Defense’s “bend-but-don’t-break” mentality looks like winning formula


Ziyi Liu

Torren McGaster (5) and Ryan White (14) as Vanderbilt defeated Tennessee State 35-17 on Homecoming at Vanderbilt Stadium October 22, 2016. (Ziyi Liu/ The Vanderbilt Hustler)

Max Schneider, Associate Sports Editor

“Football is an imperfect game played by imperfect people chasing perfection.”

It’s a phrase that head coach Derek Mason has preached to his team over and over again this season, and it seems that the message has gotten through. Vanderbilt is far from perfect, but each week it’s shown an embodiment of Mason’s aphorism when it takes the field.

This past Saturday was no different. In a game that Vanderbilt was supposed to win handily, Tennessee State came out strong with a 93-yard touchdown pass on just its second play from scrimmage.

“What we talked about is playing top down,” Mason said.  “When you don’t play top down, that’s what you give up.”  

Vanderbilt’s offense responded, but the defense looked even less perfect on TSU’s next drive, as the the Tigers scored again to take a 14-7 lead. Vanderbilt answered back, and with the exception of a TSU field goal in the second quarter, the defense dominated the remainder of the game.  

With a four-point lead and a minute to go in the first half, the Tigers were driving to take the lead with a touchdown when Torren McGaster picked off TSU quarterback Ronald Butler to prevent the go-ahead score. Later in the fourth, with TSU on the move again, this time to cut Vanderbilt’s lead to one score, Ryan White delivered a hit on Butler. He forced the ball out, and when the Commodores recovered they never looked back.

“We won the turnover battle, and that’s always huge,” Mason said of his defense.  “Timely turnovers, that’s what this defense has done most of the year.”

Timely turnovers and big plays have been the defense’s calling card, and for a Vanderbilt defense that recognizes imperfection, these plays in key moments have been instrumental in keeping the team in games and protecting leads. They’ve played with a “bend, don’t break” mentality, and it’s consistently put the offense in a position to win games.

Despite the Commodores’ being outgained by 250 yards against Georgia, the defense was able to make stops at the end of drives and, most importantly, on a fourth-and-one run play when Zach Cunningham shot the gap and made a beautiful tackle to seal the win. Even in a game where the defense allowed almost 500 total yards against Western Kentucky, Mason was ready to throw those totals out the window, and the big stop in overtime on a two-point conversion attempt was able to win the game for Vanderbilt. Mason seems unfazed by the opposing yardage numbers, so long as his defense gets the job done.

“The only stat that matters to me is winning,” Mason said.  “You can talk about all these other numbers, but it’s really quite irrelevant. Sometimes we’ll play teams with some athletes and maybe the numbers get high, but the end result is what I’m looking for, and that’s a win.”

The Commodores are winning, and for the first time in Mason’s tenure, his team sits at .500 this late in the season, only two wins away from a bowl game. The defense has been the reason why, as they’ve been difficult to score on. Vanderbilt ranks 89th in college football in yards allowed but 29th in points allowed, signaling that its defense buckles down at the end of drives and makes stops when it needs to.

Even in losses they’ve been resilient. With Florida on the one-yard line back in the fifth game of the season and looking to punch it in to go up two scores in the final minutes, the defense forced a much-needed fumble and McGaster recovered, giving the offense one more shot.

As games have gone on, some offenses try to wear a defense down, but the Commodores look like their defense is just the opposite. They’ve gotten stronger later in games, and while they’ve allowed touchdowns on opening drives in half of their games this season, the points for opposing offenses usually slow down after the first quarter.

“When I look at teams I look at the point total, because for us, that winning formula is 19 points or less,” Mason said.

The past two weeks, in the program’s first back-to-back wins in the Mason era, the defense has held teams to under the 19-point benchmark, allowing the offense to do just enough to pull out wins. The Commodores have played low-scoring games and kept them close, with three out of their four losses being within one score, and they’ve done it with guys at each level of the defense.

Up front they’ve been able to stop the run, in large part due to the size and strength of Nifae Lealao, the defensive tackle who was huge for this team against the run. In the second level it’s Cunningham, a first-round NFL draft prospect who is averaging over 10 tackles per game and is the single biggest player to which this defense can attribute its success. It hasn’t always been smooth on the back end, as they’ve been burned a couple of times, but White has been a leader and Mason is quick to praise his safeties.

“One thing that you see [the safeties] do is they tackle,” Mason said. “If you don’t have safeties that can tackle, you have a lot of points being scored on you.”

The coaching staff has been happy with the performance on defense thus far, and with some of the top offenses in the SEC coming up in the next four weeks, the defense is going to have to keep it up in order to get to a bowl. For Mason, it’s only one game at a time. The team may not be perfect, but as long as the outcomes are, that will do.

“We try to go 1-0 every week, and we just need to play the type of football we want to play,” Mason said. “This team has a lot of resiliency.”