This is one of those instances when the statistics are misleading.
During a 21-7 loss Saturday night to No. 19 South Carolina, Vanderbilt allowed 484 yards, a season-high for the Gamecocks. South Carolina (5-2, 3-2 SEC) also had a 100-yard rusher and two 100-yard receivers for the first time in school history, not to mention a 300-yard passer. Sounds like a bad night for the defense, right?
South Carolina was sacked four times and had just 10 rushing yards in the first half. Vanderbilt (2-5, 1-3) forced seven punts – another season-high for South Carolina. Two of the Gamecocks’ scoring drives lasted less than a minute. And South Carolina didn’t score the go-ahead touchdown until late in the third quarter. The game was actually still in doubt until a 72-yard touchdown pass from Stephen Garcia to Alshon Jeffery with 6:41 left in the game put it away.
So, the Commodores’ bend, don’t break defense did its job – a lot better than it had been doing. In two of the last three games, that unit allowed 40 points.
“I was very proud of our defense,” Vanderbilt coach Robbie Caldwell said. “What a great job they did getting after it. It was a great comeback from last week as far as defensive effort. We played a good football team (Saturday) and had a chance to beat them.”
The defense did just about everything it could in the first half. Vanderbilt failed to convert a fake punt on fourth-and-10 – Caldwell called it a “snafu” in which punter Richard Kent didn’t realize the fake had been called off, ran up the middle and was met by a bevy of Gamecocks for no gain.
On the ensuing drive, South Carolina marched all the way to Vanderbilt’s 31-yard line. But the Commodores held strong, stopping the run and twice hurrying Garcia into incomplete passes as the Gamecocks had to punt.
Garcia felt the pressure early from Vanderbilt’s zone blitzes. Five different Commodores were involved in the team’s four sacks – Vanderbilt entered Saturday’s game with just eight sacks on the season – and they also had seven tackles for a loss.
“We were definitely coming after them,” defensive end Walker May said. “It was exciting to be a part of.”
The air went out of the defense’s sails a little bit, however, right before halftime.
South Carolina got the ball at its 41and began to exploit Vanderbilt’s blitzing defense by using a variety of screen passes.
Garcia completed five of six passes for 47 yards on the drive, going to the left side every time. His 15-yard touchdown pass to Tori Gurley in the back of the end zone tied the game with 12 seconds left.
“We had the momentum… That definitely hurt a lot,” linebacker John Stokes said. “We came back and battled in the second half and had chances, but we have to stop them in that situation.”
Those little passes, mainly to the left side, usually went for no longer than 8 or 9 yards a play. Caldwell said the Commodores were willing to back off the wide receivers and give up the short yardage in lieu of the big play.
The big play still happened, though, when Garcia scrambled long enough to hook up for Jeffery, who sprinted down the sideline for the 72-yard score midway through the fourth quarter.
Otherwise, South Carolina’s short passes and the infusion of running back Brian Maddox accounted for most of the yardage in the second half.
Maddox was the Gamecocks’ third option at running back after Kenny Miles and regular starter Marcus Lattimore, who did not play because of an ankle injury.
Miles was held to 25 yards on 11 carries but Maddox had more success, especially on South Carolina’s go-ahead scoring drive. The 5-foot-11, 229-pounder rushed seven times for 49 yards on the 93-yard, 12-play drive. Maddox capped it off with a 2-yard score late in the third quarter for a 14-7 lead.
Maddox finished with a career-high 146 yards on 24 carries. His longest run was a 38-yarder, otherwise he just grinded away at the Commodores.
“I was just putting it in slow-mo,” Maddox said. “That really helped me. Once I saw the hole, I jetted in it so fast and hard and powerful.”
The Commodores’ offense again offered the defense little relief as they punted nine times and on eight of their last nine drives, they failed to move the ball into South Carolina territory.
The defense, therefore, spent a massive amount of time on the field. The Commodores’ average time of possession this season is just 25 minutes, the lowest in the league. Saturday was no different as they had it for just 22:39.
Twice Vanderbilt had what appeared to be momentum-changing plays thanks to the defense or special teams. The offense, however, failed to do anything.
Casey Hayward had his fifth interception of the season – tied for the most in the SEC – early in the third quarter. But the Commodores mustered just 13 yards on the following drive and punted.
Then, just two minutes into the fourth quarter, May blocked a South Carolina field goal attempt. But the offense stalled again as Vanderbilt quarterback Larry Smith threw three straight incompletions and the Commodores punted.
“We don’t watch what’s going on with the offense,” Stokes said. “When they set the ball down and they have it, we go out there and try to stop them.”
And, for most of the part, Vanderbilt did slow down the South Carolina offense. Unfortunately for the Commodores, while the statistics might not tell the whole story, the scoreboard never lies.