USC Review: A First-Down Downer

When Vanderbilt plays South Carolina every Autumn, this SEC East encounter is regularly close. Every season, the Commodores – in victory or defeat – emerge from a go-round with the Gamecocks realizing that when the margin for error is small, the difference between a happy locker room and a downcast one is found in subtle subplots and overlooked aspects of competition.

Sure, Vanderbilt's offense just wasn't good enough on a night when the Dores competed with the vigor and passion this program should always expect. It's not exactly a secret that VU once again brought a knife to a gunfight, even though the Commodores carried themselves with competitive distinction after the 43-0 embarrassment against Georgia. This was a night when coach Robbie Caldwell's kids spilled the proverbial tank, but when there's not much offensive juice to be found in the first place, maximum effort can only do so much. None of this is a revelation to Vandy fans, and none of it is cause for either regret or disappointment. The old college try, for a team with VU's minimal amount of offensive firepower, is always something that should be admired.

Where, then, can a Commodore fan point to in an attempt to vent some frustrations after Saturday's 21-7 loss to South Carolina? How can VU diehards come to grips with the exquisite agony of a missed opportunity on a night when – laughable as it might have been – the Dores did indeed control their fate in an SEC East race that will likely remain unpredictable until the very last stop on the road to Atlanta?

The answer is found in degrees and measures, in the minimal and fractional elements that so often seem to matter when Vandy and Cocky confront each other.

Last year, a narrow Carolina win in Columbia came about because a VU cornerback couldn't corral a key interception in an important moment. This year, the difference between the Gamecocks and Commodores turned out to be first downs… no, not in a larger aggregate sense, but in terms of their timeliness and relevance.

American sports fans are immersed in a busy time of year which includes the Major League Baseball playoffs. The most defining aspect of baseball is that it demands timely performances, not just good performances in general. Hits are important only when delivered with a runner in scoring position and two outs; hits that don't lead to runs are empty, and aren't worth a warm bucket of spit. Football – because it is governed by a time clock, unlike baseball – can't quite match baseball's need for situational excellence, but it certainly comes close, and this is especially so when VU and Carolina reunite on the gridiron. Saturday's headknocker in Nashville showed why.

Let's be clear: Vanderbilt shouldn't have been expected to ring up huge numbers against South Carolina's defense, for many of the reasons enumerated above. With that said, here's the punch line for the Commodores' loss on home soil: Vandy didn't have to score a lot of points to win this game. The Dores merely needed to grab a few first downs at the right times in order to prevail against the students of Steve Spurrier, a man who has regularly struggled to put away VU over the years.

The official box score will show that South Carolina outscored Vandy by a 14-0 count in the second half; yet, this game – like so many games that start on a promising note but fizzle down the stretch – was truly decided in the first half, when the Dores failed to put a boot on Carolina's throat. First downs – or rather, a lack of them – told the tale. Again, this is not a discussion of aggregate first downs, nor is it a lamentation about VU's 3-of-15 conversion rate on third downs. What's instructive to point out is that if Vandy had gone just 5-of-15 on third downs, the Dores very well might have won this thing.

Here's the explanation: On three separate first-half drives, Vandy moved the ball inside the South Carolina 46. Just one more first down on just ONE of those drives would have put VU in field-goal range. If Ryan Fowler knocks through just one long kick, that's three extra points Vandy would have been able to play with. With a 4-of-15 conversion rate on third downs – nothing special, to be sure – VU could have had 10 points in the first half. That's point number one.

Point number two concerns Vandy's last possession of the first half. The Dores, still up 7-0, got the ball with 3:26 left before halftime. Given the fact that South Carolina had to exhaust two timeouts to get the ball back with 1:03 left in the half, it's plainly apparent that with just one first down on that drive, VU would have prevented the Gamecocks from getting the ball back with enough time and field position to score the tying touchdown that truly transformed the contest.

Just sit back and digest that point in full: With just one first down in a clock-draining situation, Vandy – without scoring, mind you, and without doing anything of a particularly mind-blowing nature – would have prevented South Carolina from scoring its first touchdown since stud running back Marcus Lattimore left the lineup with an injury at Kentucky on Oct. 16. At the very time South Carolina was suffocating under the choking liquid weight of its own very familiar "Curse of the Chicken" flop sweat, Vanderbilt's offense merely needed to get one first down and preserve a 7-0 lead going into the halftime intermission. That simple shift – had it occurred – would have added to the panic that was so evident throughout the Carolina roster for the first 28 minutes of the first half.

Once the Cocks tied the score, however, you could feel the pressure lift from South Carolina's shoulders. The sense of impending doom that Vandy fans know all too well began to flow through the ballpark in Music City U.S.A., home of many mournful country music ballads that speak of loss and pain.

All Vanderbilt needed to do was convert five third downs instead of three. Two first-down gut-checks at certain moments – on just one drive into Carolina territory and then on the final VU possession of the first half – would have made the halftime score 10-0. Perhaps that would have merely delayed the inevitable; perhaps Carolina would have won 14-10 against the Dores for the second straight year. Nevertheless, it's hard to deny that if Vandy had claimed a 10-0 halftime lead, Stephen Garcia would have had that much more of a chance to crack under pressure; a Gamecock team that has perpetually slipped on the banana peel would have been forced to deliver the goods with no margin for error.

Instead, Vandy forfeited that margin for error and trudged toward the tunnel at halftime with a 7-7 tie, not a 10-0 lead or even a 7-0 advantage.

That's how SEC East titles get lost. That's how games against South Carolina get lost. That's what needs to change if Commodore Caldwell is to right this ship – and at least beat the sorry squad from Knoxville, Tennessee - before the 2010 season comes to an end.

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