* Let's get this out of the way first. "Yeah. Absolutely," 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald said late Saturday night when asked if Kain Colter was still his team's starting quarterback. That was true even though Trevor Siemian, Colter's backup, had just catalyzed the 'Cats to a comeback win for the second week in a row.
A Saturday earlier, at Syracuse, he had done that with a touchdown pass to Demetrius Fields with 44 seconds remaining. Here, in their home open against Vanderbilt, he had entered the fray late in the third quarter and, after a three-and-out, did this. He guided them on an 11-play, 86-yard drive that ended with the seven-yard touchdown run by Venric Mark that put them up 13-10. Then, after the Commodores had tied it up at 13, he guided them on a 12-play, 73-yard drive that ended with an 18-yard field goal by Jeff Budzien.
"I think we've got two quarterbacks we believe we can win with, and we were sputtering a little bit. So," Fitzgerald would say when asked why he went with Siemian down the stretch. "It's the great thing about having that kind of talent in our quarterback position. I wouldn't say it's like going to the bullpen. You can reenter (the game after you go out). But we've got two guy we believe we can win with. That's a good problem."
* It had, in fact, been a rare up-and-down evening for his offense, which last season averaged just under 76 plays per-game. In the first half, which ended with the Commodores up 10-3, it managed just 29 and then, after Colter authored a 14-play drive at the start of the third quarter that led to the second of Budzien's three field goals, it had three consecutive three-and-outs. It was only now, with 13:55 remaining in the game, did it truly stir to life behind Siemian and the running back Venric Mark.
The latter would end his night with 123 rushing yards and 14 receiving yards and 21 return yards, and on this drive he was simply a dervish. He caught a pass for 14. He pounded the middle hard, once for three yards, another time for 10. Finally, from the Vandy seven, he slipped around left end for the touchdown that gave the 'Cats their first lead of this affair. "I think he's grown exponentially. I think he's really matured. The credit goes to Venric first and foremost," Fitzgerald later said of him, echoing a sentiment he often expressed as this season approached.
"I think everybody knows he's fast," said Siemian when asked what might surprise people about Mark, who goes a mere 5-foot-7, 174 pounds. "So probably his ability to break tackles. I think everybody thinks because he's a small guy, he can't run between tackles or something like that. But you rarely see the first guy bring him down, whether it's in the box or on the perimeter. That may be surprising for people watching."
"Just make sure I stay positive," said Mark when asked the reason for his early-season success. "Just make sure my attitude is in the right place. Make sure I don't listen to that little voice in your head when you get tired. Sometimes you don't feel like waking up early and working, but I stuck with it."
Does he ever get tired with all the multi-tasking he does?
"Sometimes I do. But I have my own techniques to trick myself and get back into the groove of things."
"That's a secret."
* Now, after Vandy had come back to forge the tie at 13, the 'Cats faced a third-and-15 from their own 44. Rain was falling here as Rashad Lawrence streaked down the left sideline, yet Siemian delivered a strike and Lawrence collected the ball and took one, two strides before Commodore safety Javon Marshall knocked him out of bounds and the ball out of his hands. It was ruled a catch, but now came an interminable review. "I didn't think he held on, to be honest with you," Siemian later said. "Then it kind of took awhile and I thought maybe they're going to swing it our way. But credit to Rashad. He made a heck of a catch."
And what did Lawrence say during the review?
"He said he caught it, but he didn't know how many steps he took after he caught it. He said he didn't tuck it, but he thought he had it."
He did, and four plays later Budzien kicked the field goal that put the 'Cats up three at 2:01.
* Plenty of time, of course, still remained for Vandy, but on its very first play after the kickoff, its quarterback Jordan Rodgers slid right to buy some time and was rudely greeted by 'Cat defensive end Tyler Scott. Out popped the ball and there to recover it was Dean Lowry, the other 'Cat end, and three plays later Colter skittered 29 yards for the final score in their 10-point win. "As a defense, we said we weren't done. We want to get some pressure on Jordan and cause him to throw the ball away or do something," Scott later said when asked about his victory-sealing play. "It turned out even better."
* That was an appropriate exclamation point to the 'Cat win since, in fact, this evening truly belonged to their oft-maligned defense. Twice in the first half it forced Vandy into a three-and-out and then, with that half winding down and Vandy driving for a score that would add to its seven-point lead, end Quentin Williams popped Rodgers and forced a fumble that was recovered by linebacker David Nwabuisi. This was a huge play this night, and then that defense was even bigger after it came out of the locker room for the second half.
On Vandy's first possession, it surrendered just 32 yards on five plays before forcing a punt. On Vandy's second possession, it forced a three-and-out, and that was true too on it's third and fourth possessions as well. It did bend now and allow Vandy to drive 60 yards to that tying field goal, but there was no bend after the 'Cats took back the lead, just that climactic play by Scott. "I thought our defense gave us a chance to stay in the ball game," Fitzgerald would later say. "I thought we played very well, very sound, kept the ball inside and in front, got good pressure on the quarterback. We effected him, no question about that, and he's a heck of a football player. The defense today allowed us to stay in the ball game."
"Obviously, it was a huge effort by our defense. They saved our butts for a good part of the game there," Siemian said more succinctly. "It's really encouraging when you see your defense getting stops, getting off the field and giving you a chance to score. That's all you can ask as an offense."
* For the record: Scott was one star of that defense, but there were others as well. There was linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo, who ended with a sack, three tackles for losses and a team-leading 10 tackles overall. There was tackle Brian Arnfelt, who was a beast in the belly while getting a sack of his own and two tackles for losses. And there was the defensive backfield, which gave up just one explosion play and limited Rodgers to a mere 17-of-33 for only 217 yards. "I think they're really, really tired of being (viewed as) kind of the Achilles heel," Fitzgerald would finally say of his defense. "They're human. They want to be successful. . . These guys are competitive, they want to be great. And when you don't have success, the first person you look at, you point the thumb at yourself and you take the blame and responsibility and hold yourself accountable. That's what this group has done."
* And finally, Fitzgerald, on starting 2-0: "We've got a pretty mentally tough team. And as you have success, it just buys you a ticket to a bigger and greater challenge. You get a win last week, you put two more 45-pound plates on the bar. Now we got a win this week, you put two more 45-pound plates on the bar. That's the way it goes when you have success, and you've got to find a way to get that bar off your chest, and you've got to do it together."