The 2021 Vanderbilt football season has been difficult to bear for Clark Lea, his assistant coaches, the fans, and most of all, the players. It has been a rough road for everyone involved.
By Matt Zemek
The Commodores aren’t winless, but they aren’t going to a bowl game, either. They have lost 62-0 and 42-0 this season, but they also have lost by a single point, to South Carolina on Saturday. It’s always better to be competitive and to have a chance to win, compared to being blown out of the building. It’s always better to come close to winning than to not come close at all. That means a team has the ability to achieve something, to be better than an opponent. Coming close in any SEC game – even to a team as bad as South Carolina – offers some degree of encouragement. If nothing else, Vanderbilt knows that if it improves and develops, it can become a better program than Shane Beamer’s Gamecocks in the coming years. THAT is a realistic aspiration. We can debate other goals, but that one is certainly in play.
However, if Clark Lea is going to coach future games and seasons the way he coached late in regulation versus South Carolina, Vanderbilt won’t improve. It won’t develop. It won’t go anywhere. This program will remain stuck in a dreary and depressing Groundhog Day marathon.
I have to admit that as I watched the horror show – the slow-motion disaster – unfold in the final minutes in Williams-Brice Stadium Saturday evening, it occurred to me that Clark Lea had basically stamped himself as a coach who will never amount to anything at Vanderbilt. The thought went through my mind, and it was a strong, immediate reaction to that endgame sequence.
However, with the benefit of a little sleep and a good breakfast on Sunday morning, I pulled back and reconsidered that knee-jerk reaction. This doesn’t mean I’m not gravely, deeply concerned about Clark Lea’s ability to coach Vanderbilt well – I certainly am very pessimistic right now – but any good coach has a really bad moment on the sidelines. (Heck, any human being has a really bad day on the job. We have ALL been there.)
It’s how coaches learn from their worst moments which reveals how good and how capable they are. Having the bad moment isn’t the worst thing which can happen to a coach; not learning from the bad moment is the worst thing.
If Clark Lea learns from this rock-bottom moment, he and Vanderbilt could grow. That is the hope here.
Let’s be clear about that endgame nightmare in Columbia: Lea didn’t just fail on South Carolina’s final drive, by rushing only three men and allowing a backup quarterback to sit in the pocket for 10 minutes (at least that’s how long it seemed he had on each pass) and dice up the VU secondary. That was bad, but it wasn’t the whole story.
Lea’s decision to kick a field goal on fourth and 5 from the South Carolina 10 just before the final Gamecock drive was as awful as the decision to not rush three guys.
So much is made by fans today of the inability of coaches – the guys making the big money – to handle endgame management and basic strategy. The trap which ensnared Clark Lea is something any competent head coach ought to understand. I’ll lay it out just so we’re completely clear on this point.
While going from three points to six forces an opponent to score a touchdown instead of settling for a field goal, all the other aspects of that decision require a coach to go for the first down if it is realistically attainable. Fourth and 5 is not fourth and 15 or 20. Getting five yards is not a wildly improbable ask for any offense.
Why is it coaching malpractice to kick a field goal up three in the final minutes on fourth down deep in the opponent’s side of the field? There are many correct answers, but the number one reason is that if a team needs a field goal to tie, and it has to start a drive from its own 10-yard line, it has to drive at least 55 yards or so to get into long field goal range. It would need to drive 65 yards or longer to get into reasonably comfortable field goal range. It would need to drive 80 yards to get into chip-shot field goal range. If a team kicks a field goal and then kicks the ball off, the opponent gets the ball at the 25-yard line. The team has to get a touchdown, but the improved field position means it just has to drive 75 yards to score.
Basically, then, a team which kicks a field goal when up by three points is trading 20 yards for three points. The opposing team just has to drive 20 more yards to get a touchdown instead of a field goal. Unless the game is in the final 30 or 40 seconds, that tradeoff isn’t worth very much. Meanwhile, not going for a game-sealing first down represents a massive concession of leverage. Vanderbilt and Lea gave South Carolina a chance to win the game in exchange for, basically, 15 to 20 yards.
South Carolina got the ball back because VU didn’t try to get five yards to win the game on the spot.
Do we see how bad a coaching move this is? Clark Lea did that and then compounded his error with the passive defensive sequence on the Gamecocks’ final drive.
This was really bad… but if Clark Lea learns from this and reforms his ways, it could be a huge growth point for Vanderbilt football. That’s what every VU fan should hope for in the weeks and years to come.