Yet in its last two games, the Vandy stop troops have shown signs of becoming a bend-but-don't-break kind of unit. Last week 18th-ranked LSU rolled up 273 yards rushing, but the Commodore defense still held the defending national champs' offense to only 17 points. A number of times, Vandy was able to hold the Tigers pointless on drives that penetrated the Vandy 30.
Against Eastern Kentucky, it was much the same story. The Colonels moved up and down the field all afternoon, but once inside scoring range, Vandy's defense seemed to stiffen. EKU finished with 460 yards of offense, but 7 measly points.
"People don't give our defense enough credit," a frustrated Matt Clay testified after the LSU game. "A lot of teams can't really drive the ball down our throat. It's always been big plays. We stop them, we stop them, and somehow we give up the big play.
"That's what happened [against LSU]. The punt return was a big play. [Marcus Randall's] bootleg was a big play, and the pass was a big play. Once we can learn to minimize the big play, we'll be one of the best defenses in the nation."
By this time next year, Matt Clay will likely be teaching high school students somewhere. He will graduate next May with a five-year degree in Secondary Education and Sociology. A semester of student-teaching is on tap for next spring.
In the meantime, however, Clay hopes to help something positive happen for a Vanderbilt football team that is careening toward its 22nd consecutive losing season. Until this season, the 6-foot-1, 302-pounder from Powder Springs, Ga., has mainly been known as a guy who makes people laugh. Suddenly in his senior season, however, Clay has emerged as a key leader along the defensive line and has been recognized by his coaches as one of the team's most undersung players.
"I think the main thing that he's done is that he's become a great practice player," said Johnson. "He studies film. He has a lot of savvy for the game. He understands blocking schemes, what people are trying to do to him. He recognizes those things in practice, and helps his other defensive linemen do that too."
His teammates have recently taken notice of Clay's exemplary work habits, Johnson said.
"I think when the whole defense sees Matt Clay, our senior defensive lineman, do that, down to his last three games and working that hard, that provides excellent leadership. We're really proud of Matt.
"Matt is also one of those guys that keeps you loose. He has a great sense of humor, and keeps everybody around him loose. But he also knows when to work hard."
"You've got to have fun to play the game," Clay says. "If you're not out there having fun, the game's not going to be fun. We tell jokes all the time... when it's the appropriate time to tell jokes.
Clay's position coach, David Turner, is not a coach with a high tolerance for horseplay. Clay says he has had to learn in the last three years under Turner when to turn it on and when to turn it off.
"At certain times of the day, certain times of the year he lets us get by with a joke," Clay says. "But when you get on that field with him, it's serious. It's time to play ball."
The LSU game was statistically the best of Clay's career. The big tackle recorded five tackles, forced a fumble and recorded the first sack of his career, vs. Marcus Randall early in the fourth quarter.
The mood of the defenders never changes, Clay emphasizes, no matter what the score. Up by 10 or down by 30, the defensive line prides itself on playing with paramount intensity.
"We're taught to play until the last whistle," he says. "At halftime at LSU, we knew we had 30 more minutes of ball to play. The way we looked at it, [trailing 10-7] they were hanging in with us-- we were not hanging in with them.
"That's our mentality. We don't play football to play down to anybody. Our defensive mentality is that they've got to stop us, not we've gotta stop them."
Though the gaudy amounts of yardage surrendered by the defense are troubling, Clay and his teammates realize that keeping opposing offenses off the scoreboard is ultimately all that matters.
"Coach Johnson always tells us to take one play at a time. Last week the defense gave up one bad play in the second half [a 38-yard scoring pass], but we try not to let that affect us. Like I say, it's one play at a time. We just try to go out on that field and play the next play."
Still, the seniors have had to deal this week with the reality that their bowl dreams have gone out the window. With three games left, the best the Commodores can possibly finish is 5-6, and with Florida and Tennessee on the schedule, even that's a big stretch.
Like many others before him, Clay will finish his Vanderbilt career never having tasted postseason play.
"It's tough," he said. "I've been here five years. I've seen a lot go down. We're going to play until the end, right up through the UT game. People don't give Vanderbilt much credit, but we've proven to people that we're no slouch."
Vanderbilt (2-6, 1-4 SEC) hosts Florida (4-4, 2-4) for Homecoming at 1 p.m. CT Saturday at Vanderbilt Stadium (no TV; 104.5 The Zone).
Photos by Brent Wiseman, copyright 2004 for VandyMania.com.
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