During and after a game there are typically at least 4 or 5, and sometimes up to 10, things that stand out as things that need to be watched for on the replay. Literally nothing like that came to mind last Saturday. Or Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or even now. So, yes, I did skip re-watching the game. It seemed pointless. Last Saturday did not seem to be primarily an issue of schemes, execution, or talent. This column has gone over different issues, especially scheme and execution, with a fine-tooth comb after each of the preceding 5 games. Those things were certainly not appreciably better. Most of those issues were noticeably worse.
Instead of trying to break down different topics and parse out how much the primary issue from Saturday caused and/or effected each one, this edition of Lessons in Vanderbilt Football will be purely devoted to this one problem. The problem that almost certainly reared its ugly head last Saturday is the most fireable issue a coach can cause or face. It is the easiest way for a team with more talent to get absolutely destroyed by a lesser squad, as we saw. It totally renders anything else you know or are learning or want to learn about a team moot. So, what did I see that I never thought I would see from a Derek Mason team?
We are learning that the Vanderbilt Commodores on the field might be giving up on this season just as much as every naysayer has given up on every Derek Mason season. Let me be clear and cover myself a bit. I am not saying they definitively have thrown in the towel. It may have been a very poor reaction to being punched in the mouth repeatedly to start the season and getting caught with an unexpected haymaker by Ole Miss. However, it was a very concerning effort against the UNLV Rebels. That favorite buzzword of coaches “buy-in” is the one thing that is damned near unfixable. Schemes can be tweaked or outright changed. Players executing poorly can be coached or substituted. Talent can be developed or recruited. The faith of players in a coach is nearly impossible to restore.
Fans are a great example of the concept. Derek Mason would almost have had to win a national or SEC championship to make some people forget about Temple or at least admit they were wrong in their immediate reaction to that night. Trust is very hard to earn and orders of magnitude tougher to re-earn after losing it.
Some of these players turned down the draft or came to this team in hopes of getting into the draft conversation. Only Ke’Shawn Vaughn has possibly helped himself by showing the durability that was his biggest question mark. Kalija Lipscomb has quietly had a very good season, but he has been very visibly annoyed with the play of Riley Neal on many occasions. His stock probably has not wavered much. Jared Pinkney has not necessarily played poorly, but his stats will cause some GMs to balk no matter what their scouts, who should be more knowledgeable and understand what the tape shows, say. Riley Neal has also guaranteed that he will be lucky to get a camp invite, much less be drafted. For the Big 3, they have to feel betrayed by Gdowski who was on staff all 4 of their years and has found a way to completely ruin the offense along with completely taking a 1st or 2nd round TE talent completely out of the game.
Teammates pick up on emotions. I am not blaming Vaughn, Pinkney, or Lipscomb because it is certainly understandable and somewhat expected that they would be unhappy with the way this season has gone. Maybe they are not as down as the TV camera cuts would indicate though. It could be fueled by the younger players getting annoyed with their own play along with the team’s struggles. Really, the causes are unimportant.
What IS important is that when a team “checks out” they perform well below their abilities. This team was always going to have to compete hard to be successful. The UNLV game shows what will happen if they do not dig deep and find the fire and drive to fight forward. It is squarely on the HC to ensure his players do not give up. In year 6, these are all Mason’s players. He gets no passes for this. Mason, and us as fans, better hope he can find a way or ways to get the players’ minds back on track before this season goes from skidding out of control to slamming into a fuel depot at full speed.
The person who should really be learning about this situation is Malcom Turner. As I said earlier, losing the team is the most fireable thing a coach can do (okay, that does not involve a burner phone, “strong-ass offer,” and/or unapproved BBQ). The belief and trust of players can turn a ragtag group into warriors. Confidence can transform ugly starts to seasons ending at bowl games. Mason has typically gotten his teams to stay committed and coaxed really strong finishes out of them. Even in 2014, CDM lost players throughout the season, but the team as a whole banded together to finish that season as well as they could and be within a score of a pretty good team from Knoxville. Please, Commodores and Mason, give all of us something more fun to learn today than that not only is this season awful on the field but that there is no hope of it getting any better as it continues.