If there was a single issue of Vanderbilt’s post-game media availability after a torturous 21:20 loss to South Carolina on Saturday, it would be just plain amazement.
Shocked, stunned, baffled – use any word you want, that was the overall tone. Head coach Clark Lea, quarterback Mike Wright and linebacker Ethan Barr each expressed this opinion in different ways. All three also spoke of the need to perform better when it counts; They realized the importance of looking back at the film before drawing any conclusions about the team’s demise; and all three seemed just as stunned as the Commodore fans everywhere when Vanderbilt gave up a six-point lead with only 1:36 in the game.
“We are disappointed with the result and it hurts,” said Lea after the game. “We are a program that feeds on competition and wants to win. That’s why we’re here, and if you miss out, it’ll sting. But even as we are still in the works and become the program that we know we can become, we will find ways that this is also a step towards this vision. “
With just one look at the score of the Saturday game, you could say that the Commodores exceeded expectations. Lea’s roster entered the competitive losers of 15 consecutive SEC matches and came in with a total of 104-0 after two SEC defeats. Not to mention, they were 19 point underdogs.
It’s not the loss of a point that should plague Commodore fans. That’s how it happened.
The game started for Vanderbilt very much like almost every game this season: the opponent struck early and often. The Gamecocks opened the game with two 75-yard touchdown drives, marking the sixth straight week that Vanderbilt fell early behind.
But suddenly the Commodores found support thanks to a swarming defense and an undisciplined team from South Carolina that flipped the ball four times and took 10 penalties. Vanderbilt tore down 17 unanswered points to take a 20:14 lead before the hearts of Commodore fans everywhere sank. South Carolina backup quarterback Zeb Noland – a former graduate assistant who became walkable – went on to lead the Gamecocks down the field for a crucial touchdown.
Confusion, heartbreak, amazement – it’s all on the menu this weekend as the Commodores are still looking for their first SEC win since 2019.
Let’s start here: with confusion. Because, like many Commodore fans out there, I was confused by a number of different tactical and tactical decisions made by Lea and his coaching staff.
Two important decisions in particular stood out from the fourth quarter. The first was Vanderbilt’s decision to score a field goal instead of trying to convert a fourth and five to win the game by 1:36 on the clock. Second was the pressure on South Carolina’s last trip.
Starting with the decision to score a field goal – I honestly don’t hate it. The analysis is likely to say it’s the better game. Lea, who made his bet that South Carolina screwed up a comeback drive, probably wasn’t bad for a team that had already forced two interceptions in the fourth quarter. Is it the more passive decision? Yes, there is no doubt about that. But did it cost the Commodores the game? No, it didn’t – a lack of pass noise in subsequent possession of the ball did.
Vanderbilt’s defense had by far the most productive game of the season on Saturday. Aside from generating four turnovers and collecting a sack and six tackles for the loss, the Commodores were opportunistic and raved about. For the first time all season, they were the aggressor.
“The findings for defense [were a big positive]. Our defenses become disruptive. We knew that they could do it, ”said Lea. “These are things you do to win games on the street, to win league games on the street. So these will be points that we will certainly build on. “
The pressure Vanderbilt brought non-stop from various sources throughout the evening was new and refreshing (see examples below). Whether it’s Gabe Jeudy-Lally on corner flashes or Anfernee Orji flying through the middle, Vanderbilt’s approach to defense has been vastly improved. De’Rickey Wright continues to show his potential, counting for a second straight week with multiple quarterback hits. It seemed like whenever Vanderbilt came under pressure on Saturday, something went its way.
So what was the thought on the last trip in South Carolina?
“Just the situation – they had no time outs, they had to drive the field and I think there was 1:36 left. The strategy is to tackle the ball inbounds, keep eight and get them to check it and try to keep the clock going, ”explained Lea afterwards. “The goal was to try to defend both out cuts on both sides and force the ball in and down so we could attack and keep the clock going.”
The outcome of the drop-eight strategy was disastrous for Vanderbilt. Secondary school was confused, Noland – fresh off the bench – didn’t even see the face of a Vanderbilt pass rusher and the Commodores were unable to make the moves necessary to get a 9 yard touchdown pass on Prevent Xavier Legette.
