"We're just not getting it done as a football team, finishing what we start," said flanker Will Prosser. "We'll get something going and mess it up."
By messing up the Dogs ended up missing out on what Coach Sylvester Croom called "an excellent chance of winning." After the lost chance the coach tried to take full responsibility.
"This one's on me," Croom said. "I felt our kids played hard, physical, but I've got to coach them better than what I showed out there tonight."
Maybe so. But there were plenty of players willing to blame themselves, individually and collectively, in defeat. The Bulldogs lost their ninth-straight conference game, the 15th-consecutive SEC road game, and to Vanderbilt for the first time since 1988.
"We didn't play very well, obviously," said starting quarterback Kyle York.
By contrast Vanderbilt played well, or well enough on each side of the ball to break their own SEC drought. The VU option offense squeezed 228 yards out of 49 rushes with three touchdowns, and connected on a handful of well-timed passes for another score and 102 yards. More importantly the Commodores, who came in the only SEC team with a negative turnover ratio, lost the ball only once, and that with just five minutes left to play.
And a ‘Dore defense that had not picked off a pass all season intercepted four throws, three from York and another from freshman Mike Henig, and recovered one of two State fumbles. "The story of our year to this point," York said, "we made some mistakes that kept us from establishing ourselves." And, helped the home team establish itself with three scores—a field goal and two touchdowns—following Bulldog giveaways.
"It's frustrating," said Prosser. "We'd move the ball at times and then we'd make a mistake and have a turnover. You can't do that against anybody in the SEC and expect to win ball games."
The Bulldogs honestly expected they could play their game, at least on offense, even with regular starting quarterback Omarr Conner out with a knee injury. Croom planned for a conservative attack directed by York and Henig, running the ball with Jerious Norwood and mixing in quick, short throws. "Our intention was to run the football 40-plus times, and eat the clock and make it close at the end."
The first sign things would not go as planned came on the fourth snap from scrimmage York threw long down the right-side numbers. But not long enough as covering cornerback Bill Alford snared a throw for Tee Milons, Vanderbilt's first interception of the season. The Commodores converted the turnover into three points with a 53-yard drive, going nine plays to put Patrick Johnson in range. His 34-yarder was good at 8:56.
A swap of punts gave State the ball at their 43, and a chance to use the original plan. Norwood made it work with scampers of 17 and 15 yards, then a ten-yard bounce around right end for a touchdown at 0:56 and 7-3 Bulldog lead.
The lead and good feelings lasted only the nine plays needed for Vanderbilt's option to run around and through—and at times even over—State's defense to get a go-ahead touchdown at 12:45 of the second period. Quarterback Jay Cutler did the honors, freezing defensive end Deljuan Robinson on a cut inside for a 26-yard scoring scamper.
It was a play the Dog defense had practiced, but failed to prevent. "We knew what they were coming out and doing," safety Darren Williams said. "We just didn't respond well, we didn't carry out our option assignments. And we didn't play well as a defense."
Vanderbilt took advantage, though it briefly looked as if State would escape a huge hole after Fred Reid bumbled a kickoff and downed himself at the two-yard line. York hung a high throw that Prosser pulled in a the 35-yard-line and took the distance, only to look back and see a flag for offensive interference negating the touchdown. Prosser admitted he probably did push off going for the jump ball.
Instead the Bulldogs had to punt out the end zone, giving Vanderbilt the ball inside midfield. It took six plays to cover the 49 yards, all of them rushes. Fullback Matthew Tant bolted through left guard for 22 yards, right to the goal line, and quarterback Steven Bright snuck across center for the touchdown at 8:37.
That was bad enough, yet worse was in store. A York sack-fumble did no damage, but when State got the ball back at 2:19 before intermission Croom called for the hurry-up offense. A slant-pass for Ty Freeman ended up in the hands of Lorenzo Parker at the MSU 40-yard line. With no timeouts the ‘Dores went back to the air. It took only 92 seconds to score as Cutler found Erik Davis slicing into the middle for a 14-yard touchdown at 0:13 for a 24-7 lead.
"I was trying to get some points," Croom said. "In hindsight I should have run the clock out and came in and settled everyone down. That was a big blow to us right there." A fatal one even, in a decisive quarter that put three Commodore touchdowns on the board. "That's when a defense has to stand up and respond, in those situations," Williams said. "We should have made a couple of stops we didn't make."
There wasn't much for the offense to do but throw out the gameplan and change quarterbacks. Rookie Henig made his debut at 12:01 of the third period with three snaps and a punt on 3rd-and-1 after a poor spot. His second series produced a hard sack and another punt. His third time up Henig was flushed to the right and threw a strike…right to Vanderbilt's Andrew Pace at the 14-yard line. On second down Tant dragged Rico Bennett went through Rico Bennett and Jeramie Johnson at the goal line for the 31-7 lead. York ran things the rest of the way.
But it made no difference until too late. Cornerback Mario Bobo forced a fumble after a reception, and York directed a 62-yard drive capped by Norwood's five-yard touchdown run. The two-point pass was stopped.
York completed half his 32 passes but the 16 connections netted only 127 yards, showing State had no deep threat. "Kyle did some good things," Croom said, "it's obvious his arm is not 100%. We planned to get Mike in the game, I wanted to put him in in the first half. The ball was not in an area where I felt it was best to put him in." Henig was 1-of-4 for nine yards with the pick.
Norwood was frustrated by a 67-yard night. But the game got away so suddenly in the second quarter there was little else State could do but change plans. "I knew we could run the football coming in," Croom said, "it wasn't any question in my mind." Cutler threw for 91 yards and ran for 49 more while keeping the Dogs guessing. "Sometimes it's difficult to play our option assignments," Robinson said. "He had real good reads and lost us at times on the option."
In the process the Bulldogs lost their chance to get on the SEC scoreboard. Croom did think his team played and hit harder, but there wasn't the necessary execution or efficiency to make it count towards a badly-needed victory. The coach ran down the list. "We didn't play well all the time, we didn't defend the option very well at all. We had too many turnovers offensively, we had opportunities to make plays and didn't." Croom paused.
"Obviously I didn't do a good enough job of coaching them."