NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Just as the the first Saturday evening in September appeared to be going as planned, it just as quickly took a turn for the worse for Vanderbilt.
Under clear skies and in front of a modest – yet eager – crowd of more than 22,000 creating a growing buzz about a new era of Commodore football, Vandy settled in for first-year head coach Clark Lea and took a 3-0 lead in the first quarter over the visitors from East Tennessee State at Vanderbilt Stadium.
It wouldn’t score again.
“This has always been about the vision for the future at Vanderbilt. It’s never been about just playing East Tennessee State on September 4,” Lea said hours later. “This is about how we build this program to sustain success over time. This can be a critical learning moment for everybody involved as we move forward.”
Vanderbilt on Saturday suffered an 11th-straight defeat dating to 2019. It was a demoralizing result giving an offseason and fall camp filled with the new hopes and promises of the changing of fortunes under Lea and his staff.
Visiting East Tennessee State cared for none of that narrative as it reeled off 23 unanswered points and forced three second-half turnovers.
Vandy’s last win had actually came against the Buccaneers (1-0) on Nov. 23, 219. But this was a clearly different East Tennessee State group than the one that lost 38-0 that day.
An experienced bunch that played a spring schedule led by a veteran coach in Randy Sanders controlled every aspect of the contest en route to the victory.
“What I am disappointed in is our performance. I knew East Tennessee State was going to bring their ‘A’ game,” Lea said. “What I wanted from Vanderbilt’s end, from our end, is we bring ours as well. It’s a process of taking preparation to performance, that’s something I’ve spoke about before, and learning how to win.
“I’m not shocked. Obviously extremely disappointed and still believe in our team and just looking to answer the questions we need answered so that we can have a better performance the next week.”
Lea was introduced Saturday to the stadium crowd as a Nashville native and two-time graduate of the University, notes that drew loud cheers from the black and gold faithful. Those cheers grew tenfold when the Dores (0-1) took the field minutes after 7 p.m. for the season opener.
Vanderbilt and East Tennessee then felt each other out for awhile before Joseph Bulovas’ 53-yard field goal gave Vandy a 3-0 lead with 4:15 left in the first quarter.
The Buccaneers took the lead about 12 minutes later with a 5-yard touchdown pass. Then they went up 10-3 before halftime. Halfway through the third quarter it was 13-3. With 8 1/2 minutes to go in the final period East Tennessee State linebacker Stephen Scott picked up a Ken Seals fumble and rumbled in from 22 yards out.
With each passing moment in between the energy was sapped out of the building.
“It’s definitely tough but it’s something that we’ve practiced quite a bit at Vanderbilt since Clark Lea’s been here,” Vandy captain Daevion Davis said of bouncing back from Saturday’s result. “For eight months now we’ve been tested with adversity every day that we’ve stepped in this building and gone out on that field, the weight room, whatever it may be.
“We’re battle-ready and this is just a notch on the rope for us. Responding is something we do well so we’ll continue to compete.”
Saturday’s result won’t define the 2021 season for Lea and his team. It was a strong indicator, however, of just how far the Commodores have to go.
After an 0-9 2020 and 3-9 2019, Lea knew when he was hired in December that his team wouldn’t instantly start reeling off victories just because.
“This is a tough result to stomach. We understand that part of being in the arena of competition is you’re going to learn a lot about yourself. There’s going to be good results and there are going to be bad results,” he said. “We have to make the choice to win the response. That’s as simple as it is.
“We have a long way to go. I knew that heading into the season. We can cover that ground quickly if we set our intention to learning from this. We can be disappointed but let’s not be defeated. Let’s understand that this is Game 1 of 12 scheduled games this season and let’s use this as an opportunity to fuel us forward and maybe a moment that expedites our progress toward the program we know we can build here.”
Between the lines Saturday the Commodores actually outgunned East Tennessee State 318-314. But they only managed 4.4 yards per play, went 5 of 15 on third down and turned the ball over thrice.
The Vandy defense had just four tackles for loss and only a pair of quarterback hurries. Buccaneer running back Quay Holmes ran for 149 yards and East Tennessee State was 3-for-3 on trips inside the red zone.
Those numbers helped stun a Vanderbilt side expecting that 2021 would start different than seasons prior.
“We talk about winning the response and staying together as Team 1. This is nice test for us to do so,” Vanderbilt senior Elijah McAllister said. “We’ll be ready to work next week and come back and put it on tape next Saturday against Colorado State.”
Vandy now must recovery quickly and turn its attention to the first road trip of the season. It will next meet a Colorado State team licking its own wounds after a season-opening, 42-23 loss at home to South Dakota State.
The Dores, who have dropped 10 straight road games, must evaluate their performance to new heights in a venue 5,000 feet above sea level. That’s a mountainous task for a program which knows it has much climbing ahead.
“I am very aware that this is a new experience for this team,” Lea said. “We have a lot to learn about taking the fight to the opponent and obviously limiting mistakes and putting ourselves in position to get the results that we want.”
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.