Connecticut Review: Cruel Calculus

The various pieces in the puzzle known as a collegiate football game can fit together in ways that are hard to take. Such was the case for the Vandebilt football team when lots of good things happened… but never at the right time.

College football is little different from other sports in that the timeliness of big plays is often as important as the ability to make plays in the first place. Baseball, for instance, is a sport in which clutch hitting separates winners from losers. Tennis is a sport in which the right points (break points and 30-all or deuce points) need to be won a lot more than others in the course of a match. Professional basketball teams need to win the last six minutes of the fourth quarter, and hockey teams need to pull out at least a few overtime games if they want to advance in the NHL playoffs.

What makes college football different, though, is that it only comes across the calendar one time a week. In the other sports referenced above, teams get a chance to amend their ways in one or two days after a given night's failure. In college football, there are only 12 chances per season to make the puzzle fit in a good way.

Saturday in East Hartford, Connecticut, the Vanderbilt Commodores never solved the equations put before them. As a result, coach Robbie Caldwell's team lost an opportunity to make a decent offensive performance stand up.

It's just a reality that 21-point outings can't be taken for granted by the VU crew in 2010. One could be nitpicky and say that last week's 28-point showing against Ole Miss included a pick-six and another touchdown scored after a fumble recovery in the Rebels' red zone, but the point still stood (literally) that Vandy posted a solid number on the scoreboard and turned possibility into a blessed pigskin reality. Any time the energies of opportunism enable Vandy to escape the teens, this team – given its defensive credentials – will have a fighting chance between the painted white lines.

On a sparkling Autumn afternoon in New England, however, a 21-point game from the Commodores didn't translate into the bottom-line result Mr. Caldwell was seeking. As a consequence, the return flight from Big East country will carry more than the usual amount of angst for this team. The cruel calculus of college football will do that.

In this game, many aspects of the Ole Miss win emerged. Vandy once again struck big-play paydirt, producing multiple scoring plays in excess of 34 yards for the second straight week. Larry Smith's 48-yard bomb to Udom Umoh, combined with the spectacular 44-yard run by Jonathan Krause on a gadget play initiated from an option look, fueled the Dores with the quick-strike potency that has frequently proven to be elusive over the past one and a half seasons. Home-run touchdown plays are always sought by any offensive coordinator, and Vanderbilt has undeniably done well to produce these highlight-reel delights in recent weeks, but it's instructive to point out that one can't always assume these "long balls" will fill the stat sheet on a weekly basis. When a VU offense uncorks the fireworks, victory can't be allowed to slither through this team's fingers.

On Saturday at Rentschler Field, that's exactly what happened to Commodore Caldwell's club.

For all the big-play lightning this offense once again captured, the rest of this non-conference clash reminded Vanderbilt's skill people that one must avoid huge mistakes in addition to scoring the kinds of touchdowns worthy of a "top plays" countdown.

Yes, Krause electrified the Vandy sideline with his 44-yard dash to the end zone, but earlier in this contest, his fumble allowed the homestanding Huskies to rack up an easy touchdown. Krause took a touchdown in his own right, but he gave that touchdown away earlier in the afternoon.

Yes, Larry Smith threw a beautiful ball to Umoh to lift the Dores into a 14-all tie in the second quarter, but in the second half, with his team trying to scratch out a comeback, Smith's pick-six – thrown to UConn's Blidi Wreh-Wilson – sealed Vandy's sad fate and made VU just the second BCS conference team to lose to a Big East foe in 2010.

Yes, Warren Norman gave the Commodores a short field with yet another long kick return, allowing the visitors from Nashville to climb back into this game after UConn raced out to a 14-0 lead. However, the Huskies were able to erase that big-play bolt with a defining special-teams feat of their own. When Nick Williams returned the second-half kickoff to the Vandy 41, the Dores' defense – through no fault of its own – was thrust into a short-field situation that it couldn't handle. Technically, one can say that Vandy's defense allowed seven points at the start of the third quarter, but in truth, it was VU's special-teams unit that should be deemed responsible for three of those points. The Dores' defensive 11 should be on the hook for only four points (due to the touchdown-field goal differential).

Speaking of the distinctions between the official box score and the deeper truth of football games, one should indeed take a tally sheet and apply it to the full extent of this contest. At first glance, the numbers say that Connecticut rang up 40 points against Vanderbilt. Plenty of people who didn't watch this game – and who, more instructively, won't care to examine anything written about it – have surely already concluded that VU's defense must have been terrible on Saturday.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

When combining one really short field (a drive start at the VU 12) and the other fairly short field (the VU 41 following the second-half kickoff return by UConn), Connecticut didn't mount many sustained touchdown drives against its SEC foe. The Huskies' second and third touchdowns – produced in the second quarter – were the only ones that emerged from prolonged drives and represented a clear measure of superiority by the team that was a preseason darkhorse pick to win the Big East. When you also realize that Larry Smith's pick-six and a late safety handed UConn nine points without lifting a finger on offense, the final tote board tells us that Vanderbilt's defense was responsible for no more than 21 points against Connecticut.

Here's the equation at work: two sustained touchdown drives for UConn (14 points) plus the touchdown instead of the field goal on the Huskies' first drive of the second half (a net of four points), plus a 25-yard field goal kicked by Connecticut midway through the third quarter (three points). 14 plus 4 plus 3 equals 21… the same amount of points Vanderbilt scored in its own right.

Vandy's offense gave up 16 points through the early Krause fumble, the Smith pick-six, and the late safety. Vandy's special teams gave up three points, in the form of the field goal UConn was expected to get after starting at the VU 41 early in the third quarter. 21 plus 16 plus 3 equals 40; the defense should not be blamed for 19 of the points the Huskies tallied against the VU crew.

To be clear, Vandy's offense is doing some good things. To be even more emphatic , the Commodores and their coaching staff are continuing to work hard and find solutions to all sorts of problems. The creativity in evidence on Krause's 44-yard touchdown had to be a welcome sight for sore eyes in the Vanderbilt football family. Yet, for a 21-point showing to be diminished by untimely mistakes represents a moment of untimely inadequacy. It goes without saying that VU has to be ready to capitalize the next time it cracks the 20-point mark. The problem is that such a scenario is hardly guaranteed as this 2010 season continues.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the cold and unforgiving calculus of the sport called college football.

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