Let's talk about that punt. You know the one.
Facing a Larry Smith-ian 4th-and-32 and a 14-24 deficit with 1:14 left in the game, first-year Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason decided to punt the ball. His other option? Throwing his freshman quarterback Johnny McCrary to the wolves from the Commodores' four-yard line. That decision, for all intents and purposes, was the football equivalent of a white flag. Unless Mason was hoping for some 2008 Music City Bowl magic, the Vandy coaching staff was conceding that Saturday was not their day in Missouri.
It was an ultimately frustrating call from a coach who needed more reasons for criticism like a desert needs sand. The odds of McCrary - or any Commodore quarterback from Greg Zolman to Jay Cutler - converting that first down were nearly insignificant. Their chances of driving 96 yards downfield, scoring a touchdown, recovering an onside kick, and scoring once again in the remaining 1:09 looked like something from the back of a Mega Millions ticket. Whether Vandy punted or let McCrary stand in the pocket for at least one more play, this game was going to end with Missouri celebrating their homecoming with a win.
But even in a college football landscape where there are no moral victories, there are still moral losses. Conceding at the end of what had been Vandy's closest SEC game this season served to only make this team look weaker. The Commodores' embattled head coach waved his white flag in the middle of a season where willing his players not to give up is a priority. With the prospect of losing bowl eligibility now very real, fans are left to wonder if this team will surrender once more if this team hits seven losses in November.
Leadership starts at the top, and while Mason may have been protecting his players, he also sent an inadvertent message. His Commodores won't keep fighting a losing battle when defeat seems inevitable. When he sees the writing on the wall, he accepts that fate and protects his assets. It's practical - but practical doesn't always work in a fanatical environment. Mason detractors will point to that punt as exhibit A in the case against his ability to be a Southeastern Conference coach.
That decision making will come under scrutiny once more next week now that he's got an effective quarterback (McCrary) to challenge the finally-healthy incumbent Patton Robinette. No matter what he chooses, a certain portion of the Commodore fanbase will think he's wrong. And they'll point to Saturday's game-ending punt as their proof.
Johnny McCrary takes another step forward. McCrary didn't light the world on fire - 196 yards, two touchdowns, one interception - but he limited his mistakes, found open targets, and played the consistent brand of football this team needs to spark an offensive turnaround. The freshman doesn't seem to have the kind of mobility that recruiting reports suggested would make him a two-way threat on offense, but his strong arm could make him a legitimate pocket passer in the NCAA. We'll see if he can turn this experience against an SEC defense into some significant growth next week when Old Dominion comes to town.
Stephen Weatherly. Weatherly provided Maty Mauk's nightmare fuel from the left edge on Saturday, sacking the Mizzou QB twice and forcing him into bad decisions at least two other times. The sophomore linebacker has become one of the team's biggest threats to opposing passers, and his speed from the second level is exactly what Derek Mason is looking for in this team's pass rush. Unfortunately, Weatherly's great play was overshadowed by a fourth-quarter facemask penalty that extended the Missouri drive that ultimately gave the Tigers a 24-14 lead.
That run game. Missouri's smothering defense at the line of scrimmage kept Commodore offensive linemen from clearing any space in the trenches, leading to Vandy's worst rushing game of 2014. Five running backs combined to gain 44 yards on 27 carries, and lead back Ralph Webb contributed just 2.1 yards per touch. That created several third-and-long situations for the 'Dores and put extra pressure on McCrary's shoulders. The freshman was able to perform ably at times, but Vandy converted just four third downs on Saturday thanks in part to an ineffective ground attack.
The secondary. On the plus side, Vanderbilt held Maty Mauk to a 47.8 percent completion rate. Unfortunately, that was an SEC-high for the Tiger passer in 2014. The embattled Mauk put together his finest performance against a conference opponent on Saturday, passing for 141 yards and tossing two touchdowns without an interception. That last part is notable - he'd thrown five picks in his last two games. Vandy needed to take advantage of Mizzou's mistake-prone passer. They didn't, and that was a big part of why they lost in Columbia.
The PiBB Ice Player of the Week: Johnny McCrary
McCrary did what was asked of him, leading the 'Dores on a pair of touchdown drives while taking another big step forward in his development. In seven quarters since his disastrous appearance against Temple, the QB has thrown for 365 yards (approximately 209 every four quarters), three touchdowns, and two interceptions. Those aren't All-SEC numbers, but that's something this team can build from. Additionally, McCrary gets bonus points for reading all the plays off his wristbands correctly.