The Vanderbilt Commodores had a legit upset bid on their hands. Johnny McCrary had just led his team 42 yards to score their first touchdown against #9 Georgia, running in a two-point conversion to cut the Bulldog lead to 24-14 while the shadows began to grow in Nashville. Though the team needed a few bounces to go their way, this three touchdown underdog was making a statement; they weren't going down without a fight.
With 4:30 left in the game, one of Vanderbilt's prayers was answered. A perfectly placed pooch kickoff and its subsequent recovery put the Commodores at the Georgia eight yard line with the chance to turn this into a one possession game. A touchdown would cut UGA's lead to three and put the game in the hands of a stout Vandy defense - the same unit that had held the bulldogs to 24 points so far. Even a three and out would set up a 26-yard field goal and bring the team one drive from their first SEC win since 2013.
Then, Red Zone Johnny came out to play.
You know the situation. The demon that possesses Johnny McCrary and turns him into an efficient two minute drill quarterback flips from head to tails and traps him in slow motion. Two seconds after his receivers flash open, Red Zone Johnny delivers a strike straight between the numbers of an opponent's jersey. This time, Bulldog linebacker Jake Ganus pulled down a floating pass as it disappeared into a sea of red uniforms. Touchback, Georgia ball. Game over, upset bid extinguished.
It was a disappointingly familiar story for a season that's only two weeks deep. The narrative against UGA was the same as it was against Western Kentucky; McCrary leads his team to (or finds himself in) favorable positions only to squander it with an avoidable turnover. All the mistakes that we said this team couldn't make against an SEC team reared their head on week two. The Bulldogs were all too happy to take advantage of them.
McCrary had an up and down day. His final numbers (24-50, 295 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions) are skewed by two outside factors: his receivers dropped no fewer than six passes on Saturday, and his most successful drive (7-9, 67 yards) came against a Georgia defense that had emptied its depth chart late in the game. He showed us the best and worst of his abilities in a 15 minute span. While it's clear that he's a talented player with a big arm, his inability to switch targets or cut his losses when receivers are double, triple, or quadruple covered paralyzes this team's offense at the worst possible moments.
While there's no question that the redshirt sophomore has improved after a 2014 campaign that was weighed down by mistakes, he's still got a long way to go on his quest to become an All-SEC - or even average SEC - quarterback. He proved that he can fit passes into tight windows on Saturday, but he also displayed the poor judgment that renders his All-American talent moot. If he can't protect the ball in the red zone and lead this team to wins then this team may have no choice but to throw Wade Freebeck into the huddle and see if he can make the flash decisions that make the difference between touchdown and turnover.
McCrary hasn't played his way out of the starting role, but his three end zone interceptions in two games haven't done anything to entrench his status, either. He'll need to show up and dispatch Austin Peay next week to build confidence - not just for his teammates and coaches, but for himself, too.
Tommy Openshaw's Special Teams Wizardry: Sure, Openshaw clanked a 43-yard field goal off the left upright, but he emerged as one of this team's most potent weapons as a punting/kicking savant against the Bulldogs. He regularly boomed punts deep into enemy territory as a punter and proved himself as a long-range field goal threat in Saturdays' game.
DeAndre Woods. I won't pretend to know what happens in this team's closed practices, so I don't know what DeAndre Woods has done to wind up fourth on the Commodores' depth chart at tight end. What I do know is that this sophomore makes an impact when he hits the field. Woods has emerged as this team's most consistent receiver out of the TE slot - even more dependable than All-SEC athlete Steven Scheu. Scheu, at one point, dropped three straight passes to stall out a Vandy drive late in the first half. Woods, on the other hand, caught all three of his catchable targets for 57 yards. The former wideout looks like a dangerous weapon that this team can deploy from the end of the offensive line or in the slot. The redshirt sophomore can be a major weapon for this team, and he's proving it on the field in 2015.
The Defense. The overall stats don't look great. 422 yards. 24 offensive points. But if you dig deeper, you'll find a stout defensive effort that recovered from their mistakes to keep the Bulldogs out of the end zone and force long field goals and tough decisions on the visitors' sideline. Vanderbilt got gouged by an All-American tailback, but they also forced a shaky quarterback into into bad throws and forced a potent UGA team to punt six times - same as Vandy. There's no denying the strides this team has made on the defensive side of the ball, and special attention should be shined on Stephen Weatherly, Jay Woods, and Nifae Lealao up front.
Oren Burks's dropped INT:
This was part of a rare sequence worth -7 points; one down later, UGA punched in a 31-yard rushing TD. Burks redeemed himself with a big breakup a few plays later - but this was still a tremendously disappointing play from one of the guys this team relies on to lead this secondary.
The red zone offense. Vanderbilt has been in their opponents' red zone nine times in 2015. They've scored two touchdowns and 16 total points in those eight opportunities. On Saturday, Vanderbilt had four first-and-goal chances; they came away with a seven-yard touchdown pass to Latevius Rayford, a turnover on downs, a terrible interception, and a drive that ended when the game did. That is unacceptable for an SEC program.
The blocking. The Commodore offensive line improved late in the game thanks to a couple of stabilizing substitutions, but Vanderbilt's blocking prevented Ralph Webb from getting any kind of breathing room behind the line of scrimmage. Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins constantly blew up Vandy's blocks, forcing the team's runners to make adjustments in the backfield and search for holes that never opened up. Jenkins finished the game with 5.5 tackles for loss and helped hamstring Webb and Dallas Rivers to just 75 yards on 29 carries. While Justin Skule and Delando Crooks helped improve the right side of the line late in the game, it's clear that this team's ineffective run blocking has taken away one of the team's most dangerous offensive weapons.
The PiBB Ice Player of the Week: Tommy Openshaw.
Openshaw was Vanderbilt's most consistent weapon all day. Though the Commodore defense stood strong, no one player shined brighter than the team's sophomore kicker/punter. The sophomore boomed punts deep into UGA territory for a 45-yard average and made two of his three field goals - all from 41 yards or more.