Zach Cunningham has seen these games get away from Vanderbilt all too often in his four years on campus.
The redshirt junior linebacker suffered through coach Derek Mason’s trying first year in the SEC (0-8 in conference play) in 2014 and trudged his way through last year’s 4-8 campaign. There have been blown leads, blowouts, and comeback attempts thwarted in the final seconds.
But on Saturday, Cunningham — the heart and soul of this Vanderbilt defense, who has quietly become one of the country’s very best defenders — felt compelled to write a different ending. And when he did, well, it was the closest thing to a poetic play you’ll ever see from a linebacker.
On 4th-and-1, with Georgia trailing by 1 point and threatening at the Vandy 41-yard line, the Bulldogs had one last chance to salvage a win in front of its homecoming crowd. They sought out their quickest player, the lightweight wideout Isaiah McKenzie, on a sweep and called for their best player (Nick Chubb) to lead block for him.
Just as McKenzie was about to burst past the imaginary yellow first-down finish line, here comes Cunningham, knifing through traffic, sprinting to the sideline and executing a perfect wrap-up tackle in space that would’ve made Nick Saban shed tears of delight.
— Mickey Ryan (@MickeyRyan1045) October 15, 2016
Soon after, the clock expired, and Vanderbilt players were mobbing Derek Mason on the Sanford Stadium field, celebrating the biggest win of his head coaching career.
The 17-16 final score illustrates just how ugly this game was, but those are precisely the games Mason hasn’t won since taking his job in 2014. It took him three years to do it, but finally, he can cross “SEC road win” off his coaching checklist.
The Commodores outplayed Georgia on special teams. They shut down tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, holding Georgia to 75 yards rushing on the day. They beat a team that still had plenty of reasons to play hard. This was UGA’s homecoming game, after all.
Cunningham’s final stat line: 19 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a pass breakup. He was all over the field.
Afterward, he was all over TV and Twitter. His name was trending on social media. No. 41 was the guy getting praise for his heroic individual effort.
Stopping McKenzie on fourth down was Vanderbilt’s biggest play of the year, and maybe even of the last three years.
Good luck flying under the radar much longer.
For Mason, this game alone won’t be what saves his job, or what makes a career 3-17 SEC record seem any rosier. But it’s a start, and it shows he can keep his players motivated after not one, but two consecutive 7-point losses. His defense played tough, and his decision-making was sound.
First-year Georgia coach Kirby Smart is quickly learning what kind of expertise it takes to guide your own program in the SEC. Three years into it, Mason’s experience finally might be paying off.