By Zac Ellis
Less than two minutes remained in Saturday’s matchup with No. 21 Florida, and Vanderbilt desperately needed a stop.
The Gators had held a 31-17 lead earlier in the fourth quarter, but the Commodores had staged a late touchdown drive to cut that lead to 31-24. Now Florida was giving Vanderbilt’s defense a chance to step up.
Florida needed to convert 4th-and-1 from the Vanderbilt 39-yard line to keep its drive alive and all but silence the Commodore rally. But the Gators got more than that – running back Malik Davis streaked 39 yards for a touchdown to extend the home team’s lead.
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said his team let a late opportunity slip through its fingers.
“In the end, they put us in position to win that game,” Mason said. “We needed a defensive stop, and in the second half we didn’t stop them enough.”
In many ways, it was a tale of two halves for Vanderbilt on Saturday. The Commodores stood toe-to-toe with Florida through two quarters of play. They even led, 17-14, late in the second period before entering the half in a 17-17 tie. But the second half was a different story – and it didn’t spell a favorable outcome for Vanderbilt.
Behind quarterback Feleipe Franks, inserted in place of starter Luke Del Rio in the second quarter, Florida’s offense made the most of the final two quarters. It held possession for 20:14 of the final 30 minutes, all while Vanderbilt’s offense struggled to sustain drives of its own (0-6 on third down after the half).
In the end, that recipe was too much for the Dores to overcome. Florida outscored Vanderbilt, 21-7, in the second half.
Mason faced reporters on Saturday following a game he felt his team could have won. But the coach said his Commodores showed the kind of fight he hoped to see following last week’s loss to No. 1 Alabama.
“This football team responded today,” Mason said. “It wasn’t the right response -- we wanted to win, and we didn’t get it -- but they did respond.”
Indeed, Vanderbilt was more than a worthy opponent in Saturday’s loss to Florida. But Mason isn’t satisfied with near-misses and moral victories in SEC play. This is a Commodore program that’s shown more than flashes of potential in 2017, and the next step is responding for a full four quarters against an SEC foe. Vanderbilt will get that chance next week when it hosts Georgia at Vanderbilt Stadium (11 a.m. CT). The Bulldogs could be a top-five team when they arrive in Nashville.
With plenty of season left to unfold, Mason said he plans to make sure Vanderbilt responds the right way.
“I’ll take it back to me, because defensively, it starts with me,” Mason said. “When they do it well, I give them credit. When we don’t do it well, that’s on me.
“We’ve got to go back, give a little more and do better.”
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.