If the rest of the college football season can match Thursday night's shootout between Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, heart surgeons around the country will be working overtime.
It was projected to be a toss-up game between two SEC teams striving to move up in the pecking order in their respective divisions. It more than lived up to expectations.
When the clock struck midnight, Ole Miss had somehow held on to take a 39-35 decision before a sold out crowd at Vanderbilt Stadium. All but a few misfortunate souls stayed glued to their seats as the fourth quarter became a track meet. Both teams were forced to come from behind when at times all appeared lost.
“The losses hurt bad,'' Vanderbilt Coach James Franklin said. “I hate them more than you can imagine. The wins I enjoy. I don't want to become one of those coaches where the wins are just OK, and the losses kill you.
“It breaks my heart when I see that everyone works so hard, but it didn't go well.''
Heroes were plentiful on both sidelines. Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace dueled Vanderbilt's first year starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, as they made big play after big play for their teams.
There was no give-up on either team. It was one of the most exciting games played on this field in some time, as these two programs attempt to make a name for themselves after hanging around the SEC basement for a number of years.
It was a mirror image of last season's game in which Ole Miss lost to Vanderbilt by one point. The Commodores went on to win nine games and went bowling for the second straight season. Ole Miss vowed to get even. The Rebels accomplished their mission, but not without Vanderbilt making them earn every point.
Vanderbilt took a 35-32 lead with 1:30 remaining in the game as Carta-Sameuls hit a wide open Steven Scheu on the left sideline and the 6-5, 255-pound tight end lumbered into the end zone from 24 yards out.
Ole Miss dug deep to find a way. The Rebels faced second and 10 from their own 25-yardline when Wallace handed off to senior running back Jeff Scott. Scott seemed to be penned in, admitting after the game that he was about to step out of bounds to stop the game clock before seeing the Vanderbilt safety out of position. Scott found a seam and the senior from Miami, Fla., burst into the open. A number of Commodores gave chase, but to no avail. Scott got down on one knee in the end zone after running 75 yards for the game winner. It was difficult to determine if he was praying or just out of gas.
It was a bitter pill to swallow for Franklin and his team. They desperately needed to get the season off on the right foot after being blind sided by an on-campus incident in late June that found four players getting kicked off the team and out of school, charged with aggravated rape and other charges. A fifth player, wide receiver Chris Boyd, was later charged with being an accessory after the fact and was also suspended from the team.
While Franklin has steadfastly refused to discuss the alleged rape case involving a 21-year-old Vanderbilt co-ed, it had to affect the players to some degree as Franklin preached that his team is a family and five former members of the family are facing serious felony charges.
It didn't appear to alter Vanderbilt's effectiveness during the game, even though the Commodores fell behind 10-0 in the first quarter. They rallied with 21 unanswered points to take a 21-10 lead at halftime and enjoyed some momentum, if even for the moment.
Ole Miss refused to wilt, pulling within 28-25 going into the final 15 minutes.
The statistics reflected how close this season opener was. Ole Miss got 39 first downs. Vanderbilt punched out 35. Ole Miss rang up 489 yards on 84 plays while Vanderbilt gained 426 yards on 69 plays. Carta-Samuels was intercepted twice while Wallace played the entire game without a turnover.
Wallace was 31 of 47 through the air for 283 yards and ran for two touchdowns. Scott led the Rebels on the ground with 138 yards on a dozen carries and the game-winning touchdown.
“It's a simple game,'' Franklin said. “We turned the ball over. They didn't.”
Contact WKRN Sports Columnist Joe Biddle at firstname.lastname@example.org.