OXFORD, Miss. — Perhaps, over time, Vanderbilt can look back at the final two – maybe even three – quarters that it played inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday night and consider it a notable stepping stone.
No. 10 Ole Miss, a team that scores in bunches with a high-powered, lightning-quick attack, was up 10-0 before many of the 50,000 fans had made their way from The Grove to their seats. And then Vandy took a metaphorical deep breath.
And then it competed.
“I’m just proud of the way this team is fighting,” Vanderbilt quarterback Mike Wright said. “We’re containing to grow. We’re continuing to grow as an offense. I’m really proud of our defense – they had a big task today. And what I’m really proud of, is when we play complementary football, like we we’re moving the ball, we were getting stops on defense, special teams was playing really great – it’s there. That’s what I’m most excited about. It’s there. I know it’s there.
“We all can feel it’s there, we just got to hang on to it and put it together for four quarters.”
The Commodores, in the end, lost. Again. They’ve gone 20 games in a row in SEC play without a victory and have dropped 13 straight league road games.
But there were dozens of winning moments Saturday during a 31-17 defeat against No. 10 Ole Miss.
Vanderbilt outscored Ole Miss 8-7 in the second half. It forced three Rebel punts and got an Ethan Barr interception inside its own 5.
The Commodores put up 454 yards of offense – a season high. They converted nine third downs, also a season high. And if not for Deantre Prince’s acrobatic interception of a Wright pass on the Ole Miss 3 1:14 to play, Vandy may have made things really uncomfortable for the home team in the waning moments.
“This team is designed to fight. And they fought,” Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea said. “They have a deep respect and appreciation for each other. That shows up in the way they play.
“If we can just grab control over the things that we control – I think part of this is the pain of learning how to win, learning how hard it is to win, particularly on the road and finding a away to get control of those thing earlier so that we can be in position to score to go ahead at the finish. That would be the goal.”
The Rebels (9-2, 5-2 SEC) scored 10 points in less than five minutes Saturday and Vandy was in serious danger of getting run out of the building. But the Dores (2-9, 0-7 SEC) calmed down and were outscored just 21-17 from that point.
Vanderbilt’s defense allowed 7.2 yards per play, but stood up with two fourth-down stops, forced three punts and got a goal-line interception from Barr in the fourth quarter.
“When we executed our plan, we controlled the game on offense, we finished with points, we had long drives, we kept the ball out of their hands and kept their offense on the sideline, when we did that and we played complementary? When we were able to pin them or force them to drive the length of the field I felt like we were in control. When we didn’t do those things they made us pay for it,” Lea said. “You have to make the plays and you have to interlock all three phases. We weren’t able to do that effectively enough tonight.”
Vanderbilt’s finale, the culmination of Season 1 for Lea, is scheduled for 2:45 p.m. CT Saturday at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. It’s there that the Commodores face arch-rival Tennessee (6-5, 3-4 SEC), a team that has been trending in the other direction with four wins in its last seven games.
The Volunteers have won the last two matchups by a combined score of 70-27 and will be looking to close out its regular season with a big showing in its home finale. Thus, another massive challenge awaits for Lea’s program as it looks to create some positive momentum into the offseason.
“This team has gotten better through the course of the year I think in tangible ways and the I think in ways that are internal, ways that are in our locker room that the team knows but maybe no one else does,” he said. “It’s a high-character team, it’s a team with a lot of fight in it, but this is a team that’s desperate to win. We get one chance to do that here at the end of the season. We’re going to put everything on the table this week to go out and fight for that outcome that we want going back out on the road in conference which is an awesome thing.
“We have a lot ahead of us for the positive and a lot to build off of, but this is going to be about how we put everything on the table to get a result this week.”
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.