For Vanderbilt’s defense, the bye week couldn’t have come at a better time.
After a 48-3 loss to No. 5 Georgia last weekend, the Commodores have a week off to stew on the team’s most lopsided loss since 2003. It’s a performance Vanderbilt wants to prove was an anomaly, not foreshadowing.
“We’ve proven over the last two seasons we have a solid defense. Last week was a letdown,” senior defensive tackle Rob Lohr said. “I welcome people to take us lightly. That’s fine. We’re going to attack it like every other game.”
Before the Commodores played the Bulldogs, they ranked 16th nationally in scoring defense (13.3 points per game) and fifth in passing defense (100.7 yards per game). They had pitched a shutout against Presbyterian and gave its sluggish offense a chance in two losses, though they surrendered slim fourth-quarter leads.
But Aaron Murray and Co. and Georgia’s ninth-ranked scoring offense torched Vanderbilt for 567 total yards, including 302 rushing yards. Both statistics were the most against the Commodores since Nov. 13, 2010, in a loss to Kentucky. The 48 points were also the most allowed since the 2010 season.
“We got a positive attitude. We’re trying to regroup,” Lohr said. “Obviously the Georgia game it was a tough loss, and it’s not a way a defense wants to play — giving up that amount of points and that amount of yards. Yeah, they are a really good offense, but, at the same time, it’s our mentality going into every week that we can stop anybody that lines up against us. We didn’t get that done.”
Vanderbilt (1-3, 0-2 SEC) aims to get back to its stingy ways by the time it travels to SEC newcomer Missouri (2-2, 0-2) on Oct. 6.
Last year, Vanderbilt quickly developed an aggressive reputation under defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. It started upfront with an intimidating pass rush, spilled over to the linebackers, who swarmed to the ball, and was backed by a secondary that was one of the best in the country in creating interceptions.
But at every level, the Commodores lost a key standout to graduation — defensive end Tim Fugger, middle linebacker Chris Marve, cornerback Casey Hayward and safety Sean Richardson. In addition, Fugger and Hayward were drafted and Richardson signed with the Packers as an undrafted free agent.
Coach James Franklin said earlier this season that it was going to take a more collective effort this season to fill the void by those standouts.
“We definitely got leaders,” senior cornerback Trey Wilson said. “Being a star doesn’t necessarily make you a leader … . We’ve got leaders on every level on the defense. We’re all doing a good job at keeping everybody focused on what we need to do, keeping spirits high. Adversity builds character. You have a little setback that will set you up for something great.”
Even after the Georgia loss, Vanderbilt still ranks sixth in the nation in pass defense (214.2 yards per game) and 32nd in total defense (328 ypg). But, so far, the same disruption hasn’t been there.
Vanderbilt has forced just four turnovers — at this point last year they had 16. The Commodores have compiled just eight sacks — they brought down Murray just once last week — and the rush defense (186.2 yards per game) is the third-worst in the SEC.
Bucking those trends are paramount if the Commodores hope to not only restore their status as an intimidating defense but keep a slow start from getting worse.
“You want to look at the guy next to you and know that you gave it your all after the game,” Lohr said. “If you’re in the locker room after the game and you know you didn’t, it’s an awful feeling. It is a good week for me personally and the team to get back on track and get that mentality back.”