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September 15, 2013
Vanderbilt's football team finds itself in the same transitioning period South Carolina's program experienced in recent years. It's to the point when the see-saw of identity begins to tilt and a team either re-defines itself as a legitimate contender or descends back into obscurity.
In a few cases, including South Carolina's, the team will consistently win at a high level and will gradually re-brand itself as a force to be reckoned with in the college football world.
But in many more cases, the opposite occurs. The young, vibrant head coach spearheading the changing culture is poached away by a larger program and leaves his team out to dry (Brian Kelly, Cincinnati), or the program simply can't replicate the same level of success every year and falls back into a lull (Ole Miss, 2009-2012).
Several Vanderbilt players said after the loss to South Carolina Saturday night that the struggle to find that identity has resulted in multiple poor performances to start the season.
"We need to come out faster next time," said senior cornerback Steven Clarke of Vanderbilt's slow start against the Gamecocks. "We can't come into a game thinking we need to pull off an upset. We've got to be a team that has a dominant mindset that we talk about all the time. We need to go in knowing we're going to win the game instead of thinking we're going to create an upset."
Senior receiver Jordan Matthews, who had an eight-catch, 106-yard night, said that the team's slow start crippled its chance of getting a big win on the road. It's been a problem that's gone unfixed all year, Matthews said.
"We didn't start out the way we wanted to," said Matthews. "Coaches have really been stressing that - the importance of getting out to a faster start. It's been our problem our first couple of games. It's something we really need to go work on."
Clarke added, "We dug ourselves a hole that we couldn't get out of, and we can't allow that to happen next time."
Senior offensive lineman Wesley Johnson shared the same thoughts after the game, but said he can still see some of the resilience that helped the Commodores burst onto the college football landscape with a nine-win campaign last season.
"I'm proud of the way we fought back," said Johnson. "That's one thing about this team, we have a lot of heart, we're never out of it. We're always swinging."
Senior running back Wesley Tate said he was also impressed with the way the Commodores handled adversity, and that they never once counted themselves out.
"We never really lost faith in our ability," Tate said. "We've been in that situation before so we just had that mindset coming out of the locker room to take it one drive, one play at a time. We did that and fell a little short, but I think our guys did a great job with intensity - coming out with a passion and not giving up."
Matthews, who said he didn't take any enjoyment in his 106-yard performance in a losing effort, couldn't point to one definite reason the Commodores have scored just three total points in the first quarter of their three games this season. But he said the team's poor execution and the abnormal number of three-and-outs didn't help.
"Once we get first downs, we get on rolls as an offense," Matthews said. "That's the main thing, we've got to get first downs. We've got to get drives going."
Vanderbilt did get a few of those drives going late in the second quarter and into the second half, when the Commodores outscored the Gamecocks 25-7. The Vanderbilt offense was spearheaded by Tate, who took 10 second-half carries for 72 yards. Both Tate and Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin said he "ran angry" because he didn't play in the first half.
"I was a little frustrated I didn't get any reps in the first half, but that's how I should run the ball all the time," Tate said.
The Commodores travel to UMass next week with hopes of turning their season around before diving deeper into the conference schedule.
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