It is often the most overlooked aspect of a team. The talk around the water cooler usually focuses on offensive and defensive rankings. Rarely are special teams thought of on the same level as the others. On Wednesday, nothing was more important to Vanderbilt than the play of its special teams.
In pursuit of its first winning season since 1982 and its first bowl win since 1955, Vanderbilt scored all 16 of its points off special teams in its 16-14 win over Boston College in the 2008 Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl.
Ten points came off the foot of senior kicker Bryant Hahnfeldt and the remaining six came courtesy of a Brett Upson punt that hit off a Boston College player and was recovered in the endzone by Sean Richardson.
Special teams and defense were as large a reason as any that Vanderbilt started the season 5-0 and Wednesday's game was very reminiscent of those eary-season wins.
"It was exactly like those games," coach Bobby Johnson said. "We played good defense. We were efficient on offense when we had opportunities. The kicking game came through for us. Field position was a big part of today's game just like a lot of the wins we had early in the season."
Vanderbilt's strong start to the season on special teams seemed to fade a bit over the course of the last seven regular season games. The month of practices leading up to the bowl game may have been just what the Commodores needed to regain the swagger they had on special teams.
"We worked hard on those things in bowl practice," Johnson said. "We had extra time for special teams that we took advantage of and our guys got it down and executed it very well today."
No one executed it better than Hahnfeldt and Upson. Hahnfeldt had a spotless game, connecting on all three field-goal attempts, including the game-winning 45-yarder with 3:26 to play.
"All game, I was fortunate to kick with the wind," Hahneldt said. "I wasn't worried about the wind at all. It was behind me and even if I just hit it straight and got under it a little bit, I knew it would carry far enough. It was just a matter of hitting it through."
A Nashville native, Hahnfeldt has had a career and season of ups and downs. After hitting his first seven attempts of the season, Hahnfeldt missed five in a row before ending the year with six consecutive makes.
"It has been an up and down career," Hahnfeldt said. "I feel like I had a good year this year getting the (all-time scoring) record. To get the game-winner just puts a final stamp on my career. Even though all that stuff happened in my past, I've moved on from it and gotten better."
Hahnfeldt connected on kicks from 42 and 26 yards out to give Vanderbilt a 6-0 lead, but no kick felt better or was bigger than the game-winner.
"It felt great," Hahnfeldt said of it. "When you hit a good kick, you usually don't feel the ball hit your foot even though it was colder, I didn't really feel it too much. As soon as I hit it, I knew."
Hahnfeldt had the game-winning kick, but no player had as large of an impact on the outcome than Upson, who became the first punter in Music City Bowl history to earn MVP honors.
The junior from Griffin, Ga., came in averaging 40.1 yards per punt. Wednesday, Upson averaged 42.6 yards per punt and eight of nine punts went for at least 41 yards. Upson also pinned three punts inside Boston College's 20-yard line, including a 58-yarder.
"We did mostly rugby punts all day and I felt like I hit those pretty good because I really had to drive those into the wind," Upson said. "The wind was playing a big role out there today in the kicking game and I was able to get the nose down on the ball and drive it into the wind and get some roll out of the ball."
The single punt that went below Upson's average turned out to be the biggest play of the game.
With 10:35 to play in the third quarter, Upson's fourth punt of the game sailed 21 yards before hitting a Boston College player in the leg and being recovered in the endzone for Vanderbilt's lone touchdown of the game.
"The funny thing is, I didn't even know it hit him," Upson said. "I was behind three Boston College players and couldn't see."
All signs at the beginning of the year pointed toward a fairy tale ending for the Commodores, but not even coach Johnson dreamed it would end with his punter earning MVP honors.
"I don't know if I've been dreaming that way or not," Johnson said. "I haven't really thought about it that way. I'm glad he was. We'll take whoever can do it any way we can win."