Over the past four weeks, Derek Mason helped build up a lot of goodwill among the Vanderbilt community by leading the Commodores to strong performances against Ole Miss, Austin Peay, and, for the final eight minutes at least, Middle Tennessee State. On Saturday, this team's offense squandered it all.
Vanderbilt lost the turnover battle and then the game when they couldn't upset a disheveled South Carolina team this weekend. Johnny McCrary seemed to shed all the progress that he'd made since a brutal freshman campaign when he forced passes into bad situations all afternoon and eventually turned the ball over four times to destroy any chances of a Commodore comeback. While the Vandy defense came to play - even without lynchpins like Nigel Bowden and Caleb Azubike in the lineup - Mason's team couldn't capitalize on the chances they received.
That wasted Mason's best opportunity for an SEC win since he arrived in Nashville last year. The Gamecocks were vulnerable after falling to a 2-4 start and losing their head coach on Monday. Their offense, with the exception of a 78-yard touchdown catch-and-run from the best receiver in the conference, struggled to find the end zone. Their defense, opportunistic though they were, left holes for the Commodores to exploit. Unfortunately, McCrary and Ralph Webb, the two players this team was counting on to make strides after redshirt freshman campaigns in 2014, failed to identify those chances. Instead of an affirming win and the lingering hopes of a six-win season, all Vandy fans got was crushed.
Saturday's loss puts Vanderbilt at 2-4, and while they still have several opportunities to add a third, fourth, and maybe even fifth win it's difficult to see how they can beat an SEC East program with a passing game that's the football equivalent of smashing your hand with a hammer. McCrary's physical talents have never been in doubt, but his ability to read defenses and make smart throws fell to an all-time low last weekend - and that includes a 2014 game where he threw two interceptions in only three pass attempts against Temple. The sophomore quarterback has shown impressive composure in spurts, but he has yet to put together the full 60 minutes this team will need in order to get back to a bowl game.
That puts Mason and the Commodores in a tough spot. Backup quarterback Wade Freebeck hasn't looked any bit more composed than McCrary in the six games he's played in black and gold. Shawn Stankavage had a strong spring, but a knee injury appears set to keep him from the field. Even if he could play, he's still a redshirt freshman who has yet to appear in a college game. Kyle Shurmur could be the answer, but he's a true freshman, and Mason understands the heat he'll get if he burns another passer's redshirt for a temporary boost in what is looking increasingly like a lost season.
That means McCrary is the guy for 2015, but he'll have to grow up fast to make any sort of claim on the starting job for 2016. Step one will be finding a way to keep Commodore fans from giving up on the season after last week's demoralizing loss. That means more check downs, fewer forced passes, and a playbook that does its best to hide McCrary's Rex Grossman-esque leanings while also taking the offensive line's deficiencies into account.
If Mason, McCrary, and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig can't do that? Well, at least we've got a top 20 basketball team to cheer for.
Vanderbilt's defense bends, but doesn't break. The Commodores weren't playing an explosive offense on par with Georgia or Ole Miss on Saturday, but they still managed to hold the Gamecocks to a below-average scoring performance. That's even more impressive when you consider that Carolina had seven drives that roamed into Vandy territory. It wasn't a stellar performance, but it was another showcase of this team's resolve in the red zone. That kind of defensive effort is the foundation for something bigger in Nashville.
Darrius Sims, Gamecock slayer. Last season, Sims returned a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns against South Carolina. This year, he slid into the backfield and torched the Gamecocks for 104 yards on six carries. The shifty junior was too fast for Carolina and gave the Vanderbilt rushing attack a much-needed boost. He'll have a tougher time in coming weeks now that opposing teams will have some significant game tape to study, but Sims could be a very important piece of this struggling offense in 2015.
Johnny McCrary, turnover machine. McCrary threw three interceptions and fumbled twice - recovering one of them - to effectively reject any momentum that the Commodore defense delivered late in this game. Vanderbilt got two huge opportunities when South Carolina turnovers set them up near midfield as the 'Dores trailed 16-10, but the sophomore quarterback wasted both. The first started with a three-and-out that was aided by a questionable clipping call; the next was a one-play drive and a pass that should never have been thrown that gave USC the ball at their own 32-yard line. His next two drives ended with his third pick of the day and a fumble, leading to a fourth-quarter drive chart that looked like this:
Ralph Webb's inability to find holes. Webb's rough 2015 isn't all his fault. Vanderbilt's instability on the offensive line basically means that any rushes to the right have a two-yard cap. McCrary's struggles to find open receivers means that defenses are fine with clogging the line of scrimmage with run-stopping linebackers and safeties. Still, he's been held to fewer than four yards per carry in five of the team's six games this season, and if you take away his big performance against MTSU then he's averaging only 3.4 yards per touch. That mark would only be good enough to put him in front of one qualified tailback in the SEC's ranks - his own teammate, Dallas Rivers.
The PiBB Ice Player of the Week: Darrius Sims
Has Vanderbilt finally found a way to use the most explosive athlete on the roster? Sims touched the ball nine times on Saturday and gained 126 yards, mostly on sweeps out of the backfield. South Carolina struggled to catch up to the dynamic kick returner/cornerback/tailback/wide receiver/accountant all day, and Sims often looked like this team's only true offensive threat. The big question now is whether or not he can sustain this kind of high-impact performance when the 'Dores play Missouri next week.