Both choices embody the mantra “don’t play to win, play not to lose” and put Vanderbilt fans in this mindset. And that is anything but fair. Why should you let go of the pressures your defense thrives on throughout the game?
His decision to take the pressure off in the fourth quarter was a defensive coordinator-style decision, not a head coach decision. A head coach knows when to benefit from the momentum of his team and when to discard the traditional game book – Lea is still learning how to do it.
Aside from the heartbreak of simply losing a heartbreaking game, your heart has to break for Mike Wright.
After it was revealed that Ken Seals would be inactive due to a hand injury, Wright received the nod and he gave his team a legitimate chance to steal an SEC game on the street.
“I’m proud of Mike. I think he got promoted, ”said Lea. “I think he did well as a competitor. I think he made some games that we needed and I felt like he enabled this team to win the game and that’s all we can ask him to do. “
The native Georgian finished the race 206 meters through the air and another 41 meters on the ground. A 52-yard touchdown for Will Sheppard was attributed to his name along with a fumble and an interception.
Regardless of who was at the center on Saturday, Vanderbilt’s quarterback game against a weak South Carolina team seemed to improve, but Wright’s presence on the Commodore offensive seemed to spawn a number of new folds that South Carolina was unprepared for.
The Commodores entered the game as the last team in the country that had not reached an offensive game of more than 40 meters. Wright broke that trend when three of his 11 deals were larger than 40 yards. The threat of his lifting seemed omnipresent in the minds of Gamecock defenders and he was able to score a number of important first downs by simply lifting off as well.
“I thought we would be more explosive today, which has somehow held us back in the past,” said Lea. “Tonight we were able to generate plays that went beyond 20 and 40 yards and that was helpful to us. I felt that he was able to expand the field and find routes. “
Along with Wright, Sheppard scored his second game in a row over 100 yards, the Commodores tried a number of trick games with Devin Boddie and Cam Johnnson, averaging a whopping 18.7 yards per completion.
Vanderbilt wide receiver Will Sheppard gallops into the end zone for a touchdown against South Carolina on October 16, 2021. (Vanderbilt Athletics)
It just felt more creative and I dare say more entertaining? Wright adds an element of intrigue that is incredibly compelling. The speedster turned its commitment from UCF to Vanderbilt, knowing full well that Ken Seals also drove to the West End. That didn’t bother him and he finally got his chance on Saturday to start with a more than commendable performance – and probably a victory.
A 20 point loss to an FCS team, a 62-0 Blow out to No. 1 Georgia and now a point loss to the second worst team in the SEC; You are probably thinking, “How many other ways are there to lose a football game?”
Vanderbilt found numerous ways to ditch ball games this fall, there’s no doubt about that. But there will be a lot more one-point losses before this team finally knows how to win. Games like this – in a high-pressure street environment – are the ones that players and teams learn the most from. But most importantly, these are the games that head coaches learn the most from.
That was the first time in his career as head coach that Lea got into a point situation against an SEC opponent and every decision he made was crucial – he is an incredibly intelligent coach who is sure to learn from that experience .
“The message in the locker room is that we must have it. We own the fact that we came up short and we don’t like it. But there are no victims here. We take responsibility and responsibility for it. They are coaches and players alike, and that starts with me, ”said Lea. “We’ll let it burn for 24 hours, then we’ll get the feedback and try to do better next Saturday.”
It’s difficult to compare one coach to another, but in James Franklin’s first season, Vanderbilt lost five games to one touchdown or less. The next year, his team won three SEC games with a touchdown or less. There are many more tight and painful losses on the horizon before these games are won; that’s just the natural course of remodeling.
The astonishment was not limited to Vanderbilt’s loss, however. Just a few hours east, another surprise followed in Tennessee’s game against No. 13 Ole Miss.
“I don’t know if I’m more happy that we found a way to win or that I wasn’t hit by the golf balls [fans] joked Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin called in the SEC network after the game.
Golf balls? This is not a sentence I thought I would ever write. Astonish. What’s next, college football?