A small crowd of 19,821 sat through a dreary, drizzly afternoon to watch Vanderbilt battle Missouri – an atmosphere befitting of the last two SEC teams without a conference win. Unfortunately for the hometown Vandy fans the Commodores would remain the only winless team at the end of the day by losing to the Tigers 37-28 and extending their conference losing streak to 18 games.
Season-long issues continued to show up in this game. The Commodores allowed their opponent to score on their opening drive for the eighth straight game as Missouri kicked a field goal. Meanwhile, in a familiar theme this season, Vandy once again found itself down two scores in the first quarter when the Tigers followed up with a touchdown drive to make it 10-0 with 6:59 remaining.
After Vandy had its punt blocked on the ensuing possession, things looked bleak. However, the Commodores were bailed out by a Maxwell Worship interception before they finally began to capitalize on Missouri’s poor run defense that gives up nearly 300 yards per game.
Behind 153 rushing yards in the first half, the Commodores actually battled back to take a 14-10 lead and looked to be in control set up for a long field goal attempt with 22 seconds left before halftime. Then, another issue that has plagued the Commodores reared its ugly head – closing the half.
Instead of attempting the kick, Vandy went with a fake — a run by kicker Joseph Bulovas that was poorly executed and resulted in a five-yard loss. With 15 seconds and good field position on their own 39, Missouri was able to end the half with a 45-yard hail mary in a disastrous turn of events for the Commodores.
“In terms of the two-minute drive, obviously that’s gonna be about execution,” Lea said. “We did a good job getting them to the last play. We had the receiver bracketed in the end zone, we have to have somebody go up and play the ball in the end zone. … It was a disappointing swing that ultimately we had the chance in the second half to erase so we don’t wanna linger too long.”
Despite the gut-punch, Vandy continued to battle in the second half but could never regain the lead. A Commodore touchdown drive with 3:11 left in the game brought them to within 30-28. However, the defense couldn’t get another stop. Then, a 73-yard run by Tiger running back Tyler Badie – who killed Vandy all day – set up another touchdown for the final score and effectively ended Vandy’s hopes for a comeback.
Even with starting running back Rocko Griffin missing the game, Vandy had its best day rushing the ball all season against Missouri’s poor run defense. After showing flashes in the Florida game, true freshman Patrick Smith had a career-high 95 yards on 17 carries. Quarterback Mike Wright showed his explosiveness with runs of 69 and 70 yards which both set up touchdowns. The Commodores finished with 258 yards on the ground on 37 carries (7.0 average).
With a three-game sample of Mike Wright as the starter, we still have arguably more questions than answers about his fit with the team. While he clearly had success running, he continues to struggle through the air. Despite facing a Missouri secondary raged with injures, he finished with a pedestrian 14 of 28 for 122 yards. He did have three touchdown passes – although two of them were shovel passes that were more glorified handoffs – and finished with an interception on the final drive. He continues to miss reads and has trouble with accuracy. A long gain to Chris Pierce was overturned after review because he had to pick the ball up off the ground on a low throw. Wright has proven he needs to be on the field and get playing time, but as he winds down his second season, I think it’s fair to question his ceiling as a starting SEC quarterback.
The Commodore defense set up Tyler Badie as a likely contender for SEC Player of the Week honors. He almost outrushed Vandy by himself, finishing with 254 yards on 31 carries. He also had 8 receptions for 40 yards.
This was widely considered to be Vandy’s last “winnable” game. After losses to South Carolina and Missouri, the Commodores have cemented themselves as unquestionably the worst team in the conference. I bring up that point not to pile on, but rather to stress the magnitude of the challenge Lea has ahead. After the bye this upcoming week, the Commodores will finish against Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Tennessee. Barring a miracle, Lea will finish 2-10 in his first season. Whether that qualifies as a success or a failure is a discussion for a later time, if that is in fact how it plays out (and obviously a much different discussion if it isn’t).
“There are things to build on there for us for sure,” Lea said. “Just wasn’t enough to get the outcome that we wanted today and so we gotta find those extra plays to experience winning again.”