Oh So Close in Columbia

Late touchdown beats Commodores on the road at South Carolina

by Chad Bishop

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Sometimes still figuring out how to win can be a painful, heartbreaking process.

Vanderbilt learned that in an excruciating way Saturday in South Carolina.

“We learned a lot about ourselves today as a defense and as a team. I think we’ve proved to ourselves time and time again that we are a good team and we are a good defense. That one drive is not going to ruin that at all,” Vanderbilt linebacker Ethan Barr said minutes after a 21-20 loss to the Gamecocks. “It happened and it’s really tough to go through that because we had the game. We had it and we let it slip away.

“It’s tough, but we really grew as a team today and grew as a defense and we proved to ourselves that we can do it and we just got to go out and do our job and that’s what we did a lot of the time tonight. We just got to finish now.”

The Commodores (2-5, 0-3 SEC) outplayed South Carolina for more than 2 1/2 periods after trailing 14-3 late in the first quarter.

They dominated defensively. They moved the ball effectively enough on offense. They were more composed and more disciplined. And they were much more close to victory than in so many recent league games that came before Saturday.

Yet the scoreboard still read 21-20 in favor of the opposition after 60 minutes at Williams-Brice Stadium. 

“I have full confidence in this team,” quarterback Mike Wright insisted afterward. “We talk about winning the response and I love these guys on this team and everybody is very supportive.

“It’s going to hurt, it’s always going to hurt, but we’re going to flush out these 24 hours and get back to work.”

Wright, a sophomore, got the start at quarterback and played all but one snap under center while starter Ken Seals watched from the sideline due to an injury. Vanderbilt’s offense totaled 120 yards over its first 14 plays – but came away with just three points after its second drive ended with a turnover on downs at the South Carolina 3.

The next three series ended punt, interception and punt, respectively, but Vandy’s defense found its footing and began to disrupt South Carolina’s rhythm in the passing game. The Gamecocks (4-3, 1-3 SEC) totaled only 23 yards the remainder of the first half after taking their 14-3 lead.

That allowed time for the Commodores to get within 14-10 after a Rocko Griffin 1-yard touchdown run just before halftime. Wright’s 52-yard touchdown pass to Will Sheppard late in the third quarter gave the Dores their first lead at 17-14.

Both of those scores came directly after two of Vanderbilt’s four takeaways in the contest.

“Our issue is stringing together a consistent performance – I actually thought we were way better in terms of our complimentary football,” Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea said. “That’s something I’ve sat and talked about after every loss is I feel like all three phases need to interlock and I thought they did tonight.

“The takeaways on defense – our defense is becoming disruptive. We knew they were capable of that. Those are things you do to win games on the road, to win league games on the road. Those will be points that we build on for sure.”

With 1:36 to play, Joseph Bulovas made a 28-yard field goal putting Vanderbilt ahead 20-14. The visitors were that close to breaking a 15-game conference losing streak.

But South Carolina sent in backup quarterback Zeb Noland. With no timeouts and needing 75 yards the former North Dakota State and Iowa State signal caller completed four of his first six passes to get the Gamecocks down to the 9.

After an incompletion on first down, Noland took a second-down snap and had all the time he needed before whipping a touchdown pass to Xavier Leggette cutting across the back of the end zone.

Parker White kicked the game-winning extra point with 37 seconds left.

“The chunks kill you in that situation,” Lea said. “You want to make them drive it methodically and use up all the clock and try to heave it up at the end out of desperation. We weren’t able to do that.”

Vanderbilt (2-5, 0-3 SEC), after a two-game road swing, now looks ahead to three straight home games and four weeks in a row at home thanks to an off Saturday on Nov. 6. It returns to Vanderbilt Stadium at 3 p.m. Saturday to welcome in Mississippi State (3-3, 1-2 SEC) before hosting Missouri (Oct. 30) and Kentucky (Nov. 13).

The Commodores will allow themselves Sunday to dwell on the closest of defeats possible. Come Monday it will be time to look ahead to a three-game stretch ripe with possibilities.

“They’re disappointed, but the message in the locker room is we have to own it. We have to own the fact that we came up short and we don’t like it,” Lea said. “But there are no victims here. We take responsibility and ownership over it, that’s coaches and players alike and that starts with me. 

“This is about Team 1, this is about what we’re doing this season. We’re going to be disappointed in the result, we’re going to let it sting for 24 hours and then we’re going to win the response and we’re going to put together an effort to allow us to be better next Saturday. We can do that. They’re disappointed and hurt, but they know better days are ahead and we’ll keep fighting and working and we’ll get there.”

— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.