It would have been so easy to lose heart. It would have been so easy to lose focus and concentration.
By Matt Zemek
The Vanderbilt Commodores blew a 27-16 fourth-quarter lead against the Connecticut Huskies on Saturday night in Nashville. What was beginning to look like a solid, respectable double-digit win over a terrible UConn team midway through the fourth quarter had turned into a frightening confrontation with a defeat which – let’s be honest – would have been far worse than losing 62-0 against Georgia.
Of course, losing 62-0 is certainly humiliating. No one is denying or disputing that point. However, Georgia just hammered a not-that-bad Arkansas team. That takes some of the sting (not all, but some) from Vanderbilt’s 60 minutes against the Bulldogs. Second, Connecticut is synonymous with bad football. The UConn-Vanderbilt game received plenty of attention this past week from College Football Twitter as the “Sickos Game of the Week,” a game for gambling degenerates and for people who like to watch events that are so bad, they’re good. It was the comedic college football showcase for a lot of people.
We don’t have to deny that. It existed. It’s there.
There was also a subsection of college football fans who viewed this game as the cute, cuddly moment when at least one really bad team would win a game. Some people really did have a sympathetic view of these teams and hoped one would feel better. While sincere and not mean, that attitude nevertheless shows what Vanderbilt (like UConn) has been reduced to in the realm of public perception: a poor ol’ program known only for its futility, as a carnival attraction. Vanderbilt is – for a lot of outsiders – an object of curiosity, a part of a freak show, an oddity best seen for how weird it is more than anything else. This is obviously what Clark Lea will try to dispel from the VU program in his tenure.
It’s not going to be a quick fix.
If Vanderbilt had lost to Connecticut on Saturday, imagine the torrents of “Look at Vanderbilt – not even good enough to beat UConn at home!” reactions which would have flown across the internet and social media. It would have been an ugly scene.
Imagine players who just went through 62-0 to Georgia having to convene in a losing locker room and absorb the gut punch of losing to a doormat-quality team. Imagine having to go from the cruelest blowout loss to the cruelest one-point loss in successive weeks.
It would have been ugly. It would have been an avalanche of misery. It would have been the kind of double-whammy which would make it 10, 20, 50, or 100 times harder (pick your number) for Lea to create a culture and sell a vision on the recruiting trail which would resonate with the people who need to know that Vanderbilt football can, in fact, become something better than what it is. Imagine having that Georgia-UConn double-defeat hovering in the background on the recruiting trail in the coming months. It would have been a millstone for this program, a heavyweight dragging down everything Lea is trying to do after inheriting a mess from Derek Mason.
It would have been so easy to lose faith or focus – if not both – when UConn took that 28-27 lead late in regulation. The wrenching nature of a possible, looming defeat would have been magnified many times over by the fact that UConn converted a 4th-and-18 play on a tipped pass, the kind of “sick joke” sequence in which the fates spit in Vanderbilt’s face, as they so often have over the years. It wasn’t a good play by Connecticut, just a lot of dumb luck on a play which happened to carry a lot of importance and leverage. When the Huskies cashed in that play for a touchdown moments later, Vanderbilt players easily could have fallen into a dark well of disbelief, anger and hopelessness.
THAT PLAY went against us? We might actually lose this game? We were just up by 11 points? Is this REALLY going to happen?
It’s human nature to go to the darkest, most pessimistic place when something horrible happens, and to then allow that darkness to overwhelm everything else and crowd out positive or optimistic thoughts. Yet, the challenge for the competitive athlete is to have a short memory, wipe the slate clean in the middle of the moment, and move to the next play, the next task, the next goal.
Vanderbilt is a highly flawed football program with a 2021 team just trying to take baby steps toward improvement and growth. When UConn took that 28-27 lead, every member of the VU offense was challenged on a level which will be hard to easily replicate later this season.
It’s one thing to make a comeback against Florida or Tennessee, but UConn? This game carried a unique level of weight which doesn’t apply to the other games VU will play in the coming months. Avoiding embarrassment is a motivator, but it comes with a specific kind of pressure which can cause athletes to crack in the heat of battle.
It’s a great credit to Ken Seals and the rest of the Vanderbilt offense that they stayed the course in the final minutes. Yes, UConn made mistakes which helped the drive to reach its intended destination, setting up a clutch field goal from Joseph Bulovas at the end of the game.
It would have been so easy to lose faith or focus. Vanderbilt did not unravel when it would have been entirely understandable to do so.
This doesn’t solve every problem for VU. It doesn’t solve most of this team’s problems. It doesn’t mean the SEC season will suddenly become a lot more successful. It does mean, however, that Vanderbilt knows how to fight and that there’s reason for recruits to want to invest their careers in the Commodores.
Clark Lea came really close to the ultimate humiliation… and yet by coming so close to a rock-bottom moment, he found a building block which can serve as a starting point for the creation of something better.
It’s funny how things work out sometimes.