The Commodores still have many problems, but now is not the time to dwell on them

The Old Bard, William Shakespeare, wrote, "The play's the thing." For the Vanderbilt football team on Saturday evening in Bowling Green, Kentucky, the plays were the thing. This team might not have figured out structural solutions to problems which still exist, but it did realize what it takes to win. That matters.

It's so easy to take a glass-half-empty approach to what happened on Saturday for Vanderbilt.

Against a Conference USA team, VU allowed just over 500 yards. It played uphill, against the run of play, most of the way. It was a struggle to score against a C-USA defense. In an ideal world, no SEC team should sweat bullets in terms of crossing the 20-point threshold against a C-USA defense.

Vanderbilt's problems didn't go away against Western Kentucky.

Voices of concern, even alarmism, will linger.

For one football Monday, one week, tune them out.

It's not sunshine-pumping or a breezy ignorance of issues that require attention; it's part of rebuilding a culture of winning to focus on the good things Vanderbilt did in its exhilarating 31-30 overtime topping of the Hilltoppers. It might seem counterintuitive to lavish praise on a team following a game it frankly should have lost, but that's precisely the point. Vanderbilt, in the Derek Mason years, can't be too counterintuitively viewed -- at least not now.


No one in the Vanderbilt family -- not the competitors in the locker room, the administrators in office, or fans across the country -- needs any explanation about moral victories or "encouraging losses," those blasted creatures temporarily chased away by James Franklin but now a part of the common discussion once again under Mason. Vanderbilt has lost too many games in which it did a lot of good things for fans to be happy about such scenarios. (The loss to South Carolina, at least on defense, was one such game.)

Point-blank: Vanderbilt fans should be elated to win a close-shave game, no matter how ugly the box score might have looked or how many flaws the team displayed. Right now, at this point in the very tenuous Mason Era, a junkyard dog's ability to fight, and a breakfast cook's ability to scramble, are more important than technical precision. 

Technique is -- and must be -- continuously refined by a coaching staff over the course of a season. Learning how to win is something coaches can't teach. Players have to pull 50-50 games out of the fire and develop belief on their own. Coaches can offer guidance and encouragement, but players have to walk over the hot coals of pressure and stand tall in the face of searing Saturday situations.

Vanderbilt's ability to do just that against Western Kentucky -- perhaps a Conference USA team, but C-USA's best team last season -- should be heartily celebrated. 

Players have to trust themselves and their skills before their skills can be polished and developed to a level which can compete against higher levels of competition. This is why the flaws of Saturday's performance matter far less than the competitive resolve of each and every player who wore a white jersey and a helmet with a "V" on it.


What deserves amplification beyond the ability of this team to win a game in which it was largely outplayed is that VU made plays.

It's a simple reality, but a profound one. 

Vanderbilt games -- removed from the James Franklin years -- have often been failures, but beyond that, they've often been bland. Some programs lose a lot of 45-42 games (think of Pittsburgh this year) or always get roped into shootouts they very rarely win. Those teams might not be successful, but they're not boring. What has often been hard to watch about VU football over a longer period of time (decades, not just single seasons) is that losses are usually games bereft of big plays. Vanderbilt might forge a modest degree of territorial leverage against an opponent, but that's 1980s (pre-Steve Spurrier) SEC football the way Dad or Grandpa might have grown up with the sport. 

Today's version of college football doesn't allow for winning simply by eliminating mistakes. That kind of reductionist football usually doesn't cut it anymore. Creating something good must supplement the elimination or avoidance of something bad. 

Vanderbilt did that against WKU.

Two red-zone takeaways certainly qualify as huge plays. The passing game gained large chunks of yardage on several occasions. Late in regulation, on the game-tying drive which made sweet victory possible, freshman Kalija Lipscomb broke a WKU tackle in the middle of the field at the Toppers' 43-yard line. If Lipscomb had not broken that tackle, he would have been stopped short of a first down. The clock would have run for about 15 more seconds.

VU probably would have lost.

The Commodores, on both sides of the ball, might not have won most snaps against Western Kentucky. They had to make several high-leverage plays to win. 

They did.

How great it is that this team has a big-play capacity. It should be celebrated more than any flaws are dwelt upon.

The obvious key now, as stated by Bill Shakespeare:

"The plays are the thing... in the SEC season as well as in non-conference games."

Vanderbilt must carry this propensity for playmaking prowess into pigskin passion plays against divisional foes. If the Dores can do that deed, they'll look upon the final Saturday of September as the moment their 2016 season permanently changed for the better.

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