For the first four games this season, the big play had eluded Vanderbilt's defense. Prior to Saturday the Commodore defense had intercepted exactly zero passes, and recovered only one fumble. In preparation for South Carolina, the defense had sought ways to create some big plays and pressure the Gamecocks into some turnovers.
True, the Commodores dropped a 20-14 decision to the Gamecocks Saturday, but the defense came up with a number of big plays at key junctures. It was junior safety Jonathan Shaub-- much-maligned for his missed tackles in two previous games-- who redeemed himself nicely Saturday with an interception, a crucial sack, and two fumble-producing hits on the quarterback.
OK, the stats show only one fumble caused by Shaub. Curiously, the second fumble-- which was recovered by Vanderbilt and could have changed the momentum of the game-- was ruled not to be a fumble. But watch the replay... as quarterback Corey Jenkins goes crashing into the turf, the ball is lying at his feet. (Er, I'll get to that later.)
Shaub's first big play came midway through the first quarter. South Carolina was knocking on Vanderbilt's door with a third-and-four on the Vandy six-yard line.
On a called safety blitz, Shaub swept in from quarterback Dondrial Pinkins' blind side and knocked the ball out of Pinkins' hand while delivering a vicious hit to his body. The loose ball was recovered by South Carolina, but the play eliminated the touchdown threat and forced the Gamecocks to kick a 28-yard field goal on fourth down.
In the second quarter South Carolina was driving inside its own territory. Starting quarterback Corey Jenkins launched an ill-advised long pass into double-coverage. The ball was underthrown, but Shaub leapt high and snagged the ball with both hands at the Vandy 26. Shaub, who played some running back in high school, then turned on the burners and returned the ball 27 yards to the Gamecock 47-- another big momentum-shifter.
"We knew they liked to run the dig and post," said Shaub. "They had beaten me on the dig before and that time I knew they were going to run the post. I was there and was lucky to intercept it."
Early in the fourth quarter South Carolina, nursing a wobbly 17-14 lead, drove the ball to the Vandy 15. On third-and-eight Fowler called the blitz, and Shaub sacked Jenkins for a 9-yard loss. The 41-yard field goal attempt by Daniel Weaver was just wide.
The defense had done its job. Once again, Shaub's sack had prevented USC from putting points on the board, and the game was certainly still winnable.
Shaub's biggest play of the evening (which could have been much bigger, had the officials made the correct call) came on South Carolina's final drive, with the Gamecocks still leading 17-14. This time USC drove from its own 43 to the Commodore six-yard line, where the Gamecocks faced third-and-goal.
Carolina lined up in the "T" formation. Once again Fowler called the safety blitz. Jenkins took the ball and moved tentatively to his right. Again, Shaub broke free into the Gamecock backfield and unloaded on Jenkins. The ball came free, and defensive end Chuck Losey scooped it up and began racing toward the end zone, with blockers behind him, for what might have been the gamebreaking Commodore touchdown...
Except that an official blew the play dead. The official, obviously, had not seen what the replay clearly showed-- that Jenkins had dropped the ball while going down. The play was recorded as a mere tackle-for-loss, and on fourth down Weaver booted a 29-yard field goal that stretched the Gamecock lead to 20-14.
Vanderbilt's offense subsequently failed to score, and South Carolina won an SEC victory at Dudley Field before a lively crowd of 34,406. But Fowler's defense finally produced some key plays at some critical times, and certainly didn't let Lou Holtz and the favored Gamecocks get away without some nervous moments.
And it was good to see Shaub-- who had earned a reputation as a big-play safety as a freshman in 1999-- get back into big-play mode on Saturday. He had been quiet for a while-- and for that matter, so had the entire defense.
"It was one of those games where every little play mattered," said Shaub. "It came down to six points. I think a week off will be a good thing-- we'll let everyone get healthy and get ready for MTSU."
Vanderbilt surrendered 20 points and 398 yards of total offense to the Gamecocks-- perhaps not what you'd call a stellar effort. The Commodore defense had difficulty stopping slippery Corey Jenkins and mammoth running back Andrew Pinnock when it counted in the fourth quarter.
But considering the Commodores gave up 46 points and a staggering 656 yards to this same team last year in Columbia-- it's hard to say that significant progress hasn't been made.
The deciding factor in this game was South Carolina's ability to control the ball in the fourth quarter. The Gamecocks, largely behind Jenkins, Pinnock, and freshman wide receiver Troy Williamson, used two time-consuming drives to essentially possess the ball for the entire fourth quarter.
The Commodores' first possession of the fourth quarter produced only a three-and-out, and their second, last-ditch possession ended when Jay Cutler threw a long interception from the Vanderbilt 40.
Nonetheless, the Commodores' tailback tandem of Norval McKenzie and Kwane Doster combined for 123 yards. McKenzie, with 70 yards on 12 carries, is still averaging 7.8 yards per carry. Doster picked up 53 yards on ten carries.
Injury report: Moses Osemwegie left the game with a knee injury in the second quarter and did not return.
Linebacker Brandon Walthour came out of the game hurt three different times, but none of his injuries appeared serious.
Cornerback Cheron Thompson earned his first career start in place of Dominique Morris, who is out with a broken toe.