Vanderbilt dropped back to .500 in all-time bowl play on Saturday, falling to the co-Big East champions Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl. The Bearcats used big performances to outplay the Commodores in the fourth quarter, erasing Vandy's only lead of the second half in just 12 seconds and holding on for the postseason victory. While the loss was disappointing, it was the capstone of a season that will ultimately go down as a rousing success for first year head coach James Franklin.
The Commodores knew what was coming, but failed to stop Cincinnati effectively enough to ever build a significant lead. UC used their two primary weapons - an elusive running game and a powerful defensive line - to disrupt Franklin's game plan throughout the afternoon. The former provided all the offense that Butch Jones would need for the win. The latter kept Jordan Rodgers and Larry Smith rattled in the pocket and unable to use weapons like Jordan Matthews and Brandon Barden effectively.
Smith replaced Rodgers late in the third quarter after the redshirt junior struggled with his accuracy throughout the first half. The senior, who was the team's starter in their last bowl win, led the team to an early touchdown and then provided a big spark with the 'Dores trailing 17-14, hitting Chris Boyd on a receiver screen that Boyd took 68 yards to the end zone. However, Smith's magic wore off as his drives stalled throughout the fourth quarter, leading to a pair of three-and-outs and an interception that handed the Bearcats a 31-21 lead with just 3:15 left in the game.
Larry would lead the team back for a late field goal and a last ditch chance to tie the game, but Ryan Fowler's onside kick was recovered by UC, effectively ending Vandy's hopes. The defeat sealed a losing season for Vanderbilt, but it's safe to say that even a 6-7 record exceeded most of the team's expectations for 2011 after winning just four total games in 2009 and 2010.
While much of the season was predicated on building a "brand new Vanderbilt," many parts of Saturday's loss looked like a tribute to the offenses of Bobby Johnson and Robbie Caldwell. Mistakes doomed the Commodores when the team failed to create an effective passing game. Bad reads and poorly thrown passes helped an unheralded Cincinnati secondary come up with two interceptions. Mistakes on special teams (a fumbled kickoff return) and on fourth down (Zac Stacy's incomplete jump-pass to Brandon Barden) gave the Bearcats great field position that put even more pressure on this team's defense.
With the exception of some big runs, the Vandy defense was up to the task. However, tackling failures in the secondary helped turn some modest UC gains into big ones, and turned a first quarter defensive battle into a 55-point affair by the game's end. While the 'Dores came up big with three sacks, a pair of interceptions, and the pressure that limited Zach Collaros to just 80 passing yards, they also allowed the Bearcats to rip off an average of five yards each time they ran the ball.
The loss provides the team with a template of the areas in which they need to improve in 2012. Fortunately, they have reinforcements coming in that should shore up the weaknesses that Cincinnati exposed. The addition of newly eligible quarterbacks Austyn Carta-Samuels and Josh Grady should help fuel Jordan Rodgers's development - or barring that, give the team another viable option behind center. A deep secondary will have trouble replacing stalwarts like Casey Hayward and Sean Richardson, but players like Andre Hal, Kenny Ladler, and Javon Marshall have shown that they are capable of handling featured roles for this team.
More importantly, the impact of Franklin's first full recruiting class will help shape the 2012 campaign. While the losses of leaders like Chris Marve and Tim Fugger will undoubtedly hurt, the incoming presence of players like Jacob Sealand, Caleb Azubike, Josh Dawson, Stephen Weatherly, and Darreon Herring will flesh out this team's depth chart and potentially even add some fresh faces to the starting lineup. And that's not even including the potential offensive impact of high school All-Americans Brian Kimbrow and Andre McDonald.
Yes, this Liberty Bowl loss is ultimately a setback, but it's also an amazing indicator of how far this team has come. Even months earlier, scoring 24 points in a bowl game seemed to be a fantasy. With a brazen new coach lighting up the recruiting trail and a young, deep team learning the ropes, 2011 seemed like it would just be a bridge to a new era of Vanderbilt football that was years ahead. Instead, Franklin motivated this team to a 6-6 regular season and showed fans across the country that the renaissance began as soon as he stepped on campus.
That 31-24 loss may not have felt like much, but it was the culmination of one of the hardest-worked years that Vanderbilt football has ever gotten from a head coach. For Franklin, the season isn't over yet - it won't end in earnest until every recruit has faxed in their written commitment to Vanderbilt next month. But even then, the work won't stop. There are miles and miles to go before the Commodores even gain the respect of the SEC and NCAA - but it looks like James Franklin wouldn't want it any other way.
The PiBB ICE Player of the Week: Larry Smith.
He's been Vanderbilt's most effective quarterback for 100 percent of their bowl games since 1983. He led this team during his five years in Nashville and was the consumate teammate. He handled his duty with class and leaves as a fan favorite. Thanks for being our quarterback, Larry. Sorry about all the bad photoshops.