Two dozen seniors came into the 2009 season hoping to do something that never had been done at Vanderbilt.
With two games to go, their focus – as well as that of the rest of their teammates – is on trying to avoid doing something that hasn’t happened in a long time.
Following last Saturday’s 27-3 loss at Florida, the Commodores are 0-6 in the Southeastern Conference (2-8 overall). Their attempt to make consecutive bowl appearances for the first time in school history is long gone.
Now, they need a victory in one of their remaining two games (Saturday against Kentucky or Nov. 21 at Tennessee) or they will become the first Vanderbilt team since 2002 to go winless in conference play.
“I couldn’t even imagine that happening to us,” senior defensive end Broderick Stewart said on Monday. “It seems unbelievable. These next two games are going to be so important for us. … I definitely couldn’t see us going oh-fer in the SEC.”
The last time it happened was VU’s first season under coach Bobby Johnson. Since then the Commodores managed one SEC victory three times, and two, three and four triumphs one time each. A year ago they went 4-4 in conference play, which had a lot to do with the fact that they made their first trip to a bowl game since 1974.
Part of the current struggles can be attributed to the fact that the impact of this year’s senior class was diminished by a string of serious injuries.
“Every senior class that comes through – you see them come in as freshmen and you see them mature as people,” Johnson said. “That’s the great thing about being a coach. You see that process happen.
“Obviously these guys have done a very good job. They’ve been part of a bowl team … and they take pride in that. But when tough times are around, they still work hard are the kind of people you want to have in your program.”
The hard times began for this year’s senior class during spring workouts when wide receiver Justin Wheeler sustained a knee injury, which caused him to miss the entire season. Defensive end Steven Stone missed the first seven games with a foot injury sustained late in preseason workouts. Safety Ryan Hamilton played three halves of football before he was lost with a season-ending chest injury. Running back Jared Hawkins was limited to three games by a foot injury sustained last season.
“Obviously when guys like that – starters, seniors, guys who have been here a long time, leaders on the football team – go down, it’s hard to make up for that,” senior linebacker Patrick Benoist said. “A lot of guys have stepped up and done really well. A lot of underclassmen have done a great job this season stepping into those big roles.
“Obviously, it hurts. … But that’s just the game of football. That’s how it goes.”
Injured or not, 24 seniors will be honored Saturday when Vanderbilt faces Kentucky in its final home game of the season (11:20 a.m., SEC Network).
At 1-4, the Wildcats have the second-worst SEC record thus far. Four other schools, including Tennessee, have just two wins in conference play.
“We talk about trying to win and to play our best every week,” Johnson said. “I think our guys know what the situation is. … We’re trying to get better as a team and win for us.”
• Kickoff for the Nov. 21 contest at Tennessee has been set for 6 p.m. (CST). ESPNU (Comcast Ch. 272) has been named as the broadcast outlet.
• Warren Norman needs 141 rushing yards in the final two games to surpass the school’s single-season freshman rushing record set in 2002 by Kwane Doster (798). Norman’s 658 already is second all-time for a VU freshman.
Zac Stacy needs 71 rushing yards to become the seventh freshman in school history to rush for at least 500. Vanderbilt never has had two freshmen top 500 in the same season.
• Between them, Vanderbilt and Kentucky have just 13 touchdown passes (four by Vanderbilt, nine by Kentucky) this season.
The teams also are third and fourth in the SEC in pass defense.