NASHVILLE, Tenn. — There certainly wasn’t any narrative of a moral victory coming from Vanderbilt’s locker room Saturday in Starkville, Mississippi.
Instead, the Commodores were despondent over countless missed opportunities in a 24-17 loss at Mississippi State that dropped the team to 0-5. Turnovers, a slow start on defense and the resurfacing of red zone issues left Vandy feeling like it allowed victory to slip through its grasp.
“We know if we take care of the football, play well defensively, hunt, get to the ball and do what we did on third down – which is hold them to 4 of 13 on third down – we have a chance to be a pretty salty defense and can put points on the board,” Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason. “I have to give a lot of credit to our defensive players and, really, to (defensive coordinator Ted) Roof, for making adjustments in the second half.
“Our kids just played hard, they did. I finally saw what this defense can look like for a period of time. That’s something that all of us can build from.”
Vanderbilt (0-5, 0-5 SEC) got off to a miserable start at Davis Wade Stadium and was on the precipice of leaving itself no shot at triumph. Four plays into the game, quarterback Ken Seals threw his first interception of the contest and Mississippi State converted that into a touchdown five plays later.
The Dores regrouped and put together an 11-play series down to the Mississippi State 32, but Pierson Cooke missed a long field goal. Once again the Bulldogs took advantage and went ahead 14-0 in the first quarter.
In the early seconds of the second quarter, Vanderbilt failed to convert a short fourth-down play. Mississippi State took over on its own 45 and drove to the Vandy 7, where it converted a short kick that made it 17-0.
“We just got started a little slow,” Mason said. “Between starting slow and turnovers, a couple of things happened, and you look up and it’s 17-0. What you’re saying is at that point in time is, ‘What is this young quarterback seeing?’”
While the Commodores continued to try to poke holes in the Bulldogs’ defense, Vandy flipped the script on the Mississippi State offense. After taking that 17-0 lead, Mississippi State then punted seven straight times and was held to 43 yards of total offense during that stretch.
Vanderbilt recorded six pass breakups, 5.0 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks. Safety Brendon Harris and cornerback Jaylen Mahoney each had 10 tackles for a unit already short-handed due to COVID-19-related issues.
“Every time we went to the sideline, adjustments were being made,” Mason said of the Vandy defense. “That’s why coach Roof was brought down from the box – so we can get things adjusted. Coach (Marc) Mattioli went up (to the box) and I thought he saw the field well. Every time we went to the sideline, we were intent on talking about what we were seeing.
“We started out that game very vanilla and we wanted to rein it in and figure out exactly what we could do. Again, I have to give the kids credit because the kids executed, for most of the second half, what the defensive plan was and that was to give looks, confuse the quarterback, find opportunities to get him off the spot and make sure we tackle.”
Vanderbilt’s offense, meanwhile, began to put some things together.
Keyon Henry-Brooks, a sophomore running back, had a monster game with 115 yards rushing on 20 carries (5.8 ypc) and 97 yards receiving on 11 catches. His 27-yard sprint to the end zone with 12:27 to play cut that 17-0 deficit to 17-14.
As for Seals, the young signal caller finished 31 of 46 for a career-high 336 yards. But he also threw three picks – one into the end zone – and lost a fumble with 4:18 to play.
That last giveaway led to what would eventually be the Bulldogs’ final touchdown of the night, a Jo’Quavious Marks 1-yard run with 2:43 to go that turned out to be the game-winner.
“He has to take care of the ball. Bottom line. He had a great night, I get all that. Everybody is into stats – I’m into wins,” Mason said of Seals. “I have a young quarterback. He’s going to continue to get better, but the thing he has to do is protect this team. When you lead this team, you have to protect this team and he understands that.
“I love him. I think he’s a competitor, I think he’s definitely the quarterback of the future, but the biggest thing that you have to be able to do, especially on the road, is protect this team. We’ll get better and he’ll learn from it. He will see the film and we’ll move forward.”
Vanderbilt now looks forward to a second straight road game as it plays at Kentucky at 11 a.m. CT Saturday. The Wildcats (2-4, 2-4 SEC) have dropped two in a row coming out of a scheduled bye week.
The Commodores will regroup and start the second half of the season trying to be better than they were in the first.
“What we have to do is hopefully get some guys back, get through another week of (COVID-19) testing and find ourselves pushing towards Kentucky,” Mason said.
Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com. Follow him @MrChadBishop.