. What if the replay gave the appearance that Willy boosted himself up by pushing down on someone’s shoulder pad?
Along with the rest of the team, Joey meandered to the sidelines where he saw Coach Michaels who was speaking into his headset. When he finished speaking, Joey stepped in front of him.
“What happens if they rule it was an illegal block?”
“Well, it wasn’t,” Michaels said, “but if it’s a penalty, they’re so close they’ll assess the yardage, probably half the distance, and they have an untimed down. They’ll surely kick again.”
What would the chances be of blocking another kick? He had come so close, but Joey didn’t think there was any way they would block a second try. What if Alabama went for it?
On the other sideline, Sadan’s face was red and he was yelling at the top of his lungs at a poor official that happened to be standing near the yard marker. All the officials had come back onto the field, and when several of them began to dart in the direction of the tunnel, Joey realized that it could only mean one thing.
“The ruling on the field stands. Ballgame,” the official said and then ran for the tunnel, underneath a large clock that read 12:10. Midnight had come and gone. The game was over.
Vanderbilt had defeated Alabama 16-14. The Commodores were the SEC Champions.