The Commodores last played October 3rd in a win over MTSU. The game was honestly hard to watch in person. The weather was ugly with temperatures in the low 50s but feeling like the middle 40s with steady rainfall on the morning of game day to soak everything before pausing a couple of hours before kickoff only to resume as the game started. Entry into the stadium was obnoxiously slow. To put it simply, the pre-game experience was not fun.
Then the game started. In real time, it felt like neither offense was going anywhere. Middle Tennessee actually moved the ball fairly well on their first drive but were held to a FG. Vanderbilt responded with a similar drive, making some very nice plays yet came up empty on a missed 40 yard FG by Openshaw. The opening 59 and 48-yard drives respectively were followed by 5 straight 3-and-Outs (with a 4-play Vanderbilt drive breaking the streak) between the teams. Without a doubt, those 4 possessions for the offense were not what you want to see. However, due to the stellar play of the defense, it was a 6-3 game as the half ticked down. The men in gold finally found their rhythm and drove 83 yards. Unfortunately, a fumble ended that bid for more points, and the score held going into halftime.
The 6-3 scoreboard stayed that way through the entire 3rd quarter. Three minutes into the 4th quarter, MTSU added a TD to make it 13-3. The pump was thoroughly gunked. In fact, my father (who is totally unaware that I write these articles and is only aware of AoG in that I mention some of the insanity we come up with here) turned to me and asked, "So what stat do you use to spin this game?" At that point, nothing came to me. Honestly, my head dropped into my hands. Peeking through my fingers at the scoreboard, a sick feeling built in the pit of my stomach. Vanderbilt had 12 minutes and 36 seconds to save the Sunshine Pump from having a meltdown. No amount of scrubbing and re-hashing that our defense was stopping everyone was going to get any more than a few rays of sunshine through the sludge.
As you all know, my job was done for me in that 12:36 remaining. Vanderbilt’s first drive following the MTSU TD was only 5 plays for 16 yards, but it was something. Then an Openshaw punt and penalty backed MTSU up to their own 22 where the defense not only forced a 3-and-Out but forced MTSU to lose 3 yards on the drive. Six plays and 51 yards later, Johnny McCrary was diving for the pylon to tally Vanderbilt’s first points since the 1st quarter. The Blue Raiders did squeeze out 27 yards over 5 plays before relinquishing the ball to the Commodores. With 3:13 left on the game clock, the West End Warriors (why have I never seen that used before?!) decided they only needed 2/3 of that to smash out 87 yards on 7 plays with the last 29 coming on a 3rd-and-1 run by Ralph Webb. On that play, the gentleman next to me literally yelled, "Don’t run the…" before tailing off as Ralph broke through and scampered to the end zone. Now up 17-13, Vanderbilt’s defense did all of our hearts a great service by holding MTSU on 4 straight plays to bring out the victory formation.
Well, Dad, no stats are required here. To steal a line from one of the greatest broadcasters ever Jim Ross, it was bowling-shoe ugly. Championships are built on ugly wins. Does anyone remember how many games Ohio State almost lost to lesser competition last year? People know they LOST to Virginia Tech, but most fans do not remember the close wins. But since the old man wanted stats, we shall take a good look at those (hint: if your pump is not clear yet, these are for you).
The obvious place to start is offense, right? No heads are nodding in agreement and a few have actually been tilted back to allow for copious alcohol intake. Not to stop you from imbibing your favorite adult beverage, but it is not necessary. The offense has been pretty rough this year, right? If "qualifies as 2nd highest yards per game in program history" is rough, I am not sure anyone or anything can sufficiently ungunk your pump. Admittedly, we are only ¼ of the way through the season and have faced ¾ of our OOC opponents, but producing on that level per game is really nice no matter who you are facing. In case you are wondering, we were right on target against MTSU with 412 yards of total offense. The real boost came while running the ball which had been a struggle all year. Ralph Webb averaged 6.2 yards per carry over 25 carries to earn 155 yards. Trent Sherfield’s lone carry on a 34-yard fly sweep helped as did McCrary garnering 33 yards on 6 carries. Dallas Rivers chipped in 18 more gritty yards on the ground. In case you were told there would be no math, Vanderbilt totaled 237 yards on the ground (5.8 yards per carry) behind a line that was changing by the drive due to injuries. The right side of the line in particular was resembling someone trying to slam a revolving door.
When it comes to throwing the ball, JMac went 18/31 for 177 yards but did have 2 INTS. He spread the ball to 8 receivers. Sherfield led all pass-catchers with 6 catches for 63 yards. Scott and Kentera snagged 3 passes each for 43 and 32 yards. Webb grabbed a pair for a perfect black jack. Monroe, Scheu, and Rayford all caught a single pass for 4, 3, and 1 yard(s). However, a Dorrell had to go and muck things up, but not really. Chandler caught a pass for 10 yards. That first down nearly equals the total contributed by his father all last year. The passing game’s performance actually lowered our season average to 255.4 yards per game, but that is good for 38th in the country. It is not elite, but that ranking tells me that we can move the ball through the air fairly well, especially considering how many teams are much more pass-happy than Vanderbilt. Hopefully, we get the passing game back on track while also seeing the running game improve.
For the fun stuff, we get to talk about hitting people…a lot. Zach Cunningham stepped up for the still-injured Nigel Bowden and made 15 tackles, including one that forced a fumble on a 4th and goal attempt from the 1. After struggling to force turnovers to start the season, our defense forced two for the second consecutive game by forcing and recovering another fumble in the 3rd quarter. If that trend continues, we can certainly set our offense up in some opportune situations. Of course, only allowing 34 yards rushing and 286 passing to what was a top 25 offense helps a lot too. There is not much to say about our defense except that it is holding every team to season low productions on offense. Looking at the offense they face today in Columbia, they may not cross the 50 yard line if that trend holds true.
As mentioned, the Commodores next opponent is struggling mightily. The South Carolina Gamecocks are bad. They probably got much worse this week by losing THE Head Ball Coach Steve Spurrier after he resigned mid-week. He of course took a parting shot in typical Spurrier fashion by insinuating Vanderbilt is a good opponent for the new interim head coach to start his term against. Personally, I would be more offended if Spurrier had not made a joke about us. Either way, no team can be better off not having such a proven offensive mind on the sideline. The players could of course rally around Spurrier’s departure. It likely will not help their offense though. They average 170.8 yards per game in both the passing and rushing categories. Balance is normally a good thing, but when your balance is below average (108th passing and 70th rushing), things are not normally going to go your way. The Commodore defense has not looked like a team you want to try and turn things around against either.
Derek Mason earned his first road win in our last game. Today, he can earn his first SEC win while on the road. It will be his best chance this year but not his only chance. Getting back to .500 halfway through the year would be fairly decent, especially since that would match Vanderbilt’s win total from last year and infinitely multiply the SEC win total. The Commodores won last time out and had a week off to prepare. The Gamecocks have had to deal with massive flooding which moved their game last Saturday from Williams-Brice Stadium to Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. No solace is found in their struggles due to tragic flooding, but it cannot be ignored. All things considered, Vanderbilt should win this game.