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The Commodore Review: How Vanderbilt Really Looked in Their 34-10 Loss to Florida

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One game after Johnny McCrary threw five touchdown passes against Old Dominion, Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason is refusing to commit to his freshman quarterback. Is another QB controversy brewing in Nashville?

This happened a lot.
This happened a lot.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

There shouldn't be a quarterback controversy at Vanderbilt. Derek Mason does not agree with that statement. He made that clear minutes after the dust settled on Vandy's 34-10 home loss to Florida on Saturday night.

Redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary showed the Commodores what he can do when given proper protection the previous week against Old Dominion. He threw five touchdown passes behind an offensive line that dispatched an overmatched Monarch defense. Unfortunately - and expectedly - he didn't have the same opportunities against Florida. Once the Gators realized they could punch through the Vandy line with impunity, they made the freshman quarterback pay. He completed just 11 of his 30 pass attempts for 103 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions after the first quarter.

That's a depressing stat line, but anyone who watched that game knows that it doesn't accurately reflect McCrary's effort. A relentless Gator pass rush kept him from stepping up in the pocket and finding receivers all evening. The fact that the quarterback wasn't sacked at all is a testament to McCrary's ability to avoid pressure in the pocket (Sidenote: while McCrary is an able scrambler, it's becoming abundantly clear that he does not have Patton Robinette's chops when it comes to running downfield with the ball).

McCrary didn't move the ball effectively after the first quarter, but he had few tools at his disposal. His offensive line was outmatched by a dominant Florida defensive attack. His most effective offensive weapon, Ralph Webb, landed in the team's doghouse after two early fumbles. Webb played sparingly afterwards. His offensive coordinator, Karl Dorrell, moved away from the play-action passes that had cleared space in the pocket once Webb was glued to the bench. His inexperienced receiving corps were ground down against some of the SEC's most athletic defensive backs.

That limited a Vanderbilt offense that hasn't had much success in 2014, but McCrary's inexperience played a role as well. He missed open receivers and forced passes into bad situations when he could have pulled down the ball and ran for 5-6 yards instead. Even so, he took another step forward in his development. His win/loss record may not reflect it, but McCrary looks like a better quarterback than Patton Robinette did at the same point in his redshirt freshman campaign.

Robinette took a few snaps as a running QB early and then came in to lead the 'Dores in the fourth quarter after this game had been decided. He looked good against a disinterested Florida defense while completing seven of his 10 passes to drive Vandy deep into UF territory as the clock wound down. He clearly has value to this team both on and off the field. He deserves every chance to regain his starting role once spring practices start up.

But the rest of 2014 should be dedicated to seeing what McCrary can do. He's shown the greatest capacity for big plays and his talent gives this team their best odds to win in 2015 and beyond. Shuffling him back to the bench in the middle of a lost season would be a frustrating way to stunt the development of a big-armed quarterback who has improved his pocket awareness each game he's played this season.

Maybe reopening the quarterback race is a motivational tool with a nigh-hopeless game at #1 Mississippi State coming. That could make sense. If it's not, then McCrary needs to put an iron grip on the team's starting spot this week. It may be the best possible outcome for the Commodores - not just for 2014, but for 2015, 2016, and 2017 as well.

The Good:

That defensive front. Vanderbilt got a major push up front that helped limit Florida's dangerous rushing game and forced Treon Harris to pass the ball regularly. That resulted in eight tackles behind the line of scrimmage and just seven Gator points that were not the result of post-turnover situations through the first half of play. The 'Dores began to sag once Florida's time of possession built up, but it was a very encouraging effort against a team that rolled over Georgia the previous week.

Vanderbilt's inability to create an efficient offensive attack wasted a solid defensive effort and sunk the 'Dores bowl hopes. Even so, it was good to see this Mason-led team finally implement a well-planned defensive strategy from the 3-4 set.

The Bad:

Ralph Webb's fumblitis. Webb set the Vandy freshman single-season rushing record in the first quarter when he ran for 56 yards early against Florida. Then, he fumbled on back-to-back carries, squandering a tremendous goal-line stand and handing the Gators 10 easy points. Webb had 14 carries through the first 22 minutes of this game. After losing the ball twice, he got just two touches in the final 38.

Johnny McCrary's scrambling. McCrary has learned to feel the rush coming and avoid sacks with a simple sidestep. However, as we mentioned above, he doesn't seem comfortable putting his head down and charging downfield. He lacks Robinette's straight-line speed and that has led to some awkward situations where opposing linebackers and linemen have been able to chase him down from behind. Despite his mobility, McCrary may be more of a pocket passer than a dual-threat quarterback.

The ever-growing secondary. Derek Mason's sell-out defense against the rush put Vandy's defensive backs in man-to-man coverage throughout the evening. That seemed like a winning strategy against a quarterback who had attempted just 18 passes in his last two games combined. Unfortunately, Treon Harris was able to find open receivers en route to his best passing game as a college athlete. He threw for 215 yards and gave the Gators and used his arm to grind out key third down conversions on three of Florida's four touchdown drives.

The PiBB Ice Player(s) of the Week: Stephen Weatherly, Nigel Bowden, and Zach Cunningham.

These three underclassmen were all over the field for the Commodores, making huge tackles along the way. Cunningham sniffed out a Matt Jones run on fourth-and-goal that finished off a tremendous defensive effort in the red zone early in this game. Bowden missed a big chunk of the first half due to knee troubles, but returned to have a hand in nearly every Gator play once he returned. Weatherly got into the backfield to record three tackles for loss in the defeat. All in all, a very strong effort from the young players who will lead this defense in the future.