“For us to come on the road and win a game in a tough environment, we have to finish our drives with seven points, we have to make our field goals, we have to flip the field on punts and we can’t turn the ball over.”
Well, Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea at least knows the recipe for winning in the SEC—even if his team was unable to execute it this past Saturday.
Saturday’s game between the Vanderbilt Commodores and the No. 20 Florida Gators went about as expected: Dan Mullen and his squad took it to Lea’s group, just covering the final spread of 39 with a 42-0 win in front of a homecoming crowd at the Swamp.
Going on the road to beat the Gators is by no means easy or expected at this point in the Lea era, so a loss may have always been in the cards for Vanderbilt this weekend. But don’t be fooled by this score—this game was actually a lot closer than the final scoreboard showed as Vanderbilt left at least 16 points on the field.
At the end of the first half, the Commodores trailed 21-0 despite holding possession of the ball for 20 of the first 30 minutes and trailing Florida in total yards by just 15. Lea’s bunch was executing on early downs and giving themselves chances at second-and-short situations thanks to sound play-calling. They moved the ball inside of the Gator 40-yard line on four consecutive possessions in the first half alone, only to come away with zero points. Zero.
“It’s very frustrating,” Lea said of his team’s inability to put points on the board. “I think when you look at the time of possession in the first half, we were executing on our formula to try to control the game and try to tax their defense and stay on the field. But we have to find some chunk gains and we have to find the end zone.”
The Commodores did, in fact, find the end zone once—on a gutsy two-yard strike from Ken Seals to Chris Pierce to close the first half—but the points were taken off the board despite the official’s call on the field. No points on the Brunch menu this morning, Commodore fans. The refs said no.
No Kicking, a Lot of Screaming
As Lea adequately explained, to go on the road and miss scoring chances is essentially a death wish. and just as Vanderbilt fans began to feel comfortable about the kicking positions, the ghost of Commodore kickers past arose to haunt Vanderbilt at the Swamp.
Although he previously hit six of his first eight field goal attempts, Joey Bulovas missed a trio of kicks against the Gators, all from makeable range—39, 41 and 33 yards respectively—and two in crucial junctures of the game where Vanderbilt was attempting to keep Florida at arms length.
“We have faith and confidence in Joe. He’s going to be as disappointed as anybody—he has stepped up in big moments for us this season to this point,” Lea said of his graduate kicker. “I’m disappointed in the lack of conversion on those attempts, but we have trust and faith in him. He’ll bounce back from that and be the kicker that we know he can be.”
“Big leg Joe,” as he’s known around the team, has still proven throughout this season he is a capable kicker—see his two game-clinching kicks against Colorado State and Connecticut—so confidence should not yet be lost and even if these kicks had gone in, Vanderbilt is likely not escaping Gainesville with a win. But missing them certainly put a damper on this result.
Another half of the poor kicking game that must be addressed is the punting of Harrison Smith. The senior has been a staple on the Commodore special teams unit over the past three years, but his performance has been erratic so far this season. After averaging no less than 43.5 yards per punt in his first three games, his last three have been noticeably worse mostly because he is being asked to use rugby punts.
Smith has begun employing a running, low, line-drive punt that—if done properly—is supposed to keep the football out of returners’ hands. However, it has often resulted in the returner receiving the kick sooner rather than later and, against Florida, it led to him booting a six-yard punt.
On the other side, Florida elected to not use its kicking game on its first drive of the third quarter despite facing a fourth-and-four. Punter Jeremy Crawshaw proceeded to take the snap and run it 28 yards into Vanderbilt territory to convert the fourth down. Gut punch after gut punch.
And finally, if you weren’t angered enough at missed kicks and botched punts, now to the main attraction on this course of the menu: a lot of screaming.
Even if you don’t live in Nashville, you still may have heard Commodore fans screaming after the officials overturned a ruled touchdown catch by Pierce at the end of the first half. The graduate senior caught a two-yard pass from Seals to officially put points on the board for the Commodores, yet after a lengthy officials review, the play was overturned. According to the official NCAA Rulebook, there are three main criteria for a catch.
