Strength With Simplicity
In some ways, Vanderbilt's loss on Saturday night to the Alabama Crimson Tide had little in common with the Sept. 24 loss to the South Carolina Gamecocks. Against Alabama, the bottom fell out in the second half, as a truly superior foe with a cerebral, steady quarterback – A.J. McCarron is no Stephen Garcia – imposed its will on the Commodores. South Carolina, in contrast, never really pulled away or delivered a convincing, ringing knockout punch against coach James Franklin's always-working, always-competing roster of determined athletes. Alabama floored Vandy with its rugged, physical style and an airtight approach that didn't crack; South Carolina's defense remained in control of the Commodores, but VU's defense continued to hold its own over the course of 60 minutes against Cocky. That's what makes the South Carolina game a different creature from this shutout loss against the Crimson Tide.
Let's realize this, too: Had South Carolina not gained one do-it-yourself play from running back Marcus Lattimore and one Hail Mary-style catch from receiver Alshon Jeffery on a tipped ball, Vanderbilt might very well have entered the final few minutes in a tense 7-3 contest with a chance of pulling off an upset. Moreover, an added point of distinction between these two games was that when Vandy lost to South Carolina, it was an official's call – a failed ruling of simultaneous possession on what should have been a VU catch in the South Carolina red zone – which shifted the momentum of the game with just over four minutes left in the second quarter. Against Alabama, the momentum-turner – also with just over four minutes remaining before halftime – was different: It wasn't a ruling from the zebras, but it was instead a biffed 38-yard field goal by Vandy placekicker Carey Spear. This is where the paths in the South Carolina and Alabama games become very similar, and it's where the narrative of the 2011 Commodores should be examined.
While it's true that Vanderbilt wasn't jobbed by outside circumstances against Alabama, and that the Commodores could only look inward to identify the moment when they lost hold of this contest, the parallel with the South Carolina loss is clear: Vandy fought very hard for just under 30 minutes in each of these daunting nighttime clashes, only to allow a backbreaking sequence just before halftime.
Vanderbilt had already missed a 47-yard field goal earlier in the first half, but in the collegiate game, makes are not to be expected from that distance as a matter of course. The 38-yard miss, on the other hand, truly felt like a three-point void, an earned score that wasn't actually posted. Once this crushing event occurred – after roughly 26 minutes of competition had elapsed – Vanderbilt lost leverage in what had been a very even fight. The VU crew played better and longer against Carolina than it did against Bama, but the unifying element of these two Southeastern Conference case studies is that they involved a tipping point near the intermission, an episode when a more talented opponent gained reason to believe that it would no longer have to worry about an evening of competition against the Commodores. This is the moment VU is working to deny in a 2011 season when all the pieces of an upper-tier team do not yet exist. In 2013 or 2014, the calculus will hopefully be different for the Dores, but the challenge over the next month and a half in Nashville is to prevent most SEC squads (Kentucky would be an exception at this point) from feeling comfortable in the role of a heavy favorite.
We know this from watching sports throughout our lives: In games between a decisive favorite and an underequipped, young underdog, the goal for the underdog is to keep the favorite out of rhythm, to make Goliath uncertain and unsteady for as long as possible. As long as David can keep the opposing giant off balance, confused, and vexed by an uneasy vibe, the brawny and potent powerhouse can't land early knockout punches. The competition remains tight, and the underdog stays in the fight well past the early stages. The favorite begins to panic and throw wild blows with aimless fists; the underdog lands targeted jabs, scores points, and registers a late kill shot before the favorite can fully find its footing.
This is the pattern of clear-cut favorite-versus-underdog battles: The underdog has to keep the spell, the cloud of confusion, in place as long as possible. This spell might not last for the entirety of a given competition, but if it persists long enough, the favorite won't break the spell until the hour is too late. As Vanderbilt prepares for SEC East co-leader Georgia… and later Florida… and Arkansas… and the Big Orange nemesis from Knoxville, this is the template for the Dores' string of Saturdays. Franklin's forces need to get used to this outlook; they need to learn the jujitsu of the little guy in 2011, before these heralded recruits blossom into studs who can compete on even terms with the rest of the SEC in the years to come.
In order to be a successful David, a thriving underdog, the theme that can't be emphasized enough is this notion of "strength with simplicity." Let's deal with the "strength" part first.
Vanderbilt plays with strength – the Commodores warred in the trenches with Bama for nearly 26 minutes with evident and admirable toughness. VU outgained Alabama in those 25-plus minutes. Franklin outcoached Nick Saban by using a short-passing game that wore out the flat kept Alabama guessing. The Crimson Tide were reactive in the first 1.7 quarters of this collision; Vanderbilt was the more proactive side. As was the case against South Carolina, it was VU which made more of a mark than the opposition in the early going. The Commodores impressed to a far greater extent than what the locals – in Columbia on Sept. 24 or in Tuscaloosa on Oct. 8 – were prepared to accept. Strong starts aren't a deficiency for Vanderbilt – the Dores come out of the blocks in good form, and they don't get overwhelmed by the moment.
They do weaken when they taste adversity, however.
What unites the Carolina and Bama games in one final – and telling – respect is that Vanderbilt didn't have to be trailing by double-digit margins at halftime, despite largely outplaying the opposition. The Dores – at Williams-Brice Stadium and then this past weekend at Bryant-Denny Stadium – didn't have to absorb so much hardship or trudge to the locker room with nothing to show for inspired first halves.
They could have avoided significant mistakes.
Against South Carolina, the mistake was the turnover which handed the Gamecocks and Melvin Ingram seven points on a silver platter, without need of any labor from a struggling offense. Against Alabama, the two missed field goals – especially the 38-yarder – turned what likely would have been a 7-6 half into a 14-0 score, causing VU's hope to evaporate and setting the stage for the slump-shouldered third quarter when the Tide began to roll.
This is where we arrive (again) at the "simplicity" part of our two-pronged theme. Vanderbilt can brawl, but it hasn't yet learned to parry and sidestep. As the Dores deal with more situations in which they take the field with the odds stacked against them, they have to abide by a simple maxim: Give. Nothing. Away.
No one should expect Jordan Rodgers or Larry Smith to light up scoreboards. No one should expect an offense built around the flat pass and the screen game to scare opposing defenses. However, Vanderbilt owns a defense that was flinty enough to contain Alabama's Trent Richardson, holding the supreme specimen to a modest 107 yards. It's a defense that was also able to keep the No. 2 team in the country flat as a pancake for more than 40 percent (24 minutes) of the event. Vandy's defense will be able to stay in the arena with Georgia's inconsistent offense and Florida's backup quarterbacks. Therefore, the main key for the offense and the special teams is to prevent the opposition from gaining cheap points… points scored, yes, but also points that shouldn't be allowed.
When Carey Spear couldn't split the pipes in the first half, he gave Alabama reason to think that everything would be all right. Had Spear been straight and true, the Tide might have worried just a little bit more as they walked to the tunnel at halftime. This is how upset bids flicker and fade. The best Davids are the ones who, though lacking the finest studs in the stable, consolidate the small gains they make, banking their resources so they can extend the battle. Vanderbilt didn't consolidate the advances it made in the first half; two missed kicks formed the impetus for Alabama to lead by 14 at the break when, on the raw merits, it probably should have been leading by only one. A 13-point differential will kill Davids, as will a touchdown surrendered by the offense (as was the case against South Carolina).
Strength – check. Simplicity and giving nothing away – no check. If Vanderbilt can merely minimize its mistakes, this team owns the verve and the passion needed to ring up at least one major SEC upset. We'll see if VU can break through before this already-encouraging autumn runs its course.
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