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The Commodore Review: How Vanderbilt Really Looked in Their 14-10 Win at Tennessee

Vanderbilt and Tennessee battled in a game set for rebroadcast on ESPN for Masochists, but the 'Dores pulled out a major win over their rivals. How did Vandy move past a conservative set of play calling to beat the Vols? We take a closer look inside.

That garbage time jump-pass against Kentucky turned out to be instrumental in Vandy's win over Tennessee.
That garbage time jump-pass against Kentucky turned out to be instrumental in Vandy's win over Tennessee.
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Do yourself a favor. Skip the middle portion of Vanderbilt at Tennessee.

Trust me, you don't want to see it. You don't want to see Brian Kimbrow and Austyn Carta-Samuels botching a handoff exchange. You don't want to see the three other turnovers Vandy handed to the Volunteers or the seven penalties that gifted them 74 yards and new life on a pair of stalled drives. You don't want to see Carey Spear uncharacteristically leave a 42-yard field goal five yards short. And you certainly don't want to see the three drives that the Commodores began inside the Tennessee 40-yard line; those ended with exactly zero VU points on the scoreboard.

No, just skip right to the ending, but maybe take a moment to watch Vandy's 11-play drive to open the scoring in the first quarter. Then move along to UT's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad fake field goal that ended with Paris Head pulling down the easier interception he may ever have as a Commodore. Then, make sure you get to the ending - where Vanderbilt gets the ball at their own eight-yard line with just 4:16 left on the clock.

That's when this team finally got out of its own way, rediscovering the forward pass and utilizing the most dynamic receiving duo in the SEC to lead the Commodores to victory. After stutter-stepping with screen passes and conservative play calling, Vanderbilt finally moved forward when Carta-Samuels got the green light to throw downfield. It started with an 18-yard pass to Jonathan Krause to move the chains on third down. Then, a 17-yard toss to Krause came with a 15-yard facemask penalty that moved Vandy into UT territory. And then, despite some drama, the Commodores finally found a way to execute on the unfriendly side of the field.

Carta-Samuels's fourth-and-one dive up the middle was spotted poorly, but the refs rectified their mistake upon review, infuriating Tennessee fans who thought the replays of the run were inconclusive. The 'Dores didn't wait to jump on this opportunity, driving to the UT 8 on the very next play thanks to a 25-yard catch that Jordan Matthews pulled down over an outmatched Volunteer cornerback. Two plays later, Patton Robinette took the snap at the Tennessee five-yard line, faked a jump pass, and then used the resulting space to run in for a Vanderbilt touchdown. Commodores 14, Volunteers 10.

That jump pass was a familiar play. Vandy had put it on their game tape late against Kentucky. Wildcat fans howled about class when Robinette left his feet to connect with Steven Scheu for a last-minute touchdown in an already-decided game in Nashville. However, it was that lasting impression that got linebacker A.J. Johnson to bite on Robinette's fake jump, giving the redshirt freshman just enough room to scoot into the end zone and complete an improbable comeback. Tennessee gave the 'Dores a scare on their ensuing drive, but Joshua Dobbs's hail mary fell short despite getting past a few Vandy defenders.

The win was another notch in James Franklin's belt and another testament to his "Brand New Vandy" philosophy. The old Vanderbilt would have found a way to lose that game. Whether it was folding after Spear's missed field goal, crumbling when UT had first-and-10 at the Vandy 13-yard line in the fourth quarter, or just going numb in the face of a 92-yard game winning drive. This team never gave up. That defense bent, but never broke, just like this team's fans have come to expect. The offense came to life when it needed to. Even the referees, who reviewed a bad call against the Commodores and made things right for the first time in Knoxville in what seems like ages, seemed to understand that things had changed.

Now, fans can forget about how ugly Saturday's game was because it came with one of the sweetest rewards in Commodore football lore - a win over Tennessee. Neither team played good football, but Vanderbilt escaped with a win and a chance to deliver another eight-win regular season in Nashville. Ultimately, that's going to be this team's legacy - and not the mistake-filled 55 minutes of football that preceded it.

The Good:

  • Jordan Matthews, SEC record holder. Matthews knocked former Commodore Earl Bennett from the highest of conference heights, catching his 237th pass in the first half to eclipse Agent Orange's all-time receptions mark. Matthews had a career-high 13 receptions on the day, and while most of those came on screen passes, his 25-yard catch on the final drive set up Robinette's touchdown run two plays later. Matthews showed once again that he's this team's biggest offensive weapon, even without a reliable running game to take the pressure from his shoulders. He's currently fourth in the country with 96 receptions this season.
  • Underclassmen step up. By the end of the game, Vanderbilt's secondary consisted of Torren McGaster, Paris Head, Jahmel McIntosh, and Andrew Williamson. Those players are the future of the Vandy defense, but not the present - that is, until the 'Dores lost their entire defensive backfield to injuries and an ejection on Saturday (see below). The unit continued to play well despite its losses thanks to the strong play of some young athletes who were prepared to make an impact when the opportunity arose. Part of their success stemmed from UT's lack of trust in Dobbs's passing abilities, but those four helped limit Tennessee to just 53 passing yards on Saturday.

The Bad:

  • Playcalling. By my count, Vanderbilt started off at least five different drives against Tennessee with a swing pass to Jordan Matthews along the sideline. This was indicative of the team's risk averse gameplan on Saturday. The majority of Carta-Samuels's passes came along or behind the line of scrimmage rather than downfield. The 'Dores didn't do themselves any favors by bringing in Patton Robinette and then having him operate almost exclusively as a tailback would in the Wildcat formation. Vanderbilt got predictable early on, and Tennessee adjusted to this lack of offensive diversity to keep the Commodore offense stalled for much of the night. Vandy only got their game-winning drive when the team abandoned its usual calls in favor of throwing downfield to Matthews and Krause.
  • Injuries. Vanderbilt finished the game without ANY of its starting cornerbacks or safeties. Andre Hal was the first to leave the game, exiting with an undisclosed injury that sent him off to the locker room for examination before halftime. Steven Clarke followed after a rough, helmet-led tackle of Dobbs. Two plays later, Kenny Ladler was disqualified thanks to a targeting penalty. Then Javon Marshall, the lone starter the 'Dores had left to count on, was helped off the field after tackling Dobbs at the tail end of a touchdown run that would end up being called back. The Vandy secondary still played well despite this loss of leadership, but lasting injuries to any of those players would deal a blow to this team's biggest strength on defense.


The PiBB Ice Player of the Week: Jordan Matthews.

You break a SEC record, you get the PiBB Ice honor. Matthews drove the Vanderbilt offense all day, finishing the evening with a career-high 13 receptions. Vandy forced him into a slew of different roles on Saturday, challenging to gain yards on the ground through a series of swing and screen passes. Matthews answered the call, gaining more than 130 yards despite often catching the ball behind his own line of scrimmage.