First, the player must secure firm control with the hand or arm of a live ball in flight before the ball touches the ground. Check.
Second, the player must touch the ground in bounds with any part of his body. Check.
Third, the player must maintain control of the ball long enough to enable him to perform an act common to the game. Check.
So what gives? Well, that truly is the million-dollar question.
Admittedly, as seen below, the ball does hit the ground as Pierce is taken down. However, the official rulebook says that if the ball touches the ground after the player secures control and continues to maintain control and the three criteria above are met, then it is officially a catch. Sounds like a catch to me—you be the judge.
Lea himself did a fair amount of screaming, throughout the second quarter especially. With under a minute left in the first half—even before the officials overturned Pierce’s touchdown—Lea got more than a word in with two of the officials regarding a play-clock issue. It was somewhat refreshing to see Lea that vocal and adamant on the sidelines even if it was just about the play clock.
The last screaming participant in this game was Mullen—SEC football fans’ favorite opposing coach.
In a halftime interview on SEC Network, with his team leading 21-0, he said all of two words in response to a question regarding what he was telling his offense on the sidelines: “Play better.” He then kept it short and not so sweet when asked about his defense saying that they simply were, “Awful.”
Thanks for the time, Dan.
Cheeky Young Talent
As the weeks go by, Lea and the Vanderbilt coaching staff have continued making efforts to play more young players. The strategy makes a lot of sense—see what kind of talent you have in the underclasses so that you can recruit to areas of weakness. Freshmen such as Tyson Russell, Errington Truesdell and James Ziglor have all been taking meaningful snaps, but a few players in particular have stood out.
First is Patrick “Cheeks” Smith. Cheeks—as he is known to some—flipped his commitment to Vanderbilt after formerly committing to Colorado State. And while he was not expected to make a huge impact this season, due to Re’Mahn Davis’ season-ending injury and an in-game injury to Rocko Griffin, he was the lead back for Lea and play caller Joey Lynch on Sunday. And boy did he rise to the occasion.
The true freshman took 17 carries for 75 yards in the Swamp in his first-ever SEC road game. While Griffin and Davis are more bruising forces, Smith did it with speed and agility. He broke tackles and gained extra yards using his vision. He appeared rather similar to former Vanderbilt back Keyon Henry-Brooks, making play after play when there appeared to be little space. He even picked up a botched snap and turned it into a seven-yard gain.
Griffin did return to the game on Saturday but nonetheless, it’s nice to know that Vanderbilt does indeed have some young depth at the running back position.
De’Rickey Wright also had his best game as a Commodore against Florida this weekend. The Alabama native logged a career high in tackles with six and also notched a pair of quarterback hurries and tackles for loss.
Wright has been tasked with a larger role this year in defensive coordinator Jesse Minter’s 4-2-5 defense and he has certainly begun producing at a very high level. As Vanderbilt’s highest-rated recruit in 2020 per 247Sports, Wright figures to continue blossoming into a guaranteed starter with the Commodores for years to come.
An easier road ahead?
After facing a pair of top-25 teams, Vanderbilt currently has just two more games scheduled with currently-ranked teams, those being Kentucky and Ole Miss. The Commodores really could not have been dealt a tougher first two conference opponents, but the good news is that they have improved.
This was not a drubbing a la two weeks ago. Vanderbilt nearly made this a game in the second quarter and but for more than 13 Florida plays of 10-plus yards, this score might look quite a bit different.
“If you can make your field goals and score touchdowns when you do get on their end of the field, you’re in a tight game,” Lea said afterwards. “And now all of a sudden, the energy shifts and we’re able to put some pressure on them in the third and fourth quarter and find a way to win it. So, obviously, it’s never a good day offensively when you don’t score. We had some opportunities, and we need to be better.”
Lea and his squad are continuing to learn how to win football games and next week, they will have an interesting chance to possibly do so. South Carolina is coming off of a 45-20 loss to Tennessee as first-year head coach Shane Beamer’s rebuild of the Gamecocks program is just getting underway. This figures to be a more evenly-talented matchup that could get interesting. Never say never.