The Pass That Got Away

Many will say, quite rightly, that a 3rd and 20 dagger mortally wounded Vanderbilt on another Saturday of sadness, but two plays before Stephen Garcia drove a lance into the lads from Nashville, another aerial made it possible for South Carolina to slip through Vanderbilt's frustrated fingers.

In the wake of this achy, breaky four-point loss at Williams-Brice Stadium, fans are reaching for their antacid medicine and coaches are staring at even more pronounced bouts with insomnia. Naturally, the public memory will most easily gravitate to long bombs surrendered, 99-yard drives conceded, and intentional grounding penalties committed, but the play that truly told the story of this setback is one that escaped notice in the standard Sunday morning postgame write-ups from the Associated Press and The Tennessean.

VU safety Joel Caldwell, like the rest of his teammates, spilled the tank on yet another Saturday. It's been very difficult for coordinator Bruce Fowler's defense to play with all-out intensity in a season when the offense's pronounced struggles have kept the "Elevated Eleven" on the field far too long. Human nature being what it is, and 20-year-olds being who they are, it's impossible and—moreover—unreasonable to expect Vandy's defense to produce top-shelf quality on every single snap, especially when the offense isn't carrying its share of the load. Caldwell is not exempt from this dynamic, but on Saturday night in Columbia, the unfortunate fact is that the Commodore safety was the victim of the cruel conditions that have enveloped the 2009 incarnation of the Johnson Boys.

South Carolina's winning score—that 43-yard pass from Garcia to receiver Alshon Jeffrey with 12:51 left in the fourth quarter—was preceded, one minute earlier, by another pass that seemed somewhat innocuous at the time. With Vandy leading 10-7 in a game that needed to be won by the very same score, for very obvious reasons, South Carolina faced a 2nd and 9 at the VU 32. Garcia, flushed out of the pocket, drifted to his right and, in an attempt to throw the ball away in a legally allowable manner, didn't quite hit the sideline near the Vanderbilt 5. The pass was an ugly duckling, a fluttering football with an uneven trajectory. It wasn't the easiest ball to read in flight or ultimately catch, but it was left within the field of play, and the man who had a chance to snare it was Caldwell.

Unfortunately, the ball's flight—anything but a tight spiral—sailed just over Caldwell's hands, denying the Dores a chance to pluck the pigskin and deny the Gamecocks on their most promising drive of the second half. Yes, a holding penalty was committed by South Carolina on the very same play—which is precisely why the event lost its centrality in the commonly-accepted narrative of the game—but it was that missed opportunity which allowed Garcia to gain a shot at third-and-long redemption, a shot that the sophomore slinger most certainly drilled… right into Alshon Jeffery's breadbasket.

This acutely detailed account of yet another agonizing evening is not designed to lay blame at Joel Caldwell's feet… or more accurately, his fingertips. Far easier interceptions have evaded the grasp of gridiron competitors in the 140-year history of college football; in fact, South Carolina dropped a truly easy interception near midfield on Vandy's final drive, allowing Larry Smith to advance the ball to the USC 25 before everything bogged down.

The point of referencing Caldwell's near-miss is to show that Vanderbilt is the type of team where even one of those kinds of plays—one possibility of success that goes begging just as quickly as it comes into view—will prove fatal if not seized and then tucked safely into the clutches of the Commodores.

We're in late October, and so it is that at this time of year, the identity of a football team has generally been established. "You are what you are" exists in the football lexicon for a reason, and so it's really rather pointless to have expected Vandy to win this game, 17-14. (It's not pointless to excoriate the SEC for more outrageously inept replay officiating, but that's a story best reserved for another day and another forum…)

Indeed, it's simply not productive to wish that Larry Smith and Co. could generate more and better numbers. This isn't meant to write off VU's offense; it's only a reflection of the present-day limitations that exist in the Commodore camp. In 2009, a cold and cruel analytical calculus suggests that defense and special teams have to stack together enough plays in order for VU to win SEC games. Smith didn't commit a turnover against South Carolina, but because one interception went by the boards on a night when Vandy couldn't register a single takeaway in its own right, the Dores stood on the shadow side of a four-point fistfight. That's the way it goes sometimes, and more precisely, that's the way it's been going for almost all of 2009, a sad-sack saga that has gut-punched a gritty yet underequipped assemblage of athletes.

When looking at this loss in a larger context, one must consult the wisdom of sports, as we've come to understand it over time. One of the particularly enduring truths of elite-level athletic competition is that teams need to be superior enough to avoid the imperfect aspects of a given game, the moments when human error—as seen in just about any SEC replay decision—or dumb luck—as shown in the fluky fluttering of the ball over Caldwell's fingertips—can cause seven-point shifts. Vandy needs to be seven to 10 points better than South Carolina in order for these games to go its way, and actually, that's what the Commodores were in each of the past two seasons, when they slew Steve Spurrier in Columbia and in Nashville. In 2009, Vandy could only carry a field goal in its pocket, and when the fickle fingers of fate didn't enfold a wobby Stephen Garcia football in the fourth quarter, the visiting team from the state of Tennessee left the Dore open to disaster. Sure enough, the worst-case scenario struck this snake-bitten ballclub.

The thing to remember about 2008, as magical as it was, is that Vandy lived on the edge even in its moments of glory. This season has swung the pigskin pendulum, and it's smacked the Dores in the backside with agonizing authority. The proper message to take from this Tums-selling sixth loss is not to blame the offense; the right response to a night of Carolina cruelty is for the coaching staff to hit the recruiting trail, form a far more coherent offensive plan that matches available personnel, and get this ship fixed… in 2010. If the zen of "you are what you are" is to be accorded an appropriate amount of respect, VU shouldn't have been expected to win with anything more than 10 points on Saturday. The other Stephen Garcia toss—the one you didn't read about on Sunday morning—marked the moment when a hard-luck team failed to head off trouble at the pass. That's life as we know it for the 2009 Vanderbilt Commodores.

South Carolina's Shaq Wilson (16) grabs the jersey of Vanderbilt's Collin Ashley (87) during the second half of their NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 24, 2009, at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)

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