Vanderbilt has some trouble finishing games - but that's not nearly as troublesome as the team's inability to start them.
Another slow start doomed Vanderbilt on Saturday, as South Carolina ran out to an early 28-0 lead and hung on to fend off the Commodores in a 25-35 loss. The Vandy defense never caught up to the Gamecocks' running game and showed off a continued failure to stop the read option that has haunted this team since 2012. The 'Dores were playing their first SEC game without senior captain Chase Garnham (lower leg injury), and his absence was felt almost immediately. The team's linebacking corps looked disheveled and often trailed behind plays rather than making stops early against USC.
The 'Dores simply couldn't contain the Gamecocks early, and that helped chase fans from Williams-Brice Stadium early in the second half when things seemed to be getting out of hand. It wasn't until Vanderbilt switched over to a wildcat-driven offense that suddenly found holes in what had been an impenetrable South Carolina defense minutes earlier. Wesley Tate, who didn't see any playing time in the first half, proved to be the perfect change of pace back to wear down a tired defense. His strength, patience, and ability to run between the tackles put SC on their heels as he led the scoring drives that turned this game from a blowout into a competitive contest.
And it could have been even more that that. Tate and a pair of special teams fumbles kept the Commodores alive, but Austyn Carta-Samuels and Jordan Cunningham had a chance to make this a three-point game with just under nine minutes to play. Facing third-and-goal at the SC five-yard line, Carta-Samuels never questioned his decision to throw a quick slant to the true freshman in the slot. However, Cunningham was matched up against senior Jimmy Legree, and the veteran saw the play coming from the start. He bumped Cunningham off the line, turned him away from the pass, and then made a difficult catch in the end zone to snuff out the Commodore rally.
Just like that, a potential game-changing drive turned into a game-ending possession for the Gamecocks. It's possible that a Vandy touchdown would have made no difference in the final outcome - South Carolina took the ensuing drive to run nearly eight minutes of game time off the clock to seal this one anyway - but it erased an opportunity for this team to prove themselves on a national scale for the second straight SEC game. This team deserves its props for never giving up, but that can't stem the tide of criticism that a defense that allowed USC to spring for 7.2 yards per play in the first half.
Carta-Samuels and Cunningham can run over that play in their heads a hundred different times this week, but they shouldn't do more than a fraction of the worrying that Defensive Coordinator Bob Shoop must be. South Carolina struck right at Vanderbilt's Achilles' heel and the 'Dores were almost powerless to stop it. This team can win games behind a one-dimensional passing game and adequate rushing attack thanks to Jordan Matthews's ability to lead this team downfield, but they won't have a chance if they keep allowing SEC foes to drop 30+ points on them. Until Vandy fixes that, they can't be a top-half team in the country's toughest football conference.
- Special teams show up. Carey Spear drilled a pressure-filled 54 yarder to end the second half that could have been good from 60 yards out. Taylor Hudson, after a bad first punt, put together a 46.7 yards-per-punt average that included a 75-yard bomb. Darrius Sims showed up on every significant kick or punt return to make a big play. One of these weeks, Vanderbilt will win a game based on their special teams play, and Charles Bankins will get some well deserved praise.
- Steven Clarke energizes the 'Dores with his first career interception. Judging by Clarke's return, you would have never guessed that he'd never pulled down a pass from the defensive backfield before. The senior cornerback calmly ran the ball 65-yards into Carolina territory while eluding tacklers, setting up Vanderbilt's first touchdown of the game. That interception was a turning point for the Commodores - you can look to that play to mark the moment when this game shifted from "blowout" to "contest."
- Passing diversity becomes a problem. Critics derided Vandy's depth at wideout even when Chris Boyd was projected to be in the lineup, but the 'Dores came through with some solid performances early in the season. Jonathan Krause (six catches, 66 yards in game 1) and Jordan Cunningham (seven catches, 67 yards in game 2) stepped up to give this team's passing game an extra dimension behind All-World receiver Jordan Matthews. That diversity disappeared against South Carolina on Saturday. Matthews accounted for two-thirds of the team's receptions, 72 percent of their passing yards, and nearly 40 percent of this team's total offense. Krause and Cunningham combined for one catch and 10 yards in the game. That won't make this team any tougher for opposing defensive coordinators to plan against.
- The defense. There are not a lot of silver linings here. Vanderbilt was playing catch-up on almost every Carolina run. Jake Sealand has a ton of potential at middle linebacker, but he's clearly not ready to take over Chase Garnham's role just yet. He'll get more time to adjust to game speed this week at UMass where the learning curve won't be as steep, but he's got a lot of hard work ahead of him to meet his All-SEC potential.
- Slow starts. Here's how the scoring breaks down: Opponents 31, Vanderbilt 3 in the first quarter. Vanderbilt 66, Opponents 7 in the second quarter. I'm not sure what to make of this trend, but it certainly isn't working out as well as Vandy fans would hope.
The PiBB Ice Player of the Week: Wesley Tate
Darrius Sims was the favorite for this honor after a terrible first half from the Vandy offense, but it was Tate who led this team back from a 35-7 deficit thanks to his play out of the wildcat formation. After sitting out the first half and allowing Brian Kimbrow and Jerron Seymour to take carries, the senior came in and showed off an extra gear that he had lacked in games against Ole Miss and Austin Peay. Tate looked every bit a featured back, combining the power to run between the tackles and the speed to avoid defenders in traffic. He's a valuable veteran presence who almost single-handedly willed his team's offense back into the game on Saturday.