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the hangover, week 2

You think it's going to hurt my performance if I start drinking in the mornings?

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Brought to you by Clyde May’s Conecuh Ridge Alabama-Style Whiskey.  Because heroin costs a bundle and suicide’s too dangerous.

I didn’t see this game live.  I was in Berkeley for the wife’s home opener, California vs Sacramento State.  Of which more later.  Suffice to say that I watched this one after the fact on DVR and was able to skip things like commercials, halftime, and much of the blathering of Jole Missitore and his little pal. In fact, let’s start with that: ESPN thought Steven Rivers was Dallas Rivers last week and thought "Patrick" Robinette started at QB against Temple.  There are two things ESPN does better than anyone on Earth: 30 for 30-style documentaries and World Cup coverage. Everything else they do is mediocrity exemplified, and nothing better than the slapdash approach they take to every single Vanderbilt game.  It must be better if you get the #1 broadcast team on the mothership, but we never seem to have anyone interested in researching the team or at least getting the name right, and if you don’t believe me, ask our old pal "Casey" Spear.

So my thoughts, in order. If I’m repeating anyone I apologize, but I stayed off AoG until I finished the game and wrote this up.  So let’s get this over with…

* Let’s never wear white-gold-white again.  It might be OK if we didn’t have the black shoulders in front, but as it is, it looks tacky and out of place.  I know they were trying to get the lightest possible home uniforms for a hot and muggy daytime start, but I’ve never EVER liked that gold jersey with the black shoulders and if you don’t pair it with a black helmet, it’s just plain bad.  This is a bad fashion year for Vandy.

* I can’t complain about special teams. Not when Colby Cooke is averaging over 47 yards a punt and we’re not giving up any ridiculous kick returns. They are staying out of sight, and for now, that’s enough.  No problems there.
The defense looks kind of stout.  Vince Taylor is huge. Nigel Bowden is a beast. I want a guy who commits a face mask penalty by RIPPING THE MASK OFF THE HELMET. Oren Burkes is from the DMV and you know how I am about the old country - and he absolutely did not give up on a sure TD and because he didn’t, the ball was speared out of the defender’s hands and Ole Miss settled for a field goal.  Herring is the guy I told you about last year - going to be one of the great ones.  Yes, I’m rather concerned about DBs playing ten yards off their man, but I wonder if that’s just young players making sure nobody gets behind them.  Time and confidence might just fix that.

* Let’s just make it simple: this defense is NOT as bad as it seems.  Everyone says you have a rough transition year to the 3-4, and right now, I would say there are two reasons it’s looking as rough as it is: lack of experience in the secondary and an inability to sustain drives by the offense.  If you had the ability to hold the ball for 10-12 plays with points at the end, and just one or two guys back from last year - say Kenny Ladler and Javon Marshall, for instance - I don’t think we’d have any concerns about the defense at all.  Azubike got a couple of good licks in there, Woesty did something outrageous to Bo Wallace at once point, and two goal-line first downs were turned into field goals even after an ill-times pass interference gave the Rebs another chance. And yes, they didn’t slow down Liggins, but stopping He Ate Me is asking a lot of any defense.  300-lb running QBs should be against the Geneva Convention.  Two games into the new defense, with scads of new starters including the whole secondary, bend-but-don’t-break in the red zone through the first half is about as much as you can reasonably ask for.  Against a less experienced QB - which almost everyone else in the SEC has - I see this defense holding up pretty good so long as they don’t spend 3/4 of the game on the field.

And that’s where it gets bad.  Through the first three quarters, Ralph Webb averaged 6 yards a carry, and I counted at least six spots where merely giving the ball to Webb for his average gain would have produced a first down.  Instead, we wound up with four punts and a pick-six that broke our back.  (Although I didn’t notice myself punching out and missing plays to check my phone until after it was 34-0.) In the entire game, we had one offensive drive longer than six plays. In the second half, we had one drive that wasn’t 3-and-out or worse, and it ended as a turnover on downs in the red zone.

Here’s the thing: my wife is a Cal alum.  Five years marching in the band, she's had season tickets since before she matriculated (her sister also went) and I’ve had her second ticket ever since I moved here 10 years ago.  And I watched Jeff Tedford rise and then fall, hard, because he was convinced that decisions he made in August were legally binding on the season and he was determined to stick to his plan irrespective of results.

