Well, it's over. And I can't say I'm going to miss the 2014 Vanderbilt Commodores' football season.
Vanderbilt finished off a 3-9 campaign with their most competitive SEC game of the year, but that wasn't enough to pull off an upset victory against Tennessee. The 'Dores ended 2014 winless in conference play and were four points away from a potential 1-11 season. That's about as bad as Derek Mason's debut year could have gone despite the presence of players from #BrandNewVandy recruiting classes. As VI pointed out, even Bobby Caldwell found a way to beat Ole Miss back in 2010 with Bobby Johnson's two-star all-stars.
The 'Dores went down swinging. They fought until Patton Robinette's final pass of the season sailed to the right of Trey Wilkins, handing the ball back to the Vols with 23 seconds left on the clock. The defense finally made Mason look like the defensive guru that his years at Stanford had advertised him as. Stephen Weatherly led a stout pass rush that blew through an overwhelmed Tennessee offensive line. Behind them, this team's young defensive backs held together long enough to keep Joshua Dobbs from finding his receivers downfield. Unfortunately, that wasn't enough to overcome Vandy's biggest deficiency - their offense.
The Commodores never found an offensive rhythm on Saturday night, starting and stopping and occasionally persisting when Robinette's field vision led to drive-extending scrambles or broken-play completions. Vanderbilt put together their trademark token early touchdown drive of the game (as seen against Florida and South Carolina) before reverting back to the low-functioning mess that defined them in eight conference losses this season. Their average output in those games? 12.75 points. Take away a 34-point explosion against the Gamecocks, and that falls to 9.7 points per contest.
That's bad. Very bad. Absolutely horrible and totally no good. It's the Steel Reserve of offenses. The Rocky V of passing. But that's okay. That doesn't matter now.
The only relevant question that we can ask now is whether or not the season had enough teachable moments to benefit the program going forward. Did this young team get what it needed in those three wins and nine losses to take a significant step forward in 2015? Can we build from this?
Some of the pieces are there. Stephen Weatherly is the speed-rushing outside linebacker that Derek Mason can turn into an upperclassman star in the 3-4 defense. He's bolstered by young studs like Adam Butler, Jay Woods, Zach Cunningham, and Oren Burks on that side of the ball. Offensively, Ralph Webb looks like the truth even though his output waned after opposing coaches designated him as this team's biggest threat. Robinette and Johnny McCrary have both shown flashes of greatness and each has at least two years of eligibility left on their Vanderbilt timelines.
That cache of young talent will get better in 2015. However, they'll need the right coaching staff to maximize their talent. That seems like a sucker bet based on what we saw on the sidelines this fall. As of Monday, it seems likely that Mason and Karl Dorrell will have the chance to lead this team into battle once more next season. When August rolls around, they won't have the excuse of replacing starters or playing freshmen to lean on. They'll have to prove that 2014 was the "process" that Mason referenced after every loss rather than just the discarded cigarette that lights the dumpster on fire or the gust of wind that sets it rolling towards the orphanage at the bottom of the hill.
It won't be easy, but the talent is there. Now we have to hope that those teachable moments apply to this team's coaching staff as well.
The defense arrives. Sure, it came against a mediocre opponent with a porous offensive line, but the Vanderbilt defense finally looked like the unit that Derek Mason had been advertising since his arrival in Nashville. Stephen Weatherly led an aggressive pass rush and built off of the foundation this team laid in a strong showing against a similarly talented Florida team three weeks earlier. Mason and defensive coordinator David Kotoluski understood Tennessee's limitations and forced them out of their comfort zone by crowding the line with defenders and limiting their running game.
Patton Robinette's rushing abilities. Robinette's agility and speed were an asset for the Commodores, as his ability to avoid the UT rush and push forward for first downs were responsible for driving the Vanderbilt offense on Saturday. That extra dimension was what kept Johnny McCrary on the bench in the second half. The sophomore quarterback only officially recorded 37 yards on the ground, but his mobility helped cover up the mistakes of his offensive line and extend plays throughout the team's comeback attempt.
Patton Robinette's passing abilities. Robinette still struggled to find windows of opportunity downfield, throwing passes behind or above his receivers en route to a 11-22 performance through the air. He looks very similar to the quarterback we saw beat Tennessee back in 2013, and it's possible that injuries he dealt with this fall have set his development back as a sophomore.
Getting cute and blowing it up. Vandy had a huge opportunity early in the fourth quarter when Torren McGaster intercepted Josh Dobbs at the Tennessee 47 yard line. The 'Dores trailed by seven points and now had momentum on their side...until Vandy tried an ill-fated pass-back after handing the ball off to Ralph Webb. Webb's pitch across the field to Robinette landed two yards short of his target and forced Patton to dive on the live ball rather than risk a turnover. That set up an inert 2nd-and-23 and a Robinette interception that sucked all the life from the Commodore offense.
Those gimmick plays rarely worked under James Franklin. They shouldn't get the call in the fourth quarter of the most important game of the season unless Vandy is already up by four scores.
Drops and missed opportunities. Vanderbilt couldn't afford to leave extra yards on the field, but that's exactly what they did all evening thanks to (at least) four drops that frustrated fans and deflated this team's sails. Steven Scheu, Caleb Scott, and Kris Kentera all dropped catchable balls that could have jumpstarted this team's passing offense. They ultimately didn't decide the outcome of the game, but those missed opportunities had Commodore fans reaching for their scotch with a greater frequency as a result.
The PiBB Ice Player of the Week: Stephen Weatherly
If a Volunteer went down in the backfield, Weatherly was there. The sophomore was all over Tennessee on Saturday, recording five stops behind the line of scrimmage and a ridiculous sack of Joshua Dobbs that led to a loss of 13 yards. Normally you need to botch a throwback for that kind of devastation. Weatherly developed into a beast along the edge as an outside linebacker this fall. If he can build off this breakout season, he'll be playing on Sundays in the near future.