Week 1 Recap: ETSU; Back to the Drawing Board for Coach Lea and Staff

There is no way to sugarcoat this one.  Becoming the first SEC team in six years to lose to an FCS opponent is not a good look.  Unfortunately for Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea and the fans, winning the press conference only goes so far when you start playing for real. 

In one Saturday evening, all the positive momentum from the offseason evaporated away.

In my frequent interactions with Vandy fans, I think I can confidently say we were mostly realistic about the season.  We didn’t expect a miracle.  But we did expect a win over ETSU.  After failing to reach that goal, we’re now forced to recalibrate our expectations for rest the season.  Suddenly, it’s very difficult to look at Vandy’s remaining schedule and find potential wins.  

One of the first and most important lessons a Vandy football coach must learn: win the nonconference games you’re supposed to.  The SEC schedule is brutal and unforgiving, especially for a team with zero margin for error.  In the few opportunities you have against mid-majors or FCS “cupcakes,” you have to capitalize.  You just have to.  Especially when you’re a three-touchdown favorite as was the case here.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the game wasn’t the loss itself, but the manner in which it happened.  I don’t think anyone watching would say the game was a fluke.  ETSU was just flat out better, especially at the line of scrimmage.  The Buccaneers offensive line pushed around the Commodores to rush for 179 yards on 37 carries (4.8 average).  Compare that to a paltry 85 yards on 31 (2.7 average) carries for the Commodores. 

ETSU didn’t pass often, but they were effective when they did.  The Commodores had difficulty all game trying to pressure Bucs QB Tyler Riddell but could never get a sack.  Riddell repeatedly targeted Vandy CB Jaylen Mahoney for big plays.  The Commodore quarterbacks, on the other hand, struggled to get any rhythm as the coaches shuffled them in and out all game.  Fans hoping to see Ken Seals take a step forward this season were disappointed to see him make continue freshman mistakes, locking into receivers most of the game.  He finished with a backbreaking fumble scoop and score for ETSU, along with two endzone interceptions – and he easily could have had two or three more.  Mike Wright had a few bright spots running the ball, but had trouble connecting in the passing game.  

In quarterbacks’ defense, the offensive line did them both no favors, as each was under pressure all night.  Tyler Steen was particularly horrendous, letting his man crush Wright on a sack that sent him to the locker room and an illegal man downfield that erased a touchdown.  Frankly, offensive coordinator David Raih didn’t have a great debut either with largely unimaginative play-calling.

So is this rock bottom for Vandy?  They currently find themselves in an 11 game losing streak dating back to their last win – ironically a 38-0 victory over ETSU – November 28, 2019.  The easy comparison for this this loss, which has been a frequent talking point on Vandy message boards, would be previous coach Derek Mason’s disastrous debut in losing to Temple 37-7.  Fans can debate which was worse.  It’s true Mason didn’t leave much in the cupboard for Lea.  Still, he left enough that Lea shouldn’t be losing to an FCS team.  

I want to make it clear I’m not suggesting we write of Clark Lea after one game.  His resume speaks for itself.  Like it or not, there is a learning curve for first time head coaches.  As bad as things looked Saturday, I don’t think this team will go winless.  I expect Seals will play better.  I expect the offensive and defensive lines to improve.  I expect Lea and his coordinators will find their footing.  I mean, there’s nowhere to go but up, right? 

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