I suppose there are a couple of ways you could view Vanderbilt’s heartbreaking 21-20 loss to South Carolina. The eternal optimists — or even the more casual box score glancing fans who didn’t watch the game — will point to a hard-fought loss against an 18-point favorite, on the road in the SEC, with the backup quarterback.
Then there are the longsuffering diehards, who are furious at the coaches for in-game decisions that led to another loss snatched out of the jaws of victory in predictable “Same Old Vandy” fashion.
If you peruse social media, you will quickly see the majority of fans fall under the latter. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Yes, the team is clearly improving and there is tangible progress to build on. But there is no denying this loss falls squarely on the coaches.
As fellow Dore Report writer Will Byrum reported Wednesday, a key member of the team would be out this game. As kickoff approached, we received official word that the player was in fact starting QB Ken Seals who is still recovering from a finger injury sustained against Florida. Backup Mike Wright, who has played sporadically this season, would get his chance. The game began as every other game this season, with Vandy starting slowly and falling behind. The Dores would trail 14-3 before scoring their first SEC touchdown with a Rocko Griffin 1-yard run late in the first half.
Vanderbilt took the lead in the third quarter with a 52-yard touchdown reception by Will Sheppard. The Commodores added a field goal with 1:36 left in the game to take a 20-14 lead and looked to be in good shape. South Carolina had no timeouts. Vanderbilt’s defense was having its best game of the season with six tackles for loss, a fourth down red zone stop in the second quarter, a sack, and four turnovers – two of which were interceptions from USC starting QB Luke Doty that led to him getting benched for backup Zeb Noland on the final drive.
With Lea electing to only rush three and drop eight, Noland picked apart the Commodore defense with ease, leading to a touchdown pass to Xavier Legette with 37 seconds remaining. Vandy fumbled on the ensuing drive, and the game was over. The defense, which is supposed to be Coach Lea’s strength, failed the team.
“Just the situation — they had no timeouts, they had to drive the field and I think it was like 1:36 left,” Lea said after the game. “The strategy is to tackle the ball inbounds, is to drop eight and to make them check it down and try to keep the clock running. They had no timeouts to stop the clock. Obviously they were able to get some chunks, which certainly we’ll go back and look at that and say, ‘How do we how do we generate more pressure?’ The chunks kill you in those situations. You want to make them drive it methodically and use up all the clock and try to heave it up at the end out of desperation. We weren’t able to do that… But as far as the strategy goes, the goal was to try to defend both out cuts on both sides and to force the ball inside and underneath so that we can tackle and keep the clock running. The clock was our advantage there and we weren’t able to do that.”
This was Vanderbilt’s 15th consecutive SEC loss. Perhaps even more incredibly, it’s their 13th loss in a row to South Carolina, who for whatever reason have the Commodores’ number. Vandy has even beaten Georgia and Florida – the two programs that outscored them 104-0 this season – more recently than the Gamecocks. Yet this one-point loss stings far worse than those 42-62-point blowouts.
A huge part of building a program is development of talent. While that is generally considered to be in terms of players, it extends to coaching as well. As a rookie head coach, it’s to be expected that Clark Lea will make mistakes. What is important now is that he continues to learn, adapt, and grow from them. Three times this season, Vanderbilt has led in the second half of games. In all three games, they blew the lead late. Once is a fluke, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern. Against Colorado State and UConn, they were able to recover for a game winning drive. In the SEC, things are obviously different (it just means more) and it finally cost him a victory. Learning how to win is difficult, as is changing the culture of a program. Part of that for Lea and his staff is figuring out how to shift from the playing not to lose mentality, to developing more of a killer instinct.
Another potential challenge for Lea going forward could be what appears to be his first quarterback situation. The severity of Seals’ injury and how long it will keep him sidelined is unclear, but what is clear is he hasn’t taken the step forward we were hoping to see in what has been a very uneven sophomore season. Wright wasn’t perfect in his first start, but he played well enough to warrant strong consideration to keep the position. He finished 11 of 21 passing for 206 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Unlike Seals, Wright brings an additional running dimension to the offense — finishing second on the team with 41 rush yards on 15 carries – and the ability to extend plays. He was also responsible Vanderbilt’s three longest passing plays of the season in this game – a 44-yard reception by Cam Johnson, and 50 and 52 yard receptions by Will Sheppard – all longer than any completion Seals has in six games.
“I thought we were more explosive today, which is something that had kind of held us back in the past,” Lea said. “We were able to generate plays that went past 20 yards and 40 yards tonight, and that was helpful to us. I felt like he was able to extend and find routes down the field.”