Jordan Pettit and Ronald Hatcher both went down for the season with freakish leg injuries earlier in the year, damaging the Dores' chances even before the game began. Still the opportunity was there to pull out a shocker in hostile territory. The wet track neutralized the team speed of Auburn for portions of the first half, as a defensive touchdown was the only thing that jump-started the Tigers during a listless first half from their offense. The Tiger offense had become one-dimensional, and that "one dimension"-- Carnell Williams-- had been held to just 56 yards last year in Nashville. With Plainsmen QB Daniel Cobb failing to find a good rhythm, the Dores were able to stay within striking distance at the half.
But as the game unfolded, what seemed to be advantages for Vandy did not materialize. The Dores were unable to pick off any passes, despite Cobb's lack of smoothness. Instead of capitalizing on Auburn's offense, Vandy gave points to Auburn with its own offense. The death knells were the two cheap touchdowns the Tigers picked up on fumbles taken into the end zone.
As has been the case in recent years, the story of the game was missed opportunities for the Commodores. A Dan Stricker dropped pass in the end zone at the 10:42 mark of the second quarter would have cut Auburn's lead to 14-7 and shifted momentum fully to the Black and Gold. VU got a field goal on the trip, but 7 could have changed the complexion of the game entirely. On another possession Vandy QB Jay Cutler had both Stricker and Tom Simone running free on the sideline with no coverage on either, but just overthrew Stricker and let seven more points potentially slip by.
There were a number of bright spots for Vandy. Justin Giboney had a game-high 10 tackles and a blocked field goal attempt to keep the game scoreless in the first quarter. The Cutler-led option attack was a source of consistent production throughout the game. VU matched the Tigers in first downs with 19 and held the ball longer than AU. Finally, there were stretches of the game where VU moved the ball at will-- cleverly mixing run and pass-- especially during the second quarter where the Dores were 4-of-6 on third down conversions.
But beating a favored opponent is all about making plays-- and not making mistakes. Play was certainly sloppy with both teams combining for 19 penalties for 146 yards and 5 turnovers. But it was the Vanderbilt side of the ledger-- 4 of the 5 turnovers-- that proved too much to overcome.
If one wanted a microcosm of the game, it came with 6:54 left in the contest when Auburn punter Damon Duval dropped back to punt from the Vandy 44. The snap was badly mishandled and Mike Martin was rushing in to make the sure tackle for a major loss and change of possession near the Auburn 45. But Duval broke his tackle, ran into the clear, punted away and it was downed at the VU 6.
Head Coach Bobby Johnson and all the players at the press conference following the game were unanimous in their sentiment that execution has to improve, and when it does then good things are going to happen for this football team.
Jay Cutler was quoted, "They made big plays, and we didn't execute the little things. If we execute some more of the little things, we are right back in the game. I felt comfortable coming in here. The rain really wasn't a factor, and neither was the crowd. We just need to work on some things."
And while it doesn't get any easier next week with a trip to Ole Miss, hope springs eternal, even in mid-September… maybe the seeds of another upset-- oh, how weak the Rebels' defense is!-- could take root.