"The last thing you want is your confidence destroyed early," he said.
But Vanderbilt's start against South Carolina Saturday was unquestionably a confidence-destroyer, as the Gamecocks owned the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball in the first quarter, took a 17-0 lead and never looked back in a 31-6 win over Vanderbilt.
"It was a shocker," said senior defensive tackle Robert Dinwiddie. "You come out in the first quarter and you expect to play well."
It was a defeat that resurrected memories of seasons past for Vanderbilt fans, but Johnson insisted his team would keep fighting.
"I know taking one game at a time is the biggest cliché there is, but if people think we are giving up, they have another think coming," Johnson said.
A crowd of 33,670 showed up at Dudley Field for what turned out to be a disappointing afternoon. With no other intra-conference SEC games taking place this weekend, South Carolina (1-0) was able to take an early lead in the Eastern Division race, while Vanderbilt fell to 0-1.
Vanderbilt answered with a three-and-out, when running back Norval McKenzie was swarmed under in the backfield on third-and-four. McKenzie suffered through a trying afternoon with (-4) yards on seven carries.
South Carolina then marched 61 yards in eight plays, taking a 14-0 lead on a one-yard touchdown pass from Pinkins to Brian Brownlee. The key play on the drive was a 22-yard pass from Pinkins to Troy Williamson.
"They whipped us in the first quarter," Johnson said. "They did a good job setting the tone."
The Commodores again answered with a three-and-out, with quarterback Jay Cutler mis-firing on second and third down. Cutler completed 24 of 38 passes on the day for 270 yards, but two interceptions and a fumble countered the majority of his positive plays on the afternoon.
"We have to rebound," Cutler said. "A lot of guys are hurting in the locker room. We're shocked right now."
South Carolina continued to dictate the game, driving inside the Vanderbilt 10-yard line before settling for a field goal and 17-0 advantage.
South Carolina finished with 453 yards on the day, including 269 yards on the ground. The Gamecocks ran 77 plays to Vanderbilt's 60 and had a time of possession advantage of 37:54 to 22:06. Two missed field goals and a fumble through the Vanderbilt end zone cost them more points.
The Commodores had one chance to get back into the game in the first half. Cutler drove Vandy to its first touchdown of the season – a four-yard run by Kwane Doster – then Vanderbilt forced a three-and-out from South Carolina. Taking over with five minutes remaining in the second quarter, down 17-6, Vanderbilt was unable to close the gap further, as Cutler threw two incomplete passes then was sacked on third-down.
South Carolina struck first in the second half with an 89-yard scoring drive following a Vanderbilt punt. The Commodores proceeded to drive to the one-yard-line, but McKenzie fumbled while attempting to stretch the ball over the goal line on a dive, and South Carolina recovered for a touchback. It was a play that took all the wind out of the Commodore sails.
"We are not nearly good enough to help the other team, and we helped them a great deal today," Johnson said.
But there was still more ugliness to come. Cutler moved the Commodores into scoring position early in the fourth quarter, but a 98-yard interception return by South Carolina's Jamacia Jackson thwarted a solid Vanderbilt drive and gave the Gamecocks a 31-6 lead.
"We're probably going to lose some (fans)," Cutler said. "The 'Same Old Vanderbilt' will come out tomorrow. We're ready for that. We don't believe that. If we believe that, we might as well not play the rest of our games."
Bill Trocchi is Interactive Editor with Athlon Sports.