The Journey of Team 1

Vanderbilt grew, laid foundation during Clark Lea's first season

by Chad Bishop

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It didn’t take long after Saturday’s season finale for Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea to turn his focus forward.

The final whistle had barely quieted after a loss at Tennessee before the first-year leader of the Dores told the team that Year 2 and Team 2 started then and there. Let the disappointment they felt in that and other moments this season be their offseason fuel. Learn and try again.

To take the learning from this year, I think part of it is to be angry about where we are—angry enough to each make the decision to change and move the program forward,” Lea said. “Let rage fill us as we watch other teams enjoy bowl games. As we return to campus and start our work in January, let’s be fueled forward to make the choices we need to make. Each one among us to ensure that we don’t sit in the same position a year from now.

“We have a long way to go, but we have special people that will close that gap rapidly–so long as we make the right choices.”

Here is a closer look some of the moments that defined the Commodores in 2021:

Win No. 1

Vanderbilt fell at home to East Tennessee State in Lea’s debut. A surprise at the time, the result looks different in light of subsequent events. After winning the Southern Conference, East Tennessee State is 10-1 and hosting Kennesaw State in the FCS playoffs this weekend.

Against what proved to be a quality opponent, too many turnovers and penalties sealed Vanderbilt’s fate and allowed the visitors to score 23 unanswered points in a 23-3 win.

That result left Vanderbilt searching for answers as it prepared for its first road trip of the year at Colorado State. Vandy quickly fell behind 14-0 in that contest, but a Jaylen Mahoney interception in the third quarter was the spark the visitors needed to rally.

Three touchdowns later, the Commodores had the lead as the game entered the fourth quarter – only to see Colorado State pull level with 3:07 to play. Sophomore quarterback Ken Seals led eight-play drive to Colorado State’s 20-yard line, where Joseph Bulovas — nicknamed by the team ‘Big Leg Joe’ — came out and drilled a game-winning, 38-yard field goal.

On the heels of the opening setback, win No. 1 revealed a resilient spirit.

“The guys in the locker room, they sure deserve it,” Bulovas said after the win. “They work their tails off day-in and day-out. This game is not about a game-winning kick or anything like that, it’s about hard work throughout 60 minutes of the game.

“They wrote the letter ,and I just sealed the envelope.”

Back Home Again

Vandy returned from Colorado for a three-game homestand that started with a 41-23 loss to Stanford. Turnovers and penalties again proved costly, allowing a game tied 14-14 in the second quarter to quickly get away from the Commodores.

The following week brought Georgia to town. Ranked No. 2 at the time, and now the top-ranked national championship favorites, the Bulldogs scored on their first five possessions and looked the part of standard setters in a 62-0 win.

It was a humbling night for the Commodores, but an experience they shared with most of Georgia’s opponents this season. And even dark clouds have silver linings, with the loss allowing Lea to seek perspective from a friend.

Lea spoke with Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson just days after that Georgia loss.

“It was just around what building is like, what this experience is like and the highs and the lows of it,” Lea said of the conversation. “In the moment of frustration and pain, where do I direct my energy to make sure I see this for exactly what it is?

“That was the crux of the call and he was a great support to me so I appreciated that.”

Dancing at Dudley

One week later, Vanderbilt hosted Connecticut in the final nonconference matchup of the season. And once again, the Commodores shook off the previous week’s disappointment.

The Huskies led 6-3 after a quarter and trailed 17-16 at the break. Even after falling behind by eight in the second quarter and then eventually 11 in the fourth quarter, they refused to go away Still, with 67 seconds left, disaster struck when UConn’s Steven Krajewski ran for a 17-yard touchdown to give his team a 28-27 lead.

Big Leg Joe was lurking.

Seals again came up clutch, a seven-play drive moving the Commodores into field-goal range with just three ticks on the clock. Bulovas hit from 31 yards to give Vanderbilt its first home win in nine games.

Crestfallen in South Carolina

After a loss at Florida, and without Seals due to a finger injury, Vanderbilt rallied from a 14-3 deficit at South Carolina to take a 20-14 lead in the fourth quarter. Mike Wight was masterful in replacing Seals, throwing for more than 200 yards and rushing for 43 more, while Rocko Griffin (starting in place of the injured Re’Mahn Davis) ran for 57 tough yards and a touchdown.

But with 96 seconds left and backup quarterback Zeb Noland leading the charge for South Carolina, the Gamecocks scored on the ninth play of a 75-yard drive to win 21-20.

An emotional Lea stood in an equally emotional locker room afterward. He expressed his sincere regret at not being able to do enough as a coach to help lift the Commodores over the finish line, while also doubling down on his commitment to this team, this program and this process.

As each member of the Vanderbilt football program boarded the charter flight to return to Nashville, Lea stood in the aircraft doorway and shook the hands of every individual committed to that process.

For Wake’s Sake

Before the Nov. 13 game against Kentucky, former Wake Forest football student-athletes visited their Vanderbilt counterparts

When Lea joined Clawson’s staff in 2016, the Demon Deacons had just suffered through back-to-back 3-9 campaigns and were coming off six consecutive losing seasons. But those Demon Deacons saw the fruits of their labor pay off in the long run and compared their past tribulations to those of the current Dores.

Wake Forest finally broke through with a 7-6 mark in 2016. The Demon Deacons are now 10-2 and scheduled to play Pittsburgh in Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference title game.

“They’ve been through this and they enjoyed being able to spend time watching our team and being able to share a message with our team,” Lea said about the visit from the former Demon Deacons. “It was just about what the beginnings feel like and relating to what the players are experiencing and just an encouragement to stay at the process. The process is righteous, it will get us where we want to go.”

No Quit

Vanderbilt faced adversity beyond hostile crowds in losses at Mississippi and Tennessee in its final two games. By the finale, a serious flu bug, injuries and various other factors meant that there were fewer than 70 Commodores available to take the field.

But even through the final 60 minutes at Neyland Stadium, there was substantial evidence that those wearing black and gold had compartmentalized the importance of being committed to the present challenge.

Vanderbilt’s offense scored two touchdowns in the second half on drives that totaled 33 plays and 150 yards and took nearly 16 minutes off the clock. Vanderbilt’s defense got two stops in the red zone – one in the fourth quarter on a fourth-down play and another in the fourth quarter by causing a fumble.

The final result, and those of the final seven games, will undoubtedly leave a sour taste in the Commodores’ mouth for the entirety of the offseason. That’s what Lea wants them to use as fuel.

Because the hours, days, weeks and months that Team 1 committed to the process should also give the Commodores the utmost confidence that brighter days are ahead.

“Our habits are way ahead of our results, so untangling that becomes the challenge of Year 1,” Lea said. “The psychology around change is hard and it’s relentless. I do feel like Year 1 is a foundational year. I do feel like we covered a lot of ground – I still think there is ground to cover there. So we’re not just going to shift totally.

“But what we’ve said internally is Year 1 is about what we do. Year 2 is about how we do it.”

— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for
Follow him @MrChadBishop.