Vanderbilt planned to rely on an experienced defense this season. Halfway through its SEC opener, however, that unit had gotten decidedly younger.
First-half injuries to linebacker Patrick Benoist, safety Ryan Hamilton and cornerback Jamie Graham forced the Commodores to shuffle their lineup during Saturday’s 23-9 loss to LSU.
“We had linebackers at safety and safeties at linebackers,” coach Bobby Johnson said. “When Ryan Hamilton went out, Patrick Benoist, Jamie Graham, we had a freshman playing corner. You don’t have a long shelf life when you are doing that.”
VU defense actually was better — statistically, speaking — over the final two quarters.
Of LSU’s 326 yards of total offense, 231 came in the first half. At one point during the first half the Tigers had five straight possessions of six plays or more. After an 11-play drive to start the second half, they were limited to four or fewer in four of their final five.
Benoist returned in the second half and played through his shoulder injury. He finished with nine tackles (seven of them in the second half), one and half sacks and a fumble recovery. Hamilton (upper body) had five tackles and Graham (ankle) had just one.
Senior Joel Caldwell replaced Hamilton and finished with six tackles. Linebackers Tristan Strong and John Stokes each got to play in the first half, and freshman cornerback Eddie Foster filled Casey Hayward’s spot while Hayward played for Graham in the slot against three or four-receiver sets.
With VU behind by just a touchdown, 16-7, Caldwell intercepted a pass but the play was negated by a penalty. Four plays later LSU scored a touchdown and put the game out of reach.
That was not the only significant penalty against the defense either. Linebacker Chris Marve and Hamilton each were called for facemask penalties on one first-quarter series. Those penalties accounted for 22 of the 69 yards on the drive, which ended with an LSU touchdown that gave the Tigers a 7-0 lead.
“We really shot ourselves in the foot,” defensive end Broderick Stewart said. “The two facemask penalties hurt us. Not to mention, people were already going down left and right, but you can’t have penalties when you play a good team.”
The offense was not immune to injury issues either.
Right tackle James Williams left the game early in the third quarter with what appeared to be a season-ending ankle injury.
“We got beat up and had a bunch of guys that had to come out,” Johnson said. “I’m proud of the way our team hung in there until the end and battled.
“We just need to focus on getting ready for next week.”