Vanderbilt was 6 of 25 passing today for 60 yards and a pick-6 interception. We averaged 2.4 yards per attempt passing and 4.3 yards per rush, and yet we split the offense 50/50 between pass and run.  At this point, that is asinine.  When you can’t complete a quarter of your passes and running the ball produces twice as much yardage, it’s time to pound it on the ground.  Obviously this line can run-block. Our first two drives of the game:

Run for 11 yards
Run for 11 yards
Run for 7 yards

Run for 6 yards
Run for -2 yards
Incomplete (defensive holding bailout)
Run for 2 yards
Run for 4 yards

An average run by Webb on any of those pass attempts would have produced a first down.  On the next drive, we lost 13 yards on an intentional grounding when Dallas Rivers was right there in the flat - had he been running the ball, it’s probably a first down.  Even after being down 20-0 at the half, it’s not out of reach, the first play goes for 6 yards on the ground, and then a pass…for a pick 6.  27-0, and at that point it’s just a chase scene.  Our one scoring drive, in the fourth quarter, was -3 yards after a fumble recovery for a field goal already down 41-0, which is as sad a field goal as can exist. But it kept us from being shut out by Ole Miss for the first time since LBJ was President, so I guess that’s something.

Look: we were blessed for the last two years with the finest Vanderbilt receiver in history, in his prime, a guy who could correct for the bad ball and turn an imprecise pass into a 4th down conversion. And he usually had an underrated running mate who could produce moments of magic when three guys ran to cover JMatt.  Those days are gone.  Our wide receivers are young and inexperienced, and the guys we have to throw to them are similarly inexperienced. Our top receiver Saturday was tight end Steven Scheu with 3 catches.  Second was Kris Kentera with one for 13 yards. We had one catch by a WR the entire game.  ONE.

Here’s the thing: we’ve proven the running game is at least kind of respectable, we’ve proven the TEs are kind of viable receivers.  Every time we call a seven step drop back and throw to these green wideouts, we’re taking the ball out of the hands of people who have heretofore shown more production.  Yes, I know the Creed says work on your weaknesses until they become your strengths, but on game day you lean on your strengths.  To go back in history: what kind of offense relies on nothing but a sweep left, a sweep right, a straight dive, and a 5-yard dump off to the tight end in the flat? Alabama in 1989, and they only won 10 games and played in the Sugar Bowl for their trouble.  If you want to work on the deeper game, sure, but for now?  Run the damned ball. Throw close. Force defenses to walk a man up, to play close to the line, to commit to stopping the run - and thus give your rookie wideouts an easier defensive matchup because you’ve made everyone else commit to stopping you on the ground.

And here we come full circle.  Last season, Cal and its first year coach went 1-11, and the 1 was a win over an FCS opponent. And that result was in doubt into the fourth quarter. Things went from bad to worse, quick.  They lost something like 17 defensive starters to injury, and if you do math you can see that the depth chart looked like the moths got to it.  It was a completely new offense, they committed to a true freshman QB (over a redshirt five-star prospect who transferred after the season) and it was generally brutal.

And in the offseason they fired the defensive coordinator, brought in the right guy - and lo and behold, now they are 2-0.  Big win on the road at Northwestern, and blew away the FCS opponent (it was 45-7 Cal at the half).  More to the point, the offense just clicks.  They scored three touchdowns in the first half on the exact same play, a trashcan fade to the corner of the end zone. And they have a second quarterback who they’ve managed to weave into the offense without disrupting the first or creating a quarterback controversy, making the best of the available talent.

I say all that to say this: nobody wants to hear it, and even fewer want to admit it, but the 2014 season might just be a shredder.  It’s obvious now that we aren’t just going to pick up where we left off, and it’s entirely possible that we could be looking at something a lot closer to 3-9 than 9-4.  But that doesn’t mean 2015 is another disaster waiting to happen. Right now, what this team needs is improvement and hope.  Something to show that the coaching staff is working to maximize the available talent, that things are headed in the right direction, that the players won’t check out on the staff. Find ways to make the most of what we have.  If it means we dial back the playbook and go back to mostly runs, then go back to runs - hell, go straight to the wishbone if it means we can sustain a six minute drive and keep the defense off the field. If it means backing off the West Coast Offense timing routes and going with Patton Robinette doing his best Jay Barker imitation, handing off and occasionally running and even more occasionally uncorking a ball to Scheu and Kentera or maybe a deep shot to an under-defended Cunningham? Do it. If it means Ralph Webb gets thirty or thirty-five carries a game instead of 18? Do it. If it means we never throw the ball on first down again? Do it.

One of the favorite tenets of recovering alcoholics is "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."  If we’re still throwing half the plays against UMass, we’ll know that there’s an insane streak in our coaching staff.  But if we go with what works, and keep playing with a chip on our collective shoulder, we might just get through this…and lay the foundation for better things in the future.

But for now, my advice to you is to start drinking heavily.  You'd better listen to me.  I've been pre-law and I work in a medical school.  Trust me, it's for your own good.