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The Commodore Review: How Vanderbilt Really Looked in Their 21-20 Win Over Charleston Southern

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Vanderbilt escaped their Homecoming game against Charleston Southern with a win despite being outgained by nearly 100 yards. Can the emergence of freshman quarterback Johnny McCrary be enough to stop the bleeding in Nashville?

Frederick Breedon

Any win you can walk away from...right?

Well, maybe not if it's a one-point victory over an FCS team. You know, the same FCS team who needed overtime to defeat a football program that didn't exist two years ago. Derek Mason earned the least optimistic win of the modern era on Saturday, hanging on to beat Charleston Southern 21-20. Vanderbilt, playing in front of a homecoming crowd of dozens, failed to hang a single point on their overmatched foes in the second half.

via Jae S. Lee, the Tennessean

Vanderbilt went into halftime leading 21-10 after Johnny McCrary drove the team to a last-second field goal. They parlayed that momentum out of the locker room by netting 14 total yards on their next four possessions. During that span, they had four penalties (-35 yards) and exactly one first down (via Darrius Sims). For 24 minutes of gametime, this team looked every bit the nightmare that Commodore fans lived through against Temple and Ole Miss.

Or, most succinctly, from VandyImport's Hangover:

WE BEAT A BIG SOUTH TEAM AT HOME BY ONE POINT, THIS IS THE LEAST YOU CAN WIN A GAME AND STILL CALL IT A WIN.

There were positives, however.

McCrary stepped in for a moderately effective Wade Freebeck and drove this team to 18 of their 21 points. After averaging -11.7 yards per attempt in his first NCAA game against Temple (three passes, two picks), the redshirt freshman averaged 10.6 yards every time he threw the ball against the Bucs. That number was skewed by a CSU blown coverage that allowed CJ Duncan to rumble 65 yards for the game's first touchdown, but it's an encouraging stat nonetheless.

One game against an FCS opponent won't tell us if McCrary can live up to the four-star billing he earned as a recruit, but he certainly gave fans some encouraging signs on Saturday. His passes got crisper as the game went on, and while he got shut out in the second half, his scramble-and-strike out of the Commodore end zone late in the fourth quarter set the foundation for the team's game-ending 63-yard drive.

McCrary showed that he can give the 'Dores another viable option at quarterback. However, Derek Mason isn't exactly choosing between Joe Montana and Steve Young. His options against Missouri will be:

  1. Patton Robinette: a redshirt sophomore who has struggled to stay on the field due to injury - and whose timing and arm strength were still in question heading into 2014.
  2. Wade Freebeck: a true freshman who has an accurate arm, but little game experience and a brief history of struggling against blitzing defenses.
  3. Johnny McCrary: a redshirt freshman who sank all the way off the depth chart after throwing two picks against Temple, then rebounded to lead Vandy to a close win...over I-AA Charleston Southern.

Robinette may still give this team their best chance to win games in 2014, but that's based on limited snaps against UMass and South Carolina. Freebeck proved he could carve through an SEC defense by passing effectively against USC, but he got lit up by Kentucky (0 offensive points) and those touchdown drives against the Gamecocks don't look so impressive in retrospect now that the Gamecocks can't crack the top 100 in scoring defense. McCrary stepped up in a big way against Charleston Southern...but that was Charleston Southern - and they shut him out in the second half.

If Robinette is healthy in two weeks, Derek Mason will have a big decision to make about his starting quarterback. Of course, that will all be meaningless if he picks his guy and then abandons him three series into the game. We'll know next Saturday whether or not someone has finally performed well enough to see out an entire game for the Commodores behind center. I just hope it's not Stephen Rivers again.

The Good:

Johnny McCrary has joined your party. McCrary had fallen all the way off the depth chart after having a negative impact in the team's opener against Temple. His performance against CSU should lift him back into competition for the starting role. The freshman stood tall in the pocket to make some big throws, but he also used his legs to create space and extend plays. If he finds a way to reconcile his physical talent with the ability to recognize opposing defenses, he could be something special for this team - but that's a big "if."

Dallas Rivers runs hard. When Rivers turns the corner and heads upfield, he's usually dragging a defender along with him. The 225-pound freshman was Vanderbilt's most consistent rushing threat on Saturday. Rivers, Ralph Webb, and Jerron Seymour can give this team the kind of grinding ground attack they'll need to take the pressure off their young quarterbacks. A slow crawl towards a more run-oriented offense seems to suggest that the Commodores' coaches are beginning to take notice - even if this team's blocking may not make that sustainable.

Jay Woods gets disruptive. The Vanderbilt defense did not have its finest night. The 'Dores allowed CSU to run for 199 yards on 41 carries, but it would be tough to fault Woods for that. The redshirt freshman was a constant presence in the Buccaneer backfield, tossing aside overmatched blockers to get intimately familiar with Buccaneer quarterback Austin Brown. His stats may not reflect it, but Woods earned himself some extra snaps next week against Missouri.

The Bad:

Derek Mason's Roster Management. Vanderbilt defeated CSU without two key players on the active roster; Jerron Seymour and Zach Cunningham. Seymour sat out the game for an unspecified violations of team policy, and while the reason behind Cunningham's absence was not given, rumors have suggested that it may be a similar situation. While Rivers and Webb were able to replace Seymour's production out of the backfield, there's no doubt that the rangy Cunningham would have made a difference when it came to chasing down Buccaneer tailbacks in the second level.

Will Seymour and Cunningham be the next talented Vanderbilt athletes that Mason fails to keep on the roster? The Commodores have already seen players like Brian Kimbrow, Jordan Cunningham, and Carlos Burse fall off the depth chart. Both players are vital to this team's success in 2014 and 2015; let's hope they can clear up their issues and return to the field against Missouri.

The run defense. This team's linemen couldn't beat Southern's tailbacks to the edges and Vandy's cornerbacks struggled to get off their blocks, leading to big gains every time the Bucs ran to the sideline. Derek Mason came to Nashville with the reputation of a defensive guru thanks to his success at Stanford. On Saturday, he allowed a I-AA team to outgain his Commodores by nearly 100 yards. He won't have the time to see his process through if he keeps slapping together these kinds of performances.

The PiBB Ice Player of the Week: Johnny McCrary

McCrary came off the bench to put together his finest moment as a Commodore, leading the 'Dores to 18 points in the second quarter. His second half wasn't as exciting, but his ability to avoid pressure and find targets downfield ended up being the foundation for Vandy's clock-killing, game-sealing drive late in the fourth. His biggest game in black and gold earns him PotW honors.