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Playing out the string in 1984

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5-3, with three games to go. Would Vanderbilt do this? You already know the answer to that question.

Chargers V Oilers

We conclude our history lesson on the 1984 season. In Part 1, Vanderbilt starts the season 4-0, with a win over Alabama! Yay! In Part 2, Vanderbilt blows a game against winless Tulane to start a three-game losing streak! Boo!

The Commodores did put a stop to the losing streak with a 37-20 win over Ole Miss on Homecoming, though. That left Vanderbilt at 5-3 with three games left in the season. This is a place that, well, Vanderbilt seems like it’s been a few times. How would it end in 1984?

We all know the answer to that question.

November 10: Kentucky (7-2) 27, Vanderbilt (5-4) 18

Yep.

In fairness, Kentucky has won nine games in a season three times since Bear Bryant’s 1950 team, and the 1984 team was one of them. On a stormy day in Lexington, Kentucky struck first blood taking a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, but Kurt Page connected with Joe Kelly on a 43-yard pass to even the score. Page then found Chuck Scott for a 75-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, but Ricky Anderson’s extra point attempt was blocked.

In spite of a 242-136 yardage advantage in the first half, Vanderbilt trailed 14-13 at the half. And on the first play from scrimmage in the second half, Kentucky freshman Mark Higgs broke free for an 84-yard touchdown run to give the Wildcats a 21-13 lead.

That long run was all Kentucky would need. Ricky Anderson would boot a 53-yard field goal to cut the score to 21-16, but Vanderbilt’s offense wouldn’t score again. The final box score makes clear that this was the sort of frustrating defeat that Vanderbilt fans have become all too used to; Vanderbilt outgained Kentucky 400-374 on the day, but two turnovers to Kentucky’s zero probably made the difference. (As it turns out, a pass-heavy attack might have been problematic in bad weather.)

November 17: Virginia Tech (8-3) 23, Vanderbilt (5-5) 3

Virginia Tech’s 1984 defense, led by All-American and future Hall of Famer Bruce Smith, ranked fourth nationally allowing 12.5 points per game; but this performance wasn’t entirely on Virginia Tech’s defense.

Vanderbilt’s offense attempted 51 passes on this November day, but for reasons that the game recap doesn’t make clear (I’m assuming injury), starting quarterback Kurt Page only threw 16 of them. Page went 11-for-16 for 84 yards with an interception; sophomore backup Mark Wracher, who had led something of a comeback a month earlier at LSU with Page on the bench, was 13-for-34 for 149 yards and three interceptions. And Bobby Capobianco — listed on the roster as a running back — attempted a pass, which also went for an interception.

Yep, five interceptions. Virginia Tech — a solid team in 1984, but hardly the program that they would later become under Frank Beamer — only managed 289 yards of total offense, but it turned out they didn’t need a ton of offense. Vanderbilt didn’t score until a Ricky Anderson field goal with 6:40 left in the game.

December 1: Tennessee (7-3-1) 29, Vanderbilt (5-6) 13

The season that started with so much promise ended with a thud. The highlight of the game, from the old recap found on vucommodores.com:

Ricky Anderson, soon to be a consensus All-America. nailed down the national punting title with a 51-yard average on six punts.

Hell yeah our punter was a consensus All-American.

Kurt Page didn’t start the game, with Mark Wracher again getting action — the game recap claims that Page had an ailing right shoulder. After a scoreless first quarter, Tennessee struck first on a 37-yard field goal from Fuad Reveiz, and then Wracher got sacked in the end zone for a Tennessee safety and a 5-0 lead. Tennessee’s Johnnie Jones would score on a 57-yard run before halftime as he wrapped up the SEC rushing title, and Tim McGee caught two touchdown passes from Tony Robinson in the third quarter to extend the Vols’ lead to 26-0.

Page came on in the third quarter and led two touchdown drives, but it was too little, too late. Somehow, Tennessee only outgained Vanderbilt 480-393 on the game, but the final score was 29-13. A season that had started with promise ended with a 5-6 record and no bowl game.


Like every near-miss season, a few things went wrong in 1984.

As usually happens in these games, Vanderbilt probably got out-talented by LSU and Georgia. They probably did against Tennessee as well, though missing starting quarterback Kurt Page in the first half didn’t help. Missing Page really didn’t help against Virginia Tech. Vanderbilt’s pass-heavy offense wasn’t well suited to rainy conditions in Lexington, Kentucky. And the Tulane game... well, that’s right there next to the 2005 loss to MTSU in terms of killers.

The 25-year drought without a winning season included a lot of really bad seasons, but 1984 stands out as one of the closest calls. And had that season ended in a bowl game, a lot of history might have played out differently.

I was around for 1984 — barely — and don’t remember it, but looking through the history it seems that George MacIntyre had started to figure a few things out. The 8-4 season in 1982 resulted in Vanderbilt’s third bowl game, ever, and was a far cry from the 33-game SEC losing streak that had just ended a year earlier. 1983 was a rebuilding year, and the program seemed close in 1984.

Instead, a year later, George MacIntyre would be out as Vanderbilt’s head coach.

I think I’ll probably explore the 1985 in the next piece of the series. It’s always seemed strange to me that in a little over a year, George MacIntyre went from coach of a 4-0 team that was ranked 19th in the AP Poll, to out of a job and exploring his options in private business while Vanderbilt would call up a coach who’d won four games in two years at Rice.