A eulogy for Vanderbilt’s opening week losing streak

Ralph Webb (7) as Vanderbilt lost against the South Carolina Gamecocks 13-10 at Vanderbilt Stadium September 1, 2016.

Murfreesboro, Tennessee, September 2nd, 2017. Vanderbilt football celebrates a decisive 28-6 victory over the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders. Rewind nearly six years to a similar scene in Nashville on September 2nd, 2011, when the Commodores steamrolled over Elon, 45-14. Vanderbilt did not win a single season opener in the six years between these two victories, and when they lost, they lost spectacularly.

In 2012, Vanderbilt’s first game was against the powerhouse South Carolina Gamecocks, who would go on to place third in the SEC East. The Commodores went into the fourth quarter with a 13-10 lead, confident despite one of their field goals being called back due to a false start. Within minutes, however, South Carolina went ahead on a nine-play, 65-yard touchdown drive. The teams traded possession until the last few minutes of the game, when the Commodores faced a fourth and seven.  Jordan Rodgers launched a deep ball towards the sideline to star receiver Jordan Matthews, who likely would have hauled in the pass, if not for D.J Swearinger’s pass interference.  Except it wasn’t a pass interference call.  The referees failed to throw a flag, and their controversial call sealed Vanderbilt’s 17-13 loss. The six-year curse had begun.

One year later, the Commodores were down 32-28 against Ole Miss with three and a half minutes left in the fourth quarter. So far, the game had been back-and-forth, with neither team completely asserting its dominance over the other. On second down, the Rodgers fired a bullet straight to Matthews, who managed to hang onto the ball for a first down despite taking a devastating hit to the head. Matthews initially called for medical assistance, but then decided to return to the game after just one play. Less than a minute later, he vomited on the field, a clear sign of a severe concussion. He was finally removed from the game, and the Commodores failed to score in the final seconds of the game.

2014’s opening weekend only extended the Commodores’ losing streak. Despite having home field advantage, Vanderbilt lost 37-7 to Temple, suffering the worst defeat in a home opener in school history and their worst opening weekend loss since a 42-0 embarrassment against Mississippi in 1998. 27 of Temple’s 37 points stemmed from a grand total of seven turnovers by Vanderbilt.

Opening weekend 2015 was a far cry from the previous year’s blowout, but the final play alone, which sealed the Commodores’ fate in their 14-12 loss to Western Kentucky, was almost more painful than 2014’s embarrassing scorebox. With only 33 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Vanderbilt attempted a two-point conversion that would even the score and force the game into overtime. Then-quarterback Johnny McCrary made a perfect pass, but tight end Nathan Marcus was tackled just a yard short of the endzone, effectively ending the game.

2016 marked another literally last-minute loss for the Commodores. At halftime, they held a 10-0 lead over the South Carolina Gamecocks, but Carolina rallied in the second half to beat Vanderbilt 13-10. The final nail in the coffin was the 55-yard field goal by South Carolina kicker Elliott Fry with just 35 seconds left in the game. Earlier in the fourth quarter, Vanderbilt had missed a 44-yard field goal, and they turned over the ball on downs with 14 seconds left.

Then along came the opener this past Saturday. In their 28-6 rout of Middle Tennessee, Vandy scored a total of four touchdowns, including a 73-yard run by star running back Ralph Webb. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur shined as well, racking up an impressive 296 yards with no interceptions. Vanderbilt’s first-weekend losing streak is officially over, and this team hopes that its recent success will usher in an exciting and outstanding season.

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