Growing Pains

Crucial mistakes cost Vandy in defeat to visiting Stanford

by Chad Bishop

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Clark Lea has been asking his team to play four quarters of solid – if not dominating – football. And for a little while Saturday at Vanderbilt Stadium it looked like a the first-year head coach may get his wish.

Then a wave of bad fortune swept over the Commodores.

Visiting Stanford (2-1) scored 13 points in the final 1:53 of the first half and then another touchdown less than four minutes into the second half – a 20-point swing Vandy couldn’t recover from. Take away that small section of the game and the Dores may have had different things to discuss after a 41-23 loss.

Instead they left the field with a seventh consecutive defeat at home and eighth straight home setback to an FBS opponent.

“We have to get synched-up in all three phrases of the game to have a chance to beat tough opponents,” Lea said. “When the offense is playing well the defense wasn’t quite holding the line. When the defense was playing well the offense couldn’t get in rhythm and in the kicking phase we allowed too many returns and had too many penalties.

“You’re not going to beat good teams doing that. So we’ll learn from it and grow.”

The result was a gut punch for a team coming off a hard-fought, 24-21 victory at Colorado State the week prior. Vandy (1-2) came out focused and competitive by answering Stanford touchdown drives with touchdowns of its own.

Re’Mahn Davis and Devin Boddie, respectively, both scored their first career touchdowns and the Commodore defense stood large with a goal-line stand in the first half. The crowd of 21,124 felt the energy as well as their decibel levels rose in support.

But with 1:22 left until halftime, Jimmy Wyrick cut in front of a Ken Seals pass for the game’s first turnover giving Stanford – already up 17-14 – the ball at the 31 going in. Forty seconds later Cardinal quarterback Tanner McKee found Brycen Tremayne for a 5-yard scoring toss and it was suddenly 24-14.

That self-inflicted damage would have been bad enough. Stanford’s defense, however, came out and forced a punt and Casey Filkins’ ensuing return went all the way down to the Vanderbilt 22. And since the Commodores were in an illegal formation before the play, the Cardinal moved up another five yards giving Joshua Karty an easy field goal attempt which he boomed in from 35 yards out.

“What a disappointing chain of events, right?” Lea said. “When we got the ball back on offense we had a poor decision to throw an interception, gave another short field to Stanford, and then, finally, a punt return plus a penalty that led to the final field goal. It’s a team that doesn’t yet know how to put it away.

“We had a chance to take all the momentum into half and to come back to the first possession of the second half. It’s brutal.”

The Commodores did plenty of good things throughout the course of 60 minutes. That made defeat much more tough to swallow.

Running backs Rocko Griffin and Davis combined for 183 yards on the ground and averaged 5.9 yards per carry. Receiver Chris Pierce had another strong outing with six grabs for 52 yards.

Vandy’s offense also had drives resulting in touchdowns that went 75 and 98 yards, respectively.

Multiple breakdowns on defense and a step back on special teams – a missed field goal and 166 return yards allowed – doomed the Dores in the end. Especially in the waning moments of the first half and at the start of the second.

“So as a team we focus on the middle eight which is the last four minutes of the second quarter and the first four in the third quarter. That’s when things started to rip apart,” Griffin said. “As a team we have to strengthen that. We started fast so next thing as a team is we just have to finish fast.”

Stanford was, undoubtedly, the toughest opponent on Vanderbilt’s schedule to date. That will change come 11 a.m. Saturday when No. 2-ranked Georgia (3-0, 1-0 SEC) comes to town. The Bulldogs beat South Carolina 40-13 on Saturday and are hopeful they can emerge as national title contenders by season’s end.

How Vanderbilt handles one of college football’s top programs will be indicative of how far Lea’s team has to go in the future and where it stands in the present.

“What’s happening to us is we’re getting better. And that’s a product of the work we’re putting in,” Lea said. “It didn’t show up in the result tonight, but that’s what you’re seeing.

“Until we can come out and play all three phases at a high level to start the game we’re going to be in some tough battles where we got to find a way to win. Tonight Stanford found and a way and we’ll grow from it and learn from it, grow from it and be better next week for the process.”

— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for
Follow him @MrChadBishop.