Vanderbilt confronts a familiar challenge after loss to Stanford

Vanderbilt football helmets

We have seen Vanderbilt football play solid defense this season, but not against Stanford on Saturday night. We have seen Vanderbilt make clutch plays this season, coming up with a late-game drive and subsequent field goal to beat Colorado State and gain a badly-needed victory. We did not, however, see clutch plays against the Cardinal.

By Matt Zemek

Vanderbilt football seasons might have a few pockets of sunshine, but the ultimate test for any football team – not just in the SEC – is to come back the next week and show that an isolated breakthrough can become a habit. One victory leads to transformation. One set of successes changes the culture and lifts expectations.

That’s the true challenge staring at first-year head coach Clark Lea. The 41-23 loss to Stanford pounded home that reality.

Clark Lea left Notre Dame – a place where excellence is expected and the culture is uncompromising – to come to Vanderbilt and build something new. No, this was not going to get fixed or changed in one season. This is a rebuild, and everyone knows it. Yet, this is precisely what a rebuild involves: Impressing upon every player and every assistant coach that one win, one moment of joy, is not the endpoint. It’s good and valuable, and part of a larger process, but that’s the point: It is ONLY a part of something much bigger.

It’s one thing to feel justified satisfaction after snapping a losing streak, as Vanderbilt did against Colorado State. It’s another to carry that satisfaction into the next practice, the next game, and the next task.

Let’s be clear: Feeling satisfaction isn’t just fine. It’s good. It’s necessary. Achievements NEED to be celebrated. Progress NEEDS to be appreciated so that the taste of improvement is that much sweeter, and players feel the drive to want to experience that satisfying sensation again and again. However, feeling satisfied can often mean resting on one’s laurels and thinking the formula for victory has been found.

That’s not how sports works. In fact, the ultimate test isn’t winning on one day, one time. Replicating victory is what truly reveals the elite athlete or team.

Winning in an upset or in a stirring last-minute finish can create a euphoric locker room and a very happy plane flight home, but anything can happen on a given day. That isn’t meant to minimize the achievement. It is meant to convey the simple reality that championships – and success – are built on stitching together whole seasons of success. Winning on one day doesn’t mean an athlete or team has “figured it out.”

Winning the game AFTER the big upset – or the streak-busting victory – is often the game which reveals the emergence or development of a different team.

Letdowns occur after losses – we all know that – but they can also occur after wins as well. It’s true that not every game in a season will feature the same amount of intensity. Sports isn’t a robotic, cookie-cutter set of emotional contexts. Yet – and we see this at Alabama with Nick Saban – the best teams have a natural excitement they carry into each game day. The love of winning and the love of competition create a natural hunger deep within each athlete. It’s not so much about beating a specific opponent or handling the pressure of the moment. It’s more about relishing self-development and the fulfillment of one’s potential, otherwise known as being the best. That’s what it comes down to.

The desire to be the best possible version of oneself – which is important off the field but is an on-field challenge when the lights go on or the shoulder pads are applied – becomes so powerful that it lifts every player to a higher standard and an improved mentality. That’s what the great sports teams and athletes create each time they perform. That is what Vanderbilt is working to achieve.

Stanford showed how far VU is from that goal.

Vanderbilt did start this game well: A 14-play touchdown drive followed by a 98-yard touchdown drive showed that the Commodores had a good plan. Sustaining a good start and adjusting to the opponent’s force become central burdens within the flow of the game. Vanderbilt couldn’t bear those burdens.

This was still a close game with three minutes before halftime. Then the roof fell in.

Vanderbilt’s Ken Seals has an interception problem – at least one in all three games this season – which led to a Stanford touchdown. Then came a bad offensive possession and poor punt coverage. Stanford scored another field goal before the intermission for a 27-14 lead. At the start of the third quarter, Vanderbilt went three and out. Stanford scored seven more points. In a small amount of scoreboard-clock time bridging the end of one half and the start of another, Stanford went on a 20-0 run.

Ballgame.

The first 27 minutes of this game were solid.

That’s 33 fewer minutes than what Vanderbilt needed, one week after an inspiring – and inspired – victory.

The defense had not, in fact, figured out how to play. Seals could not improve upon what he did before. Special teams allowed important plays to an opponent.

The challenge facing Clark Lea was made apparent. In a rebuilding year, it’s good to know how great the challenge is. Stanford might have helped Lea convey to his players how much effort it will take to turn the Commodores’ ship around.

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