Frustration with losing. Frustration with seeing second-half leads disappear. Frustration with not being able to correct what needs to be corrected for this team to win a game. Frustration in not seeing players rewarded for their hard work.
"(Our frustration level) is pretty high," Johnson said. "Guys work hard, practice hard, play hard and a lot of times they expect to be rewarded for that, and it's frustrating to me when we bring them into the dressing room after the game and they have not been rewarded."
"Of course you get frustrated losing games you should have won," said junior linebacker Otis Washington. "Seems like the stars are lined up against you and you just can't win one. Yeah, it is frustrating."
There is frustration among Vanderbilt fans, as well. The 2003 Commodores showed progress all season, and with 21 starters returning for this season and a schedule that featured a favorable non-conference slate, six wins and a bowl game were not out of the question.
But two three-point losses, games in which the Commodores held second-half leads, have dashed what looked like on paper to be a promising year. Even at 0-3, the Commodores are 10 1/2 –point favorites against Mississippi State this weekend. Rutgers, losers to New Hampshire, visits Vanderbilt next, and Eastern Kentucky comes to Nashville in November. Had both of those second-half leads stood up, it is not difficult to at least presume five wins, with a suspect Kentucky team also still on the docket.
But now the Commodores are fighting simply to get win No. 1, no matter what it takes.
"The only thing we can focus on is we are thirsty for a 'W'," Washington said. "Whoever we play, we're just looking for that 'W'."
Vanderbilt will face a Mississippi State team that comes in reeling as well. The Bulldogs are 1-3 this season, but in their last three games they are 0-3 and have been outscored 103-21. Did we mention one of those games was against Maine? Throw in the fact that starting quarterback Omarr Conner will not play due to a knee injury and the Bulldogs own a nine-game road losing streak and you can see why the Vegas wiseguys put Vanderbilt in the unfamiliar position of heavy favorite.
"We're going to prepare for them just as we would LSU or anybody," said senior wide receiver Chris Young. "Obviously, we can't come in overconfident. We're not going to underestimate Mississippi State."
Despite playing much better in the two succeeding games since South Carolina, the Commodores will still have concerns on both offense and defense Saturday. Wide receiver Erik Davis and tackle Justin Geisinger are questionable at best, and linebacker Moses Osemwegie is recovering from a concussion against Navy, though Johnson indicated he thought the team's leading tackler would play.
Johnson said there is no common theme in the team's 0-3 start other than not protecting the football.
"We teach that every week and it's just got to be a little bit more of a conscious effort by our guys to secure the ball," he said.
Other than that, he said it has been small things here and there that have added up to the winless start.
"I tried to point out (to the players) that if we just did a little bit better, we would be 2-1 right now," Johnson said. "You know, small things make a big difference sometimes. We line up right in the Mississippi game, we're going to score a touchdown. And we'll get some penalties called -- some of it's under our control, and some of it's not. So we've got to take care of what's under our control. We had our chances at Mississippi beyond the referees. We could have overcome that, but we didn't do it."
What Johnson does not have to control is a team that has given in to adversity or no longer has the desire to work hard.
"Our guys want to win," he said. "It makes me mad, or angry, or upset, or ballistic when people look at Vanderbilt and say we just don't want to win. That is the furthest thing from the truth. Our guys want to win. They work hard. They try to make themselves better. Our coaches work extremely hard and put in a lot of hours. We're working at it. When you work at something and don't get immediately rewarded, it hurts."
And that frustration can boil over onto the field, as it did with Robert Dinwiddie in the final seconds of the Navy game when he was ejected for making contact with an official. Johnson said he was not sure if Dinwiddie would be suspended for the first half against Mississippi State as of yesterday.
"Frustration builds from all angles after a couple of losses," Washington said. "That may have been what happened there."
But this team is far from ready to quit, according to the linebacker.
"The first step is to just keep doing what we're doing," Washington said. "Eventually, something good is going to happen."
Bill Trocchi is Interactive Editor for Athlon Sports.
Photos by Brent Wiseman, copyright 2004 for VandyMania.com.