What makes this team so frustrating and to this point disappointing is the fact that it's a veteran group. The seasoned players have pushed each other in the weight room and in voluntary drills. They're a hard working group. The division within the team that had lingered from the Dinardo through the Dowhower era and remained into some of Woody Widenhofer's tenure had disappeared.
But as much as this group has progressed internally, the results on the field remain the same. The players and coaches still find mind-boggling ways to lose and collapse in the clutch. Neither group ever seems to learn from its mistakes, and if they do, they just figure out new mistakes to make.
What makes it so strange is that the Commodores' downfall can occur in such different ways. Against South Carolina, Vanderbilt sat back on its heels and let the Gamecocks dictate every phase of the game. Many fans, including this writer, heavily criticized the coaching staff for a perceived failure to make changes defensively.
The tone was decidedly different against Ole Miss. The defense took more chances. The special teams unit attempted a surprise two-point conversion. The offense took a shot down the field that could have sealed the game's decision. Unfortunately, many of the chances were ill-conceived and even more poorly executed.
If a veteran group can, by its own admission, come out "flat" in the season opener, and if this group of experienced players can make game-killing decisions week after week, then is there really any hope for the remainder of this year or even next? It's still too early to say at this point, but the time to prove otherwise is next week in Annapolis. Navy embarrassed the Vanderbilt defensive front last year in front of the home crowd in Nashville.
The early portion of the Commodore schedule is obviously the easier portion. Lose to Navy, and any hopes to show real improvement for this season may be lost. There's been quite a bit of talk surrounding Vandy's opening two SEC games, but Navy is suddenly the gut check game of the Bobby Johnson era.
Offensive Diversity: Bobby Johnson talks often about the diversity that is available within the Vanderbilt offense, and the difference could not have been more obvious between the first two games. At times the Vanderbilt offense consists of a very conventional offense of power running, passing game, and play-action sequences. At other times the offense resembles that of years gone by with plenty of option and designed quarterback runs. Against Ole Miss, Jay Cutler had five more rushing attempts than passing attempts. Cutler also had as many rushing attempts (22) as McKenzie, Doster, and Tant combined. Cutler may not be able to sustain a season's worth of punishment at that rate.
Poor Protection: Ole Miss had shown an inability to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks in its first two games versus Memphis and Alabama. The Rebels had failed to record a sack in either contest. Vanderbilt utilized an offensive attack geared toward the running game, which should have served to neutralize the heretofore weak Ole Miss pass rush.
Vanderbilt only attempted 17 passes in the game. Even with relatively few passing attempts and Ole Miss's poor pass rush, six different Rebels recorded sacks of Jay Cutler. The Commodores have allowed eight sacks in the first two games.
Lack of Pressure: Vanderbilt primarily faced a quarterback with limited mobility in Ethan Flatt. Flatt is fairly inexperienced. He did not even play the entire game, yet he attempted 32 passes. Vanderbilt had come off an embarrassing defensive performance, and should have had something to prove.
That combination sounds like the perfect scenario to bring about pressure from every angle possible. Bruce Fowler's defense was slightly more aggressive against Ole Miss, but it only yielded one sack.
No Balance: The offense has the ability to be diverse, but evidently not in the same game. Obviously, game situations against South Carolina dictated more passing, and Vandy passed 38 times vs. 22 rushing plays. The offense against Ole Miss showed a stunning reversal, with 47 rushes to only 17 passes, a nearly 3-to-1 ratio. On the year the Commodores have rushed 69 times to passing 55.
The offense with its talented wide receivers, a capable quarterback, a spotty offensive line and somewhat physically limited running backs needs to achieve more balance to put up the number of points needed to win.
Rush Defense: Ole Miss averaged 66 yards rushing in their first two games of the season, but was able to amass 170 against the vulnerable Vanderbilt rush defense.
Costly Mistakes: A fumbled punt. A long interception at a critical point in the game. Failed fourth-down conversions. An inability to line up correctly on a potentially game breaking, long touchdown run. A holding call on a key pass play. Punting from the 39-yard line and kicking it well into the endzone. An ill-timed two-point conversion attempt. Taking a sack at a critical juncture.
These were the most obvious mistakes the Commodores made on the field, but no mistake was more costly than the mistake made by the officials on Jay Cutler's fourth-quarter, fourth-down rushing attempt. An Ole Miss tackler committed an obvious face mask penalty directly in front of an official. The call was not made, and the ball was turned over.
Converting that down should have been Vanderbilt's ticket to exiting Oxford with a win.