Yes, Jordan Matthews was clearly interfered with and the back judge blew the call. Yes, Vanderbilt had other opportunities throughout the game and failed to capitalize. Yes, it could have been worse (see, e.g., three fumbles without losing any to turnovers). Yes, it could have been better (see, e.g., failing to score on first three drives of game, all in USC territory, two off of turnovers). But no, just because we lost another close game, it doesn't mean you're looking at SOV.
Here are just a handful of positives and negatives:
A Few Noticeable Differences
1. One thing stood out to me last night: speed. Vanderbilt looked faster than I ever remember seeing us look. By now it's cliche that team speed is, probably above all else, what makes the SEC as great as it is -- and in the past, when teams played Vandy, it showed. Well, not last night, and by a long shot. You can argue that depth yet again made a difference as the game wore on, as Vanderbilt outgained South Carolina 276-272 in total offense for the game but lost the yards-from-scrimmage battle by a count of 115-17 in the fourth quarter. But I thought we looked quick and well-conditioned throughout the contest, flying to the ball and laying some impressive hits along the way. To single out just one person who exemplified this, Javon Marshall -- welcome to the spotlight, sir.
2. I'm not going to praise everything he did last night, but I was actually really impressed by Jordan Rodgers. The INT to Shaq Wilson on 3rd and 5 in the red zone early in the contest was, in addition to being one of the worst passes I've ever seen, a critical mental error that led to a 10-point swing and loss of momentum. But Rodgers hung in there last night against one of the best defensive lines in the league, took plenty of shots, and didn't let early mistakes get the better of his confidence. Despite an outstanding performance from Matthews, Rodgers also didn't get a ton of help from his receivers, who did a good job of getting open but dropped too many passes -- but again, he didn't let that rattle him too much. Overall, I like what I saw from JR (and his OL deserves some love too).
3. It appears that, somehow, by the grace of all that is good and holy, we have finally found ourselves a kicking game. Carey Spear was outstanding, making field goals from 25, 44, and 49 yards -- the latter of those taken away by a stupid false start penalty that probably should have been called offsides, but I digress. Close games seem to be something of a specialty for Vanderbilt, so I'll be eager to see how this field goal weapon affects our ability to win the nail-biters over the course of this season.
A Few Areas for Improvement
1. Third Down Efficiency: The Dores converted only 3 of 15 third-down plays last night. Ouch. To some extent you have to credit the defensive pressure USC was able to create, but the bottom line is 20% efficiency on third down just ain't gonna cut it.
2. Penalties: Too many mental errors, especially false starts on the offensive line, resulting in derailed drives. Can't have it.
3. Finishing: CJF and JR both hit the nail on the head when they said, in so many words, that great teams find a way to win these close games and Vandy needs to take that next step. With all the ups and downs over the course of the game, the bottom line is Vandy found itself down 4 with 5:00 to play, all three timeouts, and the ball on our own 20 yard line. Can't ask for a much better opportunity than that.
There's more to be said but I'll let others take it from here. This was a really good game for us and one that's probably best not to dwell on too much. Find the mistakes, correct them, move on.
In the interest of ending on a positive note -- and there were plenty to be found in last night's contest -- I have to commend the Vanderbilt students and fans for providing what appeared to be an electric atmosphere to open the college football season. Vandy has a bright future under CJF, and the excitement is clearly there. Let's go with this.