Vanderbilt has reached the midpoint of its season with a record of 1-5. Throw out the easy win over woeful Chattanooga-- a bad team even by Division I-AA standards-- and the Commodores, to their loyal fans' dismay, have failed to walk off the field victorious.
Of the five losses, only the Auburn game was a blowout (45-7). In the other four losses, Vandy has had its chances to win late in the game, but has failed to make the plays necessary to win. A missed field goal here, a frustrating interception there. A rash of penalties here, a rash of dropped passes there.
In Saturday's 30-21 road loss to Mississippi State, it was blown opportunities in the red zone that reared its ugly head. Three times vs. the Bulldogs, the Commodore offense penetrated inside the MSU 13-yard line, and managed to come away without points.
"Missed opportunities were the big thing for us offensively," said Coach Bobby Johnson immediately after the loss in Starkville. "We had a bunch of dropped passes and situations where we had some good things going and couldn't get plays completed."
When the Bulldogs took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, Vanderbilt mounted a drive that for all intents should have tied the game, or at least have put three points on the board. But on a third-down play from the 7, a blitzing Darren Williams blindsided quarterback Jay Cutler and knocked the ball loose for Vandy's first turnover. The Bulldogs would score again to take a 14-0 lead.
Vandy regained some momentum in the second quarter and cut the lead to 14-7. Once again the Commodores were poised to tie the game after Cutler hit Matthew Tant for a 24-yard pass and Clark Lea for a 10-yarder.
Faced with a fourth-and-1 from the State 11, Bobby Johnson chose to go for it in an effort to tie the game with a touchdown. The Commodore offense ran an option play, and Cutler was tackled inches short of the marker.
Mississippi State broke the game open when Odell Bradley picked off Cutler and returned the ball to the Vandy 5; Kevin Fant put the Bulldogs up 27-14 on the next play. Vandy would eventually score another touchdown on a Cutler pass play to Erik Davis.
But before that happened, the Commodores had one more missed opportunity inside the red zone. Some nifty running by Kwane Doster gave Vandy a first down on the State 21. Faced with a fourth-and-2 from the Bulldog 13, down by 13 points, Johnson decided to roll the dice and go for it again.
This time Cutler looked to pass, but his throw to Brandon Smith was off the mark.
That marked the eighth time this season the Commodores have penetrated inside an opponent's 20-yard-line and have failed to come away with points. Vandy's opponents, by contrast, have only failed to score once this season after penetrating inside the Commodore 20 (and the one team that failed was Chattanooga).
Red zone failures also played key roles in losses to Ole Miss and TCU. Many fans blamed the loss to Ole Miss on the failures of the kicking game-- but the fact is, if Vandy takes care of business in the red zone early in the game, it beats the Rebels. And if the Vandy offense doesn't squander two red zone opportunities in Fort Worth, it keeps the TCU game close in the fourth quarter.
What's making it so tough for the offense to convert once it nears paydirt? One fan's guess is as good as another.
Crippled by injuries along the offensive line, the Commodores have been forced to start two true freshmen the last two games. The youth and inexperience has showed itself at critical times, and has limited Vandy's ability to pass-protect late in the game.
With a shortened area to operate, the going gets much tougher inside the opponent's 20. Since the Commodores missed a short field goal in the Ole Miss opener, Bobby Johnson has been loathe to try for three, preferring to run a play on fourth down inside the 20. Vandy seems to lack the power running game to convert consistently on fourth-and-short.
Lastly, turnovers have been killers, and Cutler's second fumble Saturday exhausted Vandy's final realistic hope. Though Cutler had his best statistical day Saturday vs. MSU, the sophomore has to be struggling with his confidence after failing once again to bring the team from behind. For the umpteenth time in his career, the fourth quarter found Cutler trying to lead the team on a last-ditch effort to retake the lead and win a ball game.
The Commodores want to avoid putting Cutler and the offense in that situation in the first place. But they also badly need the confidence that comes from a come-from-behind win. At this moment, there seems to be little confidence, among team and fans, that this team can execute in the clutch and come back once it falls behind.
How does Vanderbilt improve its red zone efficiency?
"We have to just keep plugging away one week at a time," said tackle Justin Geisinger. "We have to go back home and prepare hard for the next one at our place next week."
"We keep killing ourselves with turnovers, penalties and mental mistakes," said Cutler. "We have to continue to prepare all week and practice hard. Our team can't give up. We have a lot of tough games left."
The Commodores try to get back in the win column Saturday against a Navy team that leads the nation in rushing with 308.2 yards per game.