Head coach Bobby Johnson--in the wake of this 31-13 setback against the Gamecocks--should constantly remind his boys that the margin between victory and an 18-point defeat, strange as it might sound, is not that large. Had Vandy made just a few plays in a few select moments, the trajectory of this contest could have been oh-so-different. It's important for the Dores, up and down their roster, to remind themselves of this reality.
VU lost this game for two basic reasons: inefficient red zone offense, and--in a repeat of past games from this 2006 season--a good defense that lost its edge at precisely the wrong time.
Had the Dores been able to slam the ball into the end zone in the first quarter and then at the outset of the third quarter, an inconsistent South Carolina offense--which had its bursts of brilliance, but wasn't overwhelming, either--might have sweated a lot more than it did on a glorious afternoon at Vanderbilt Stadium. The fact that Carolina dominated on the ground was partly a result of the fact that USC was able to play with the lead for almost all of the contest. Aside of a 3-0 deficit (and not a 7-0 hole), USC never trailed, and that helped Steve Spurrier to be patient with his running game. Had Vandy scored seven instead of three on two trips to the red zone, the Gamecocks might have had to throw the ball more than they would have liked. It stands to reason that Vandy's red zone struggles had a profound effect on the game's final outcome.
The other reason the Dores didn't rule the Roosters was a familiar bugaboo this season: good defense turned suspect at the worst possible time. Vandy has a solid defense with good hitters and quality athletes, and this unit has kept the Dores in virtually every game they've played this year. Moreover, this same defense was placed in a bad situation by a Chris Nickson interception that led to a Gamecock touchdown in the second quarter. But with all that having been said, the Dores' defense once again faltered precisely when it needed to hang tough.
After USC grabbed a commanding 17-3 lead and stood on the verge of a runaway, VU's defense hunkered down to coax a fumble from Gamecock quarterback Syvelle Newton. This turnover led to a bold Nickson scramble that gained the Dores a touchdown at the end of the first half. After a quick stop of Spurrier's offense at the beginning of the second half, the Dores--though stopped in the red zone--did manage three points to cut USC's lead to 17-13. With momentum wearing Vandy's colors once again, Bobby Johnson's defense needed to sustain the team's emergent emotional edge.
It was time for VU's defense to make the one extra play, the one additional stop, that could have cemented an advantage... the advantage the Dores never did get in their wrenching, almost-but-not-quite losses to Alabama and Arkansas.
Instead, it was South Carolina's Sidney Rice--not VU's defense--who gained an elevated sense of urgency. The Gamecock receiver's extra extension for a home run ball represented the kind of second effort that Vandy needs to find in fragile but crucial moments of an up-and-down, emotion-filled conference collision. The Dores need to be the team that finds the proverbial next level when a game's momentum and--accordingly--its eventual outcome hang in the balance. On yet another Saturday, the Dores witnessed their opponent step on the accelerator when a football game was waiting to be claimed. In the future, Bobby Johnson's team needs to reduplicate the Georgia gut-check and find that winning way.
There's no shame in losing to South Carolina, a talented team that's finding its stride in midseason in a somewhat eerie reduplication of 2005. Vanderbilt competed admirably and--despite what the scoreboard might say--had legitimate chances to acquire a winning position entering the fourth quarter of Saturday's game. But in the end, the Dores need to realize that while they're not as far away from winning seasons as some skeptics might think, they have to make a large mental breakthrough in order to take that decisive and momentous step. In the remainder of this 2006 season, one can only hope Bobby Johnson's team will perfect the winning formula that was newly discovered against Georgia.