Last bowl game in Birmingham produced individual performances for the ages

Dec. 19, 2013

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It's been nearly 31 years since Whit Taylor and Norman Jordan teamed up to produce two of the most memorable offensive performances in Vanderbilt football history.

Three decades later, Vanderbilt is returning to the same site where Taylor threw for 452 yards and four touchdowns and Jordan caught 20 passes for 173 yards and three touchdowns against Air Force in the 1982 Hall of Fame Bowl.

Even though much time has passed, Jordan, who now lives in Nashville and manages the Morgan Stanley office in Green Hills and Taylor, who is the principal at Shelbyville (Tenn.) Central High School, recall almost every detail from that memorable game and season.

The bowl game matched contrasting styles with Vanderbilt's high-powered passing attack against Air Force's wishbone offense. In the game, both teams had trouble stopping their opponent, as Vanderbilt racked up 452 yards in the air, while Air Force totaled 315 on the ground.

Most of Vanderbilt's damage was done by Taylor and Jordan. The 20 catches by Jordan remain a school record and are still tied for the most receptions by any player in a bowl game. Taylor's 452 yards are the second-most in school history, only 12 yards shy of his school record set one game earlier against Tennessee.

Although Jordan became the focal point of the passing attack against Air Force, the Commodores deployed a balanced aerial game throughout the regular season with All-American tight end Allama Matthews leading the team in receiving.

The Commodores entered the bowl game with an 8-3 record, having won five straight. Vanderbilt closed the season with a win over Tennessee and earned its first bowl bid since appearing in the 1974 Peach Bowl. The momentum of the season helped to attract a crowd of 75,000 to Legion Field in what remains the largest crowd to see Vanderbilt play in a bowl game.

"The support was unbelievable," Jordan remarked. "We came out on the field and I think everyone was shocked at how many people got in their cars and drove down there."

In finishing the regular season with a home win against Tennessee, Taylor and the Commodores had torched the Vols with two touchdown passes of 40-plus yards and another 65-yard pass that set up the game-winning touchdown run.

Due to Vanderbilt's ability to hurt teams with the deep ball, Air Force put together a defensive game plan to prevent the long ball and take Matthews out of the game by double teaming him. While the game plan prevented the Commodores from completing a pass longer than 29 yards and held Matthews to two catches for 21 yards, it also helped pave the way to a historic game for Taylor and Jordan.

"I think it was just a judgment call on Air Force's part to try to keep everything in front of them," Jordan said. "It was kind of a reverse of the Tennessee game where they were covering everything really short with a lot of defenders."

The game quickly turned into the Whit Taylor to Norman Jordan show. But it very easily could have had a much different narrative.

While the team was off between the end of the regular season and the bowl game, Jordan took it upon himself to stay in shape by running. In the course of doing so, he pulled a hamstring and was unable to practice the week leading up to the game.

"We went into the game with the impression that I wasn't going to be able to play, which I thought was really lousy because it was my last game ever," Jordan recalled. "We spent the whole week just stretching out the hamstring and then the morning of the game, I woke up and it felt fine."

A native of Etowah, Tennessee, Jordan was listed as an undersized tailback on the roster, but most often found himself lined up in the slot as a receiver. "If you had me as a running back, you wouldn't want to run the ball much," laughed Jordan, who was listed at 5-foot-9, 185 pounds.

Lining up on the opposite side of Allama Matthews, it was from the slot that Jordan terrorized Air Force with a number of short routes.

"He did a really good job of understanding what we were trying to do and that means knowing how to get open and sit yourself down," Taylor said of Jordan. "They tried to play some man coverage against us and those routes were built in man-coverage beaters, and if you beat them and get behind them, there is nobody left to make the tackle."

Taylor found Jordan for a 28-yard touchdown pass on Vanderbilt's first possession of the game. Jordan's second touchdown gave the Commodores a 21-14 lead just before halftime and the final score helped Vanderbilt take a 28-17 lead to end the third quarter. Air Force went on to score the game's final three touchdowns for a 36-28 win.

The touchdowns by Jordan were his only three of the season, and he finished the year with 56 grabs for 470 yards.

The enormity of Jordan's game was not apparent to the two until well after it had concluded. "If you would have asked me right after the game, I probably would have told you I had eight catches," Jordan said.

"When you catch 20 balls, it is special," Taylor remarked. "When it was over it was like, 'oh wow, he caught 20 balls?'

The outstanding individual performances were not enough to carry the Commodores to a bowl victory, but they will forever be remembered as being two of the best in school history.

"It was a special day just like it was a special year," Taylor said.



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