Fighting the Uncontrollables

Commodores fall to Gamecocks with limited number of student-athletes available

by Chad Bishop

Vandy Battles Gamecocks by Vanderbilt Athletics on Exposure

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt wasn’t just battling South Carolina on the field Saturday – it was also continuing the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

And both opponents were major factors during a 41-7 Gamecocks’ victory at Vanderbilt Stadium.

“It’s a combination of everything that we’re getting right now to be honest,” Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason said. “It’s along the lines of injuries, we all know what happens with contact tracing, we all understand what happens with COVID – it’s everything and above. We’re playing football in a pandemic.

“As we go through it, this University is committed to not putting our student-athletes in harms way and making sure that we got as good of a roster as we can to go into ballgames. And if we don’t then we’ll make other decisions.”

Mason said his program dressed 56 scholarship student-athletes Saturday morning before kickoff. That’s a tough hand to be dealt against a league opponent – or any opponent for that matter.

The Commodores (0-3, 0-3 SEC) hung around as best they could until midway through the third quarter when South Carolina scored 10 straight points to take a 20-point lead into the final frame. Vandy didn’t have enough left in the tank to formulate a comeback.

Mason said he had a pretty good idea at the start of the week that his team would be short-handed. It wasn’t until Thursday and Friday that he began to realize just how many student-athletes wouldn’t be able to play in the third game of the 2020 season.

“These are challenging times and in challenging times I think what you have to do is just take it one day at a time,” Mason said. “Our staff, our coaches, our student-athletes – we’re going to going to always talk about health, safety and wellness of the student-athletes.

“But we’re going to make sure, too, that we can be functional enough to play the style of football that we want to play and make sure that we keep our guys safe.”

Among the key players inactive Saturday were leading rusher Ja’Veon Marlow, safety Randall Haynie and defensive back and special teams spark plug Donovan Kaufman. The Dores were still able to stay within 3-0 until just before halftime and started the third trailing by a 10-0 deficit.

Lack of depth began to apparently take its toll.

South Carolina (1-2, 1-2 SEC) scored on touchdown plays of 22 yards, 10 yards, 88 yards and 47 yards to run away with the victory.

“Football is football. Whoever is on the field is going to play,” Vanderbilt defensive lineman Dayo Odeyingbo said about the low numbers for the Commodores. “Everybody in the country is in a similar circumstance to us trying to fight this.

“Whoever comes out there on the field I have full confidence in that they’re going to do their job and do it at a high level.”

The Southeastern Conference announced in August an extensive testing process required of all programs. That was in addition to the already stringent measures taken by Vanderbilt University and the Vanderbilt football program.

Student-athletes unavailable for Saturday’s content could have been absent due to a positive test or forced into quarantine due to exposure to a teammate who had tested positive. Or they could have been out due to injury, illness or any other number of common issues associated with college football.

To make matters more difficult, Mason may not find out until Thursday or Friday of game week that a student-athlete is unavailable for that week’s game.

“Our players want to play football. And I think they have an opportunity to play some winning football,” Masons said. “The key is being able to minimize what we can. That’s what we’re working to do. But we’re playing football in a pandemic.

“In doing so that’s not a bad thing, we’re taking ever precaution that we can, but with that being said, you can’t control everything and that’s probably the toughest thing for college coaches now days. The ability to being able to control everything is what we’re used to and we’re sitting in this new normal of every day is a new day. What you got to do is make sure you come in, come in with your plan, figure out exactly what you need to do and let’s fight to see another day.”

Vanderbilt will now move forward to Week 4 of the season and a trip to Missouri (1-2, 1-2 SEC) for a 6:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday. They’ll also hope to get some key student-athletes back while continuing to be extra stringent in guarding against the uncontrollable.

That’s all the Commodores can do at this point.

“I feel like other teams are going through the same things we are,” Vanderbilt tight end Ben Bresnahan said. “You just take it day-by-day and we’re rolling with the guys we got and they’re just trying to do their best and win at the end of the day.”

Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for Follow him @MrChadBishop.