The Vanderbilt offense wasn't great, but they weren't the goat in the team's 9-7 loss to No. 10 Florida. That ignominious honor went to a special teams unit that handed the Gators opportunities time and time again on Saturday.
The Commodores didn't turn the ball over a single time in the loss, but the Florida still managed to start seven different possessions in Vandy territory. With the game on the line, an embattled Treon Harris only had to drive his team 20 yards to set up the 43-yard field goal that carried the home team to victory. The Vanderbilt defense put together a superhuman effort to keep the Gators out of the end zone through the final three quarters, but not even a Monstar squad of alien brutes could have kept Florida from getting to nine points on Saturday.
Holding the 10th-ranked team in the nation to single-digit scoring is a recipe for success for most teams, but that doesn't include a Vanderbilt team that can make three-play drives feel successful because they don't end in turnovers. Ralph Webb's 74-yard touchdown run held up for nearly two quarters and four Florida drives that ended in either three-and-out punts or a turnover, but the team could only garner 82 yards of offense in response. Despite years of denying that "Same Ol' Vandy" still existed, the Commodores did their best to throw Saturday's game back to the moral victories of years past. No matter how many high-effort plays the defense made, the offense walked them back with stupid penalties (including three different illegal procedure calls for having five men in the backfield), boneheaded mistakes (Johnny McCrary eating a fourth quarter delay of game penalty on third-and-seven at the VU 43, then burning a timeout to avoid a second delay call on the same play), or a combination of the two (Barrett Gouger's unnecessary roughness flag after a third quarter punt). It wasn't just bad because it led to a loss in a winnable game; it was bad because it brought back memories of an era this program had worked so hard to put in their rear view.
And yet, a special defensive effort nearly stole this game from the SEC East champions on their home field. There's something being built here, and while the offensive game was a throwback that neither Larry Smith nor Mackenzi Adams could understand, Zach Cunningham, Caleb Azubike, and the rest of the black death defense made a convincing plea for patience. These Commodores are putting together a work of abstract art in 2015. You can look at it and see something different - good and bad - each time.
Even so, there's no denying that there's a trace of this team's tradition of disappointment still lurking in its black and gold DNA. Vanderbilt lost a winnable game that would have been a monumental step forward for this program and a building block for a return to the postseason. Instead, the team fell to 3-6 and made even a five-win bowl bid a speck on their horizon. The Commodores have a long way to go, and though the defense has grown up fast the offense and special teams are still pasting cotton balls on construction paper. If that doesn't change, Derek Mason will be looking at his second straight 3-9 season.
Ralph Webb turns up in his hometown. Florida was well prepared for the Vanderbilt tailback, often stacking the area near the line of scrimmage with eight defenders and daring the Commodores to pass the ball. Instead, Vandy handed off the ball 48 times on Saturday and Webb got 22 of those carries. He gave this team it's only semblance of offense and scored the team's only touchdown en route to 118 rushing yards.
Of course, he did get an assist from the umpire on his career-long 74-yard run:
Johnny McCrary: zero turnovers. With this offense, it's okay to measure progress in baby steps.
The Vanderbilt offense. The Commodores ran four plays in Florida territory. They had five drives of five yards or less. Two of those drives went in the wrong direction. Saturday's stats will be exclusively recorded in the Necronomicon and nowhere else.
Special Teams. Tommy Openshaw punted 10 times and covered 422 total yards on Saturday, but with the exception of his final punt of the day, distance was not an issue. Many of those kicks were line-drive shots that gave Florida's athletic returners plenty of room to run before the Commodore coverage could reach them. The Gators got 110 of those yards back on eight returns, helping UF to tremendous field position and putting the Vanderbilt defense in poor situations all day. Their inability to pin the Gators made the battle for field position a decisive victory on par with the Great Emu War of 1932.
Vanderbilt's final two possessions. Here's how Vandy set up Florida's game-winning drive after McCrary picked up a first down with 7:33 left:
- McCrary complete pass to Ronald Monroe, 3 yards.
- Darrius Sims run, no gain.
- Delay of game, -5 yards.
- Timeout to avoid a second-straight delay of game.
- Bailey Granier fale start, -5 yards.
- Webb run, no gain.
- A 12 YARD PUNT ARE YOU KIDDING ME
And here's how they responded with 2:22 left at their own 13 yard line while trailing 7-9.
- McCrary run, no gain.
- Incomplete pass.
- Incomplete pass.
- Incomplete pass, defensive holding gives Vandy 10 yards and a first down.
- Incomplete pass.
- Sack, targeting penalty gives Vandy 15 yards and a first down.
- Incomplete pass.
- Sack, -10 yards.
- False start, -5 yards.
- 21-yard pass, turnover on downs.
With the game on the line, Vanderbilt had seven plays that resulted in zero or negative yards. They only ran two plays that gained any yardage at all.
The PiBB Ice Player of the Game: Zach Cunningham
Cunningham was everywhere on Saturday, showing off tremendous pursuit skills to haunt Florida's ballcarriers for all 60 minutes. Anytime the Vandy defense made a standout play, Cunningham was there. He jumped on two different Gator fumbles and finished the day with nine tackles, a sack, and one other stop behind the line of scrimmage. If he's not an All-SEC selection after the season is through then the league's rumored anti-Vandy bias is real.