Is Kyle Shurmur Vanderbilt's answer at quarterback? After three quarters against a top 25 defense, it's still too soon to tell.
Shurmur burned his redshirt on Saturday to start the first game of his college career against Missouri. The Commodores came away with their first Southeastern Conference win since Patton Robinette was faking jump passes against Tennessee (2013), but their true freshman QB wasn't asked to do much despite slinging 20 passes against the Tigers. Offensive Coordinator Andy Ludwig installed a conservative scheme that allowed Shurmur to learn on the fly with short passes and quick slants while his running backs softened up the Tiger defense.
The freshman's final line wasn't impressive - 10-20 for 89 passing yards - but the biggest number on his stat sheet was zero. Zero interceptions and zero red zone turnovers. Shurmur had one surefire touchdown pass erased when he bootlegged to his right at the Tiger 10-yard line, outran a Mizzou defender, and