Scare from Hawaii was a warning that Vanderbilt football can't ignore

Nashville Tennessean
The projections were the same as always: Bottom of the SEC. Plenty in the conference and elsewhere have been expecting the same old Vanderbilt football in 2023.
I wasn’t one of those people. I’d seen these Commodores practice. I believed they’d be better than assumed.
After their opening game, however, I’m no longer so sure.
The most positive thing you can say about Vanderbilt's thoroughly underwhelming season debut Saturday night is that it didn’t lose to Hawaii. It managed to win 35-28 at home. But here’s all that had to happen for the Commodores to do that and survive an opponent that it beat by 53 points on the road last season:
De’Rickey Wright happened to make two critical interceptions, one in his own end zone on first-and-goal for Hawaii – and another to end the game late.
Jayden McGowan happened to have the program’s first kickoff return for a touchdown in nine seasons.
Hawaii’s defense happened to twice drop interceptions that could have been returned for scores thrown by quarterback AJ Swann, who also happened to have a 41-yard completion – his longest of the game – confirmed by a replay that said he wasn’t past the line of scrimmage. It set up the Commodores’ final touchdown to go up 35-14.
After the Rainbow Warriors fought back to 35-28, they happened to be flagged for a roughing the passer penalty to allow Vandy a key first down. And that was after Hawaii had recovered an onside kick that Vanderbilt flubbed, except the Hawaii player just happened to have his elbow out of bounds.
Thus Vanderbilt got the ball with 4:45 remaining, and even with the roughing penalty, it still couldn’t run out the clock. It had to punt it back to a Hawaii offense coming off back-to-back TD drives. Wright’s second interception prevented a third – and what would have been a disastrous opening result against a 17.5-point underdog.
The Commodores got lucky. And they knew it.
“We’re all disappointed because we know we can play better,” Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea said.
It’s progress, I suppose, for Vanderbilt’s program to admit disappointment in any victory. After all, it was only two years ago that Lea lost to ETSU in his first game as coach.
But last season’s improvement and 5-7 record breathed life into realistic hopes for a bowl bid this season. The Commodores had a lot of players back, and those players had growing confidence in Lea’s words and vision after seeing it start to play out on the field in long-awaited moments of success.
One of those moments was the 2022 opener in Hawaii. Vanderbilt was dominant, winning 63-10. It pushed Hawaii around. It rolled to 601 yards of offense, 404 on the ground.
A year later, Hawaii traveled to Nashville and outgained the Commodores 391 yards to 297.
Wasn't that alone, though, that was so alarming. It was that Hawaii pushed Vanderbilt around.
The Commodores were whupped up front. An experienced offensive line wilted inexplicably and unexpectedly against a D-line that’s nowhere near the monstrous fronts that await in SEC play. Hawaii permitted Vanderbilt a paltry 39 rushing yards on 26 attempts.
When the time came for Vanderbilt to impose its will physically and kill off the game late, it couldn’t.
Vanderbilt had to pass. It called six run plays in the fourth quarter that totaled minus-3 yards.
“You have to be able to run the ball when you have to be able to run the ball,” Lea said. “There’s a mindset and attitude towards that.”
This past offseason, Vanderbilt’s stated goal offensively was to become more of a perimeter passing team, thus taking advantage of a promising QB in Swann and skilled receivers like McGowan and Will Sheppard – each of whom caught six passes Saturday night.
The receivers are the strength of this Vanderbilt team. It makes sense to play to your strengths.
But the toughness has to be there for any Vanderbilt team hoping to make a dent in the SEC. In Lea’s time at Vanderbilt, he hasn’t typically had the most talented team. But if an opponent lets the Commodores hang around, he has often had the tougher side when it matters most.
This time, Hawaii hung around and proved tougher when it mattered most.
That shouldn’t happen when a Mountain West team plays an SEC team.
Even if that SEC team is Vanderbilt.
“It’s Game 1,” Lea said. “It had nothing to do with our lack of respect for Hawaii or any kind of lack of preparation. I think it has to do with just growing into being a good team. … This is not about beating the opponent. This is about trying to find our highest level.
“We didn’t have it tonight, and we’ve got to find it pretty quickly.”
Lea's journey as Vanderbilt's coach had thus far been a consistent climb, starting from the bottom and ascending through milestones. For the first time, it seems, this game felt like a regression.
And a stern warning.
The Commodores were supposed to be better than they looked Saturday.
To get where they want to go this season, they must get better – and a whole lot tougher.

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