The sure hands turned into stone hands.
Vanderbilt's receivers didn’t have butterfingers in last Saturday's 31-28 loss to No. 8 Arkansas. In fact, the receiving corps actually had its best game of the year with 12 catches.
Instead, it was the Commodores secondary that let many would-be interceptions slip away.
Headed into this week’s road game at Florida (4-4, 2-4 SEC), the focus is on clamping down and snagging picks.
“It is going to happen. But at the same time coach came into this week talking about the little things, looking the ball in, catching,” safety Javon Marshall said. “We all, I think, as a whole defensive staff and a defensive team, we all have to focus on those little things. We have to take capture of those opportunities. We have to make those types of plays if you want to go from a great defense to a championship defense.”
Vanderbilt’s secondary had been pretty successful at sealing holes and forcing turnovers. After four games, the Commodores (4-4, 1-4) had forced 14 interceptions and led the Football Bowl Subdivision. But in their last four games, they picked off just one pass, falling to a tie for fourth in the country and second in the SEC.
In three of those games — against Alabama, Georgia and Arkansas — Vanderbilt’s opponents won the turnover battle, which hadn’t happened during the season's first month.
“The big issue in this game was the turnover battle, which we lost, and were critical plays as we all know,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said at his weekly press conference on Monday.
It wasn’t for a lack of effort.
The Commodores broke up eight passes and on at least four different occasions, they dropped interceptions. Linebacker Archibald Barnes muffled one Tyler Wilson pass that looked to be a certain pick-six.
Perhaps the biggest shock was cornerback Casey Hayward.
On Monday, the senior was named a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, which goes to the nation’s top defensive back. On Saturday, though, among six pass breakups, he dropped three interceptions.
Hayward leads the team with five interceptions and is tied for the fifth-most in the nation.
“You really don’t see that too much with Casey,” Marshall said. “Usually he is a big playmaker. He usually catches those. I was a little surprised myself.”
As it was, Vanderbilt held one of Arkansas’ top receiving threats, Joe Adams, to only one catch. Plus, the SEC’s top passing offense had just 316 yards and one touchdown.
The score was a big one, though, as Wilson connected with Jarius Wright for an 11-yard touchdown with five seconds left in the first half. Arkansas went 62 yards in eight plays — all passes — with Wilson converting a big fourth-and-10 to Wright for 30 yards, setting up the score that cut Vanderbilt’s lead to 21-14.
It was the fourth straight SEC game that the Commodores allowed a last-minute, first-half touchdown. Franklin said he addressed the reoccurring issue with defensive coordinator Bob Shoop.
“That is something that has showed up a few times this year,” Franklin said. “We just got to make sure that we have the right plan, approach and philosophy, and it is well thought-out in detail, which I know it is. But whenever you have any challenges or issues you want to go back and study those things.”
Vanderbilt ranks fifth in the league in turnover margin — plus-2, with 22 takeaways and 20 turnovers lost. The Commodores plan to climb back up the ranks when it faces Florida, which ranks last in the SEC with a minus-eight turnover margin.
“Coach Shoop’s scheme is getting us in places where we can make plays for the team, get the whole stadium into it and change the whole momentum of the game,” Marshall said. “We are getting our hands on a lot of balls and making a lot of plays.”