Agony at Army: Bad To the Last Drop

Warren Norman (VM/Don Yates)

Vanderbilt didn't just drop a 16-13 decision on a sunny October afternoon in West Point. In the process of losing to a spirited and gallant but quite deficient opponent from the United States Military Academy, the Commodores dropped a laundry list of valuables into a gridiron garbage bin.

Each time a scribe attempts to put a game in perspective, knowing full well that his (or her) readership knows the basic play-by-play of the drama that unfolded between the painted white lines, it's important to find an angle or fact that rises beyond (or sinks below) the joys and frustrations of the moment. You know how badly the Dores bumbled, stumbled and ultimately crumbled against Army at Michie Stadium; what's the best way, then, to put this titanic train wreck in its proper place?

Just listen to the words that poured from Vanderbilt safety Joel Caldwell after the gutting, gaffe-filled loss to the Black Knights:

"My stomach just kind of dropped."

Later: "It really just made my soul drop."

There's your theme, folks: Dropping.

Warren Norman, for all his excellence he displayed until his team's final offensive snap, dropped the ball on the 1-yard line. Vandy dropped the ball in a larger metaphorical sense, and in many more ways than one.

The Dores dropped their focus against the same team that lost (at home, on the same Michie Stadium field) to Tulane the week before. Tulane!

The Dores, not outsized in the trenches, dropped in their level of manpower against a program that's languished in the lower reaches of college football for the past several years. Vanderbilt was outhit and outplayed for most of the afternoon. Yes, coach Bobby Johnson's club should have pulled this nail-biter out of the fire in the end, but it's worth pausing to remember that for three and a half quarters, Army carried the play.

Vanderbilt—not up against an SEC defense other than Georgia's (who will win next week's battle between Georgia's tissue-soft defense and Vandy's go-nowhere offense?)—saw its slow-to-learn quarterback, Larry Smith, drop a couple of passes straight into the mitts of Army defenders. The Dores, not needing to do very much given the quality of their defense (broken record alert, broken record alert, broken rec…), couldn't get out of their own way.

The Dores dropped a second game against a team they frankly should beat. First there was Mississippi State, and now this game against coach Rich Ellerson's resilient but still regrouping Army roster.

Finally, and most glaringly, this Vanderbilt football team has dropped off in a big way after the highs and hosannas of 2008's history-making joyride. With each additional loss to an inferior opponent; with each new collection of keystone cops errors and deer-in-the-headlights terrors; and with each re-enactment of Casey Stengel's description of the 1962 New York Mets—"They showed me ways to lose I never knew existed"—the Commodores are dropping off the map in college football.

Their level of play is dropping precipitously. So is their stature. So, too, is their self-respect.

Everything's dropping at Vanderbilt… except the sense of frustration that's quickly enfolding a program which, just nine months ago, was reveling in the aftermath of a winning season and a bowl victory.

What's the secret to getting back on the beam? Not dropping one's defenses the way Norman did. Listen to the crestfallen freshman from the postgame presser on Saturday: "I thought I was in, so I kind of relaxed a little bit and they shook it from me."

Says a lot about this season, doesn't it? Vandy isn't yet good enough—not by a longshot—to think that it is in like Flynn. The Dores have to re-earn the respect of the college football world every single game they play. Any drop in concentration, and this team will drop another game… and another peg… and another measure of self-confidence.

The dropping—bad to the last play on Saturday in West Point—must end now for a Commodore patient that's in critical and not-very-stable condition on the Autumnal Saturday operating table.

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