Vanderbilt’s players and coaches stopped short of playing their performance Saturday against Mississippi State was not good enough.
‘Not good’ was their succinct assessment.
“The best way I can say this is we got it handed to us (Saturday) night,” coach Bobby Johnson said. “They came out and just were more physical than we were, executed better than we did, coached better than we did, played better than we did.”
In a 15-3 defeat before 31,840 at Vanderbilt Stadium, the Commodores (1-2, 0-2 in the SEC) had just one first down in the first half and 10 for the game and punted on eight of their first nine possessions. They never led and rarely threatened as the Bulldogs (2-1, 1-1) held them to fewer than 200 yards of total offense – 157 in this case – for the second consecutive year.
The defense kept MSU out of the end zone for nearly 57 minutes but could not keep a handle on the Bulldogs’ running game, which averaged 4.6 yards per carry on its way to 260 yards on the ground.
“I definitely felt like as a team we were in the game the entire way,” linebacker Chris Marve, who had a game-high 15 tackles, said. “But we didn’t execute when it counted. So unfortunately we didn’t win.”
Despite Vanderbilt’s offensive struggles the outcome was still uncertain until Bulldogs’ quarterback Tyson Lee ripped off a 22-yard touchdown run with 3:20 remaining.
Up until then the only points allowed by the Commodores were three field goals by Sean Brauchle, a 2008 junior college All-American who was just two-for-four in his first two games with MSU.
It wasn’t enough for Vanderbilt to have led at any point in the contest, but it was not too much to overcome – on the scoreboard at least. Brauchle’s third field goal, from 49 yards out in the final minute of the third period, only put the Commodores in a 9-3 hole.
“It was a three-point game and then a six-point (game) – and we know that a touchdown is seven points and we could go down by one,” Bulldogs’ defensive back Zach Smith said. “We talked about relentless effort, and the fact that we had to keep punching and keep battling. That’s what we did which caused us to win.”
That, and Vanderbilt’s inability to sustain drives on offense.
Quarterback Larry Smith connected with John Cole for a 10-yard completion on the Commodores’ first offensive play. It was not until the third quarter that they got another first down.
Five times in the second half VU got into Mississippi State territory, although not too deep. None of the first four of those possessions advanced beyond the MSU 36 and all of them ended in punts. The Commodores’ final drive took them all the way down to the 22 before Smith threw an interception.
“We played poorly, didn’t execute,” Smith said. “We didn’t throw the ball well, didn’t catch the ball at all. Just overall, on the offensive side of the ball we played poorly.”
• For the second straight game, dropped passes were a problem for Vanderbilt. Officially, Smith was 12-32 for 124 yards, but Johnson said he played well enough not to be pulled in favor of Mackenzi Adams.
“Every once in a while you’d think that, but Larry would sit in there and throw a good pass and somebody would throw it on the ground,” Johnson said. “So you’d say, “It’s not necessarily Larry’s fault.’”
• Sophomore cornerback Casey Hayward left the game at halftime with a migraine headache. Freshman running back Zac Stacy left in the third quarter with what Johnson classified as a “foot or ankle” injury.
• Junior Reilly Lauer started at right tackle in place of the injured James Williams. Late in the game, though, redshirt-freshman Caleb Welchans was in that spot.
• Mississippi State’s Leon Berry returned the opening kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown, but the score was negated by a penalty. For the night, he averaged 16 yards on two kickoff returns but also had a 13.3-yard average on four punt returns.
• Vanderbilt’s defense has allowed just two touchdowns in its last three games at home, a streak which includes last season’s loss to Tennessee.