So much for the "away game advantage" theory-- this away game, Vandy's first, was easily its poorest performance of the season. "I thought we were really ready to play, but we didn't play well," said head coach Woody Widenhofer, whose Commodores dropped to 1-5. Vanderbilt appeared a step too slow on defense, lethargic on offense, and made a season's worth of special teams mistakes.
How bad was it? The Commodore defense allowed South Carolina's offense 656 yards of offense on 90 plays-- eclipsing the previous season high of 606 yards allowed vs. MTSU. The USC attack was balanced, with 300 yards coming in the air, and 356 on the ground.
How bad was it? Greg Zolman, making his 30th consecutive start at quarterback, completed only 7 passes (out of 20 attempts) for 126 yards, well below his average. He threw 2 interceptions-- in 5 previous games, he had thrown only a single interception. Lew Thomas, Vandy's leading rusher, was held to 51 yards on 15 carries.
"It's really frustrating because they didn't really do anything different from what we had prepared for all week," said Zolman. "They really came out to play today."
How bad was it? Three different Gamecock quarterbacks contributed to USC touchdowns. Even third-string QB Dondrial Pinkins, a redshirt freshman, threw a 10-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter for the Cocks' final coup de grace.
How bad was it? A punt snap sailed over Joe Webb's head for a safety. Vandy's kick coverage teams allowed a 38-yard kickoff return by Ryan Brewer, and a 24-yard punt return to Ryan Brewer, and a 49-yard kickoff return by Derek Watson. (And those were the ones that weren't nullified by penalties.)
And to rub salt in the wound-- starting guard Duncan Cave is probably lost for the season with a broken ankle. When things go wrong... they go wrong.
Just as they had done the previous week, Vandy let the opposition jump out to a two-touchdown lead. On Carolina's first possession, Petty found Brian Scott in the end zone for a 41-yard score. (He beat freshman corner back Lorenzo Parker, who was starting his second game.)
On its second possession Carolina methodically drove the ball 87 yards on 14 plays, scoring their its touchdown on a Derek Watson 7-yard sweep play. With the Gamecocks biting off yardage in huge chunks, the Commodore defense had to begin doubting its ability to stop the Cocks' spread offense.
Vandy's offense finally ignited midway through the second quarter, when Greg Zolman engineered a 97-yard drive. The drive included a magnificent catch by Dan Stricker that went for 48 yards, and a swing pass to a wide open Lew Thomas which went for 31 yards to the Gamecock 3. Greg Zolman snuck the ball over for the touchdown that cut Carolina's lead to 14-7. (Chuck Folino, the designated placekicker of the week, nailed the point after.)
South Carolina answered with a 42-yard Daniel Weaver field goal, and 2 more points on a safety. Vandy got a mild emotional boost at the end of the first half when they stopped South Carolina inches short of the goal line, keeping the halftime score at 19-7.
The Commodores got another emotional boost when Harold Lercius picked off a Phil Petty pass-- VU's first interception of the season-- and returned it to the Carolina 19. Zolman immediately hit Tom Simone over the middle for a TD that cut the score to a workable 19-14.
But suffice it to say, there were no more emotional highlights after that. I could go through the litany of South Carolina scoring plays for you, but I aint gonna. Just say the wheels completely came off Vandy's cart.
USC opened the floodgates and scored 27 points on its next 4 possessions... and perhaps could have put the final score into the 50's had Erik Kimrey not mercifully taken a knee on 4th-and-3 from Vanderbilt's 8 with 30 seconds left.
"We had very poor tackling on defense," said Widenhofer. [Now there's an understatement.] "The story was, they [South Carolina] could make every third and fourth and short, and we couldn't make a third and one. That keeps drives going.
"And the field position in the second half was unbelievable. I do believe their first four or five drives started inside the 50-yard line. That's like Arena Football-- one team playing Arena Football and the other having to go 70 or 80 yards."
Vandy's offense struggled to move the ball too, putting up only 14 points for the second consecutive week. "Offensively we didn't play up to our capabilities," said junior wide receiver and captain Dan Stricker. "Today South Carolina just took it to us and whooped our butt. Their offense excelled and their defense excelled, and ours didn't."
Pretty much sums it up.
After tonight's wipe-out in Columbia Vanderbilt, now 1-5 (0-4 SEC) with five games left, must look deep for answers. The Commodores face Duke next Saturday at noon at Durham, North Carolina. After tonight, a game that at one point looked like a gimme could pose a stiff mental challenge.
"We just have to reach back and remember what it is we want to accomplish," said Stricker. "That starts with small things-- make the tackle, make the catch, instead of looking to a bowl game. That's what we've got to do. We've got to do a little soul-searching and get ready to win against Duke."