The Commodores have scored just seven points in the fourth quarter this season through five games. The lone score came against Navy, when quarterback Jay Cutler hit Marlon White for a 21-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-11 gamble. Other than that, the offense has been shutout in the game's final frame.
Discounting the final, kneel-on-the-ball possession against Mississippi State, Vanderbilt has had 14 fourth-quarter possessions this season. They have resulted in six punts, five turnovers, two failed fourth-downs and one touchdown.
"Recently, I feel like we've played considerably better (on offense)," said wide receiver Brandon Smith, who gathered in five passes for a career-high 130 yards against
In losses to Ole Miss and Rutgers, Vanderbilt had the ball five times while protecting a lead in the four quarter. The Commodores produced two turnovers, two punts and a failed fourth down.
The Rutgers loss marked the third time this season Vanderbilt has given away a lead in the second half and lost. Is depth the issue?
"I don't know if there's any way you can prove that, unless you try to determine how tired somebody is in the fourth quarter," Johnson said. "But (being outscored) is probably a pretty good indication."
The Commodores offense had two chances to protect leads on Saturday, but came up short each time. Leading 34-23, Vanderbilt took over on its own 19-yard line with 11:06 to play. Cutler hit Dustin Dunning for 15 yards right off the bat. Two plays later, however, Matthew Tant fumbled and Devra Thompson returned it to the Vanderbilt 9. One play later, Rutgers was in the end zone.
Vanderbilt got the ball back leading 34-29 with 9:30 to play. After two runs, Cutler hit Smith over the middle for 20 yards, giving Vanderbilt a first down at the 40. Two more runs set up a third-and-one. Tant was stuffed for a loss of two up the middle and Vanderbilt was forced to punt.
"We're going to have to rethink our short yardage situations," Johnson said. "I don't know if getting them all bunched up in there is the right thing for us to do or not."
Of course, Vanderbilt's final possession should have put points on the board. On third-and-16 from the 25-yard line, Cutler heaved a bomb that was caught by White at the Rutgers 9 with 15 seconds to play. The officials, with some prompting from Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, threw a late flag and called an illegal forward pass on Cutler, saying he was past the line of scrimmage.
"Our films showed the ball was just in front of the 25-yard line when the ball was snapped, and Jay released it from behind the 25-yard line," Johnson said.
Smith saw the film and agreed with his coach.
"We were really disappointed because we had the potential to win or tie the game right there," he said. "That was a real heartbreaker for us."
The Commodores will have to put their disappointment behind them as they head to Georgia to take on the once-beaten Bulldogs. Vanderbilt led Georgia at halftime last year 2-0 ("We tried to sneak out but the doors were locked," said Johnson) on the strength of a strong performance from the defense. Vanderbilt sacked David Greene six times and picked off a pass.
"Guys came out ready to play," said defensive end Robert Dinwiddie. "Their offensive line is a good group, but it is the same group we played last year. We're a year older as well. Hopefully we'll have the same result (as the first-half last year), but for four quarters."
Johnson said Dinwiddie and Jovan Haye have volunteered to play special teams if it means it will help the team.
"Maybe some young guys will see that and say, 'They're not giving up on the season, so neither should we,'" Dinwiddie said. "Hopefully they will see that and take heart."