Commodores offense struggles, falls 30-6 to Georgia in opener

The Commodores fell victim to the 3rd ranked Bulldogs.

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Commodores offense struggles, falls 30-6 to Georgia in opener

Simon Gibbs, Deputy Sports Editor

From the moment the Vanderbilt Commodores took the field on Saturday, the game’s momentum seemed to side with the Georgia Bulldogs. The sold out crowd filled the stadium with a sea of red and they echoed with the sounds of a barking dog whenever the Commodores received a kickoff. While Vanderbilt students did their part to counteract the mass migration of Georgia fans, the red still proved to be too much.

The game was no different, as Vanderbilt put up a valiant effort — particularly in the first half — but the red was just too much. The Commodores ended up losing to the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs 30-6.

“They were able to capitalize on long drives and they kept the ball for most of the first half,” Mason said. “But they really did a good job at the line of scrimmage protecting their quarterback. I thought the defense just struggled early to make tackles, to get off blocks, and it really showed in this ballgame. Offensively, I thought our guys played well. I thought Key played well, but we were never really able to get the pass game started. We’ll get back, we’ll look at it, and we’ll figure out where to go.”

The Bulldogs came out with a vicious offensive attack in the first half, powered by one of the best offensive lines in the country. With an average weight 14 pounds heavier than that of an NFL offensive line, the Bulldogs front had no problem bullying Vanderbilt’s defensive line. Unsurprisingly, first team all-SEC running back D’Andre Swift reaped the benefits of his behemoth blockers. He quickly picked up chunk yardage for the Georgia offense, which barreled through Vanderbilt’s defense like a freight train in their first two possessions.

Before Commodore fans could even blink, the Bulldogs had a 14-0 lead. They rushed the ball just 12 times, but had no problem tallying 106 rushing yards. Their ground game featured five different ballcarriers with Swift leading the charge, as he averaged a healthy 9.8 yards per carry. On the off-chance that the Bulldogs did look to throw, the Commodore secondary was out of place, giving them an easy route to the pay-dirt.

Graduate-transfer Riley Neal was named the Commodores’ starting quarterback in week one, but he struggled against a very sound Bulldog defense. Neal was slotted into a high-powered offense with one of the best trio of weapons in the conference, but he struggled to throw the ball downfield, turning the trio into a one man show. Ke’Shawn Vaughn seemed to carry the load for the Commodores early on, which barely moved past midfield in the first quarter.

“I’m very pleased with how I played throughout this game,” Vaughn said. “It was a great game, and we played a tough defense.”

“I was pleased with how [Vaughn] handled contact,” Mason said. He came into the season physically ready to go, I thought he was primed. There were a couple opportunities where he was close to breaking one, but they made the box really heavy.”

When asked whether the play-calling was designed for Neal to attack the short game, Mason pointed at the Georgia defense as reason to err on the side of caution.

“I think it was what the defense gave him. I think they did a good job of playing top-down, not willing to give up anything on the outside early, and that’s really what it became.

Gerry Gdowski kept Vanderbilt’s offense from blanking in the first half with some unique play calls, featuring a successful fake punt, a double reverse and a near-completed pass by wide receiver Cam Johnson to Jared Pinkney. The offense was able to keep the Bulldogs guessing, allowing Vanderbilt to sneak into field goal range twice. Riley Guay had his fair share of struggles on routine field goals last season, but he shined in the first half; a partially blocked field goal attempt had enough leg behind it to find its way through the uprights, and a rather long, 46 yard attempt was also good.

“I thought he kicked well,” Mason said of Guay. “Riley had a great offseason, and I probably could’ve given him one more opportunity, but I wanted to punch it into the end-zone.”

Vanderbilt allowed one more rushing touchdown to Brian Herrian before entering the locker room for halftime, but a 21-6 deficit seemed far from insurmountable.

But time and time again, the Vanderbilt offense was lifeless. Their unit was hardly in sync; nearly every snap was inches from sailing over the outstretched hands of Neal, and the offensive front was routinely called for false starts.

On the defensive side of the ball, Georgia’s rushing attack continued to cruise in the second half. Only this time, after a handful of first downs, the Commodores defense stiffened up. They finally began applying pressure on Jake Fromm, who couldn’t quite ease the Bulldogs into the redzone. Fortunately for Fromm, Rodrigo Blankenship has one of the best legs in the SEC — their offense may have slowed down, but Blankenship was able to crank a 50 yard field goal through the uprights with room to spare, increasing the lead to 24-6.

“I thought they did a good job attacking, making them be a little more one-dimensional, and being able to get them to third down,” Mason said. “The reality for us is that we didn’t tackle well in the first half. Even in the second half, you saw guys strained.”

The Vanderbilt defense had one more lapse on the ensuing possession, as a blown coverage gifted the Bulldogs with a wide open receiver down the field. After the completion, Georgia was within striking distance once more, but Feleti Afemui delivered a bruising hit roughly 15 yards from the goal line that jarred the ball loose. The Commodores recovered the fumble, but once again, they blanked on offense.

Two more Blankenship boots later, the Commodores trailed 30-6 with just over two minutes left to play. After completing 14 of 25 attempts and somehow only tallying 85 yards, Riley Neal and the first team offense was pulled for the last possession. Coach Mason opted to sub in Deuce Wallace and the second-team offense, but they didn’t look much better against Georgia’s second team defense. Other than their two first half field goals, the Commodores did not score for the remainder of this game.

After the game, Neal hardly gave an indication as to whether he was pleased with his start.

“We’ll see it on film tomorrow. Obviously we had struggles at times, but it’s hard to tell until you see it on film.”

Vanderbilt will travel to Purdue to face the Boilermakers in an out of conference tilt next weekend, hoping their offense can turn things around.

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