On a cool, fall morning, the Vanderbilt Commodores (3-4) added another loss to their record against the 14th ranked Florida Gators (6-1).
Coming off an upset victory against the LSU Tigers, Florida expected an easy win in Nashville. The Commodores, however, led the game 21-3 at one point in the second quarter. They gave Florida a run for their money, but as Head Coach Derek Mason put it, “We let one get away, and the Gators found a way to get one.”
This game was a tale of two halves. Early on, Vanderbilt was firing on all cylinders. Their defense created turnovers, and for what felt like the first time all season, the offense was able to capitalize. However, after Ke’Shawn Vaughn went down with a concussion, the offense stalled. Then, lopsided possession (Florida ran 92 plays to Vanderbilt’s 58) began to wear on the Vanderbilt defense.
In the second half, the Commodore defense could not seem to get off the field, as the Gators converted on 12 of 19 third down attempts. According to Josh Smith, “We got takeaways, that’s a great thing about our defense, we’re ripping at the ball getting the ball back. But we’ve got to be better on third downs. We played 92 plays, that’s on us as a defense, we’ve got to get off the field on third downs.”
The Commodores put up a good effort, but eventually, it was clear that they were no match for Florida.
Florida Quarterback Feleipe Franks was cruising early, utilizing a quick screen attack to drive deep into Vanderbilt territory. Once they reached the red zone, however, Franks’ pass was tipped and intercepted at the Vanderbilt 2 yard line by Joejuan Williams.
Vanderbilt took over at their own two yard line, where Ke’Shawn Vaughn took the ball 43 yards on first down. From there, the Vanderbilt offense just kept rolling. Kyle Shurmur’s surgical passing led the Commodores on their longest drive in 15 years, going 98 yards, capped off with a 1 yard toss to Jared Pinkney. It was Vanderbilt’s most creative drive of the season, utilizing various motions to keep the Gator defense on their toes.
Florida took over, crafting long drive utilizing the same quick hit offense. As they neared the end zone, the Vanderbilt Defense stiffened, forcing the Gators to kick a field goal.
On the first play of the ensuing drive, Ke’Shawn Vaughn took a screen pass 75 yards for a touchdown. The large Florida presence in the stadium was stunned, and the Commodore faithful went wild for beautifully executed Touchdown. Vanderbilt made it clear that they would not be pushed around.
With the Commodores up 14-3, their defense was energized, and forced Florida into another punt. Florida had no success on anything but screen passes, and after a while, the Commodore Defense was sniffing those out as well. The Defense looked as though they had returned to their early season form against a strong Florida offense, which had averaged 37 points per game entering this matchup.
The Defense played within themselves, and waited for opportunity to strike, capitalizing when it did. Franks dropped back to pass, and the pressure from Vanderbilt knocked the ball loose. Dare Odeyingbo tried to get a handle on the ball, but continued fumbling it down the sideline, all the way to the Florida 28.
Vanderbilt took over on offense once more, and Florida’s frustration began to show, and they were hit with a 15 yard Unsportsmanlike Conduct penalty, which set up the Commodores at the Florida 7 yard line. On the next play, Jamauri Wakefield took the ball into the end zone, making it 21-3 Vanderbilt.
Franks and the Florida offense were desperate to get some points on the board before the half, and their offense finally got in gear. They utilized a strong rushing attack, pounding the Vanderbilt defense until Lamical Perine scored on a 7 yard rush. Perine, the cousin of Washington Redskin’s Semajie Perine, had a great first half and was the lone bright spot of a largely stagnant Florida Offense.
Vanderbilt took over, and turned the ball over quickly. On the punt return, mayhem broke out as a targeting call was made against Florida, and then Head Coaches Derek Mason and Dan Mullen got into a screaming match, resulting in two Florida players ejection’s. When asked if he regretted reacting emotionally, Mason said, “Football is an emotional game. When its all said and done, if you don’t play football with emotion, what are you doing?”
Florida added a field goal as time expired in the first half, taking the score to 21-13 Vanderbilt. What felt like a dominating effort from Vanderbilt had very quickly turned into a one score game. There was clear tension between the two teams, setting the game up for a feisty second half.
The second half did not start the way Vanderbilt intended it to. After driving all the way down to the Florida 6 yard line, the Commodores missed a Field Goal, giving Florida possession at the 25 yard line. Then after what seemed to be a strong defensive stand, the Gators ran a fake punt for 18 yards, extending a drive that would end in a 38 yard touchdown pass from Franks to Van Joseph. Vanderbilt clung to its lead by a single point.
The teams traded punts for a while, but on the first play of the fourth quarter, Jordan Scarlett broke through for a 48 yard gallop into the end zone. The Gators had now scored 24 straight, bringing the score to 27-21.
Vanderbilt’s offense was stagnant, as the loss of Ke’Shawn Vaughn (concussion protocol) in the second quarter had their offense stuck in neutral. After the game, It was unclear exactly what Vaughn’s status would be going forward. “I’m not going to even comment on it, because I know no more than you do,” said Coach Mason. Vaughn is obviously a large part of this offense, and it would be a crushing blow not to have him going forward.
Shurmur, who had been so precise early in the day, began to make mistakes, including a grounding penalty, immediately followed by a throw that was thankfully dropped by a Florida Defender.
Florida took the ball, and on their second play of the drive, RB Dameon Pierce fumbled the football, and the Commodores took over deep in Florida territory. Their offense stalled, but Vanderbilt was able to convert a 42 yard field goal to bring the score within 3, 27-24.
On the following drive, Florida delivered the knockout blow, an 11 yard screen pass to Freddie Swain, which put the Gators up for good. Vanderbilt fought hard, adding another field goal to keep Florida within their sights, but in the end, the superior team won. After a strong first half, Vanderbilt came back down to earth, and their true colors showed against a Florida team that is rightfully ranked in the top 15.
Vanderbilt has a lot of positives to take out of this game, but ultimately, they were not able to finish, something they’ve struggled with all season long. If they plan on reaching Bowl season, they are going to nee much more consistent production on both sides of the ball. The Commodores have plenty of talent, but their inability to make big plays when they most need them has crippled the team’s progress.
Looking ahead, the Commodores travel to Lexington to take on the 18th ranked Kentucky Wildcats next Saturday. Kentucky is coming off their first loss of the season against Texas A&M last week, and after a Bye this weekend, they’ll be hungry for redemption. Vanderbilt will have to bring their A game to stop Benny Snell and the Wildcats’ Offense.