By the time I caught the replay of Saturday's game against Arkansas, I already knew how it turned out. Sadly, it didn't make things less painful to watch.
The way this team played against the Razorbacks wasn't the "same old Vandy," but the outcome sure as hell was. An inspired offensive game gave way to one-time mistakes and some of the worst luck the SEC has ever seen. The loss overshadowed great performances by Jordan Rodgers, Jordan Matthews, and Tim Fugger in the worst possible way.
Zac Stacy, this team's MVP, picked the worst possible time to lose his first fumble of the season, ceding a 95 yard recovery that ended up tying the game at 28-28 rather than giving the 'Dores a 35-20 lead in the fourth quarter. Casey Hayward, one of the NCAA's best when it comes to pulling down passes that aren't intended for him, dropped no fewer than three potential interceptions, any of which would have helped Vandy blow this game open. Carey Spear, after making a clutch game-winning kick to beat Connecticut early in the season, booted a 27-yard attempt so far right that it never had a chance to send this game into overtime.
Three clutch players - three players without whom this team would be much worse than 4-4 today - all made mistakes. Three guys who have sealed wins and swung momentum for James Franklin's team all had the most miserable fourth quarters of their lives Saturday afternoon. That's an aberration. A terrible, awful, very-no-good aberration. And the good news for Vandy fans is, it's not going to happen again.
Now, the heart of this team is fired up and playing with a chip on their shoulders. Vanderbilt not only stood up to the eighth ranked team in the country behind a quarterback making his second-ever NCAA start, they outgained them by nearly 80 yards on the day. Rodgers proved that he can be an efficient passer against one of the SEC's elite teams. The defense proved that they can get stops when the need them most - allowing only field goals in the final half of play.
Yes, that was a painful loss. The only way it could have been worse is if it had come against Tennessee (if that had happened, our game recap would have only been a video of Adam Goldberg's character slowly getting stabbed to death in Saving Private Ryan). However, the game proved to fans, recruits, and the national media that this team is for real. James Franklin has to have these kids believing now that they can beat anyone in the country. After Saturday's performance, I'm starting to think it's possible as well.
Good/bad analysis and the PiBB ICE Player of the Week are after the jump...
- Zac Stacy and the quest for 1,000 yards: Stacy exploded for 128 yards on 19 carries to record his third 100 yard rushing game of the season and his second in a row for the Commodores. He's sitting at 707 yards with four games left to play, and he's on pace to become just the fourth Vanderbilt player to ever rush for 1,000 yards in a single season. He needs to average just over 73 yards per game down the stretch to reach the plateau. He's also in reach of the team's all-time single season record, which was set by Corey Harris in 1993 when he ran for 1,103 yards. If he keeps playing like he has in the past two weeks, Stacy is a lock to rewrite the Vandy record books. Unfortunately, a head injury suffered in the fourth quarter could put the brakes on his outstanding season.
- Tim Fugger lives in your backfield: Fugger was a disruptive presence throughout the Arkansas game, developing a close rapport with Tyler Wilson through several meetings on the Dudley Field grass. The undersized defensive end used his athleticism to become a presence behind the line of scrimmage, ending three plays with Razorback losses and disrupting several others. Fugger doesn't have the gaudy stats or intimidating physique of some of the league's other defensive linemen, but he's developed into one of the SEC's best in the trenches.
- Jordan Rodgers arrives: If there was any spark of a conversation left in the Smith/Rodgers debate at quarterback, the redshirt junior extinguished it with the best performance this team has seen in years. Rodgers maintained his composure in the pocket and showed that his passing game can be as effective as his running. He completed 15 of his 27 passes for 240 yards, one touchdown, and most importantly, no interceptions. With one afternoon, the former backup put together over 300 yards of total offense and accounted for three touchdowns, effectively eclipsing any of our formerly projected best-case scenarios.
- Zac Stacy's passing game: Vanderbilt's option passes have been feast or famine for the Commodores in 2011. Stacy has thrown five passes this year, three of which have been intercepted (one was negated by a penalty) while one was incomplete and another ended in a Commodore touchdown. On Saturday, his interception ended a Vandy possession that started inside Arkansas's territory. The novelty of the tailback stopping in the backfield to set up a pass is wearing off, and it may be time for Franklin and his crew to abandon the gimmick
- The Vanderbilt Secondary: For the third straight SEC game, an opposing quarterback threw for over 300 yards against this team's stout cadre of defensive backs. Casey Hayward, the heart and soul of the secondary, watched a few different passes slip through his hands, sustaining Tyler Wilson's drives. Jarius Wright burned this team for 135 receiving yards. Has Vanderbilt's passing defense gone from underrated to overrated in this past month of play? Or have Wilson, Aaron Murray, and A.J. McCarron just been that good?
- Carey Spear: Sorry bud. You're still my favorite kicker of all time if that makes you feel any better.
- Marquel Wade: You know what you did. Also, Marquel is a girl's name.
The PiBB ICE Player of the Week Award: Jordan Rodgers
Rodgers earned the throne at quarterback this season, playing his way into the starting position through a combination of hard work and opportunity. His 306 yards of total offense against Arkansas represent what was potentially the best showing for a Vanderbilt signal-caller since Chris Nickson's sophomore season. His performance not only sent a message to the rest of the SEC, but to a pair of guys sitting on the Vanderbilt sideline for redshirt years. Austyn Carta-Samuels and Josh Grady, might just have to wait an extra year to battle it out for the starting QB slot.