By Jonathan Higdon
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UTC/AP) — Vanderbilt coach Robbie Caldwell is wearing all black and jokes he’s in mourning.
That likely is the best reaction to his Commodores coming off their highest scoring game since 1999 only to be shut out for the first time since 2003.
Yet the Commodores (2-4, 1-2) still control their own fate in the Southeastern Conference despite their 43-0 loss at Georgia. If the Commodores can bounce back Saturday night against No. 19 South Carolina, they would sit atop the Eastern Division.
“It’s in our hands,” Caldwell said Monday. “There’s not a team on our schedule that we can’t beat, and there’s not a team on our schedule that can’t beat us. That’s exactly what I’ve told them, and how it’s up to us to step up and take the fight to them.”
First, Caldwell must get his offense working again, which won’t be easy.
The Commodores managed a measly 140 yards of offense by Georgia. They hadn’t been shut out since a 48-0 loss to Tennessee back in 2003, and all that came after a 52-6 win over Eastern Michigan that had been Vanderbilt’s biggest scoring win since 1999.
They got across midfield just twice against Georgia, the first on the opening drive and reaching the Bulldogs 37. Caldwell said he was informed they faced fourth-and-4 instead of fourth-and-2. He decided to punt only to see a touchback, and he said Monday he would have gone for first down had he known what the yardage actually was.
“I was mistaken. My fault,” Caldwell said.
The second trip across midfield didn’t come until the fourth quarter when Jared Funk replaced Larry Smith and faced Georgia’s third-string defense.
Vanderbilt also had two turnovers and gave up a safety on a bad snap by fifth-year senior center Joey Bailey that ended one drive in the second quarter on the first play. The Commodores finished with 48 yards rushing, their fewest since managing 33 last season against Mississippi State.
“Physically up front, we got manhandled,” Caldwell said. “We could not run the ball in the middle. We need to be able to do that to set up some perimeter runs. We ran the option pretty good. We got a little outphysicaled there too at wideout, having to make blocks.”
The Commodores did have some luck. Replay reversed a fumble returned for a touchdown into a dropped pass by Mason Johnson, which would have given the Commodores a first down in the first quarter if he had held onto the ball.
As a result, Vanderbilt now ranks 102nd out of 120 FBS teams on offense with 315.2 yards per game. Caldwell said his offense has to help the defense when asked how the defense needs to improve.
“First of all, we’ve got to help them offensively. Leaving them on the field, got to give them the spark of hope. This is a team thing …. We never gave the defense a spark, a hope, sustain a drive go down and score some points,” Caldwell said.
It may not get much better against South Carolina.
Bailey likely won’t play Saturday night with a high ankle sprain, meaning Caldwell has to choose between a pair of freshmen — either Logan Stewart or James Kittredge — to start at center.
“Hopefully, we’ll get the ship steered in the right direction, bounce back this week,” Caldwell said. “That’s our objective. Started on it (Sunday) and had a good day of practice and try to get everybody’s wounds healed, licked and ready to go.”
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.