Vanderbilt vs. South Carolina Post-Mortem

Early in the first quarter of Saturday's Vanderbilt-South Carolina game, Tight end Steven Bright sustained a fracture in his leg that ended his season. Coupled with injuries to the offensive line, and the inability of quarterback Chris Nickson to find any rhythm against the Gamecocks, Vanderbilt fans can begin to concentrate on basketball season.

There will likely be no 13th game in December this year.  With outstanding Florida and Tennessee teams remaining on the schedule, a 24th consecutive losing season is almost virtually assured.

 

Playing 12 games in 12 weeks is tough on any college team.  Of the 12 member schools, Vanderbilt can least afford to lose quality players like Brian Stamper, Josh Eames, Jeff Jennings, and Bright and compete in the Southeastern Conference.

 

As I mentioned in the Friday preview, this game looked like one Vanderbilt would have a tough time winning.  Give South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier an extra week to prepare for a game against a team with equal of slightly less talent, and he is going to find a way to exploit all their weaknesses.  He found a way to keep Earl Bennett from hurting his defense, and he forced someone else to do the damage.  Bright may have been able to take off some of the heat, both with his blocking and pass catching ability, but once he was done for the day and season, there just weren't enough additional options.  When Marlon White found himself open in the end zone twice, and passes to him were off the mark both times, it surpassed the margin of error Vanderbilt could afford to possess and still win the game.

 

Even the special teams found South Carolina dominating this game.  The Gamecocks found a way to stymie the Vanderbilt kick coverage.  Faking reverses caused the kick cover team to hesitate, and Carolina used it to return a kick off past the 30 yard line.

 

Richard Kovalcheck entered the game and looked like he knew what he was doing with the short passing game.  It might be interesting to see what he can do early in the game in a more conventional drop-back attack.  It might be worth trying Kovalcheck at quarterback and keeping Nickson in the game with Cassen Jackson-Garrison or Jared Hawkins in a split back alignment.  Nickson might be another Frank Gifford with his running acumen and ability to throw the halfback pass on the move.  Without Bright, the Commodores are going to need to come up with another blocker and/or another way to influence the defense away from the real point of attack.  Nickson has the intelligence to play both positions, and it would cause colossal headaches for teams trying to prepare for it.

 

The fourth quarter mistaken call by the referee was a bad break, but it did not affect the outcome of the game.  South Carolina was going to win even if the Commodores scored a touchdown on that play.  Vandy wasn't going to score two more touchdowns.  Had that call come in the earlier stages of the game or if the game was still on the line at that point, one can only guess what the crowd response would have been.  Commodore fans have endured enough of these mistakes that have always seemed to be one-sided—against the Commodores. 

 

Vanderbilt must now venture to Durham, North Carolina, to face a winless Duke team.  The Blue Devils came within one play of upsetting Miami of Florida on Saturday, and they are playing their best ball of the season.  They have at most two chances to win a game this year—the season finale against North Carolina, and this game.

 

The Blue Devils are going to enter this game hopping mad, as they felt they should have won the game against the Hurricanes.  Playing at home and against an SEC team they think they can beat, this is not going to be a "gimme" win for the black and gold.  In fact, unless the Commodores play with the same intensity they would play against Tennessee, they could very well lay another egg and be the embarrassment of the week in Division I-A football. 

 

Commodore coach Bobby Johnson does not like it when someone brings up the past history of Vanderbilt football and makes a comparison to his tenure.  He's right to be upset, because he is not at fault for the multiple times from past seasons where the Gold Men won a big game one week and then bounced the following week.  However, fans who have followed the team since 1960 can recall some of the reasons why Vanderbilt has almost always failed to turn the corner when they had appeared to have turned the corner.

 

First and foremost, Vanderbilt has never had the equivalent amount of talent of the other SEC schools.  Until unlimited substitution became the rule, Vanderbilt could compete with 20 to 25 good players.  That gave them a two-deep that was as talented as the other 11 members (back then Tulane and Georgia Tech instead of Arkansas and South Carolina).  So what if Alabama's third team was more talented than Vandy's third team as long as Vandy matched them man-for-man on numbers one to 22.  If two or three injuries occurred in the two-deep, it meant some of the remaining members of the first two teams would go the entire 60 minutes, or until the game was no longer in doubt.

 

Due to this lack of depth (Vandy's depth is about as good as it has been in the last 45 years, but still near the bottom of the league), once injuries begin to pile up, it is difficult if not impossible to put together back-to-back efforts like the Commodores pulled off in Athens, Georgia, last week.  Couple that with no bye week and teams like Vandy weaken as the season progresses.  The PiRate ratings actually factor in this depth concern, taking away a point every three weeks regardless of the outcome of the game that previous Saturday. 

 

In 1973, when the Commodores upset Georgia, they followed it up with a performance similar to yesterday, dropping a game to a less-than-average Ole Miss team going through a mid-season coaching change.  That 1973 team continued to lose week-after-week and showed exponential fatigue. They finally edged Division II Tampa in the 10th game of the year.  The 2006 Commodores now find themselves playing their Tampa this weekend.  They better win this one, or 3-9 could easily be their fate.

 

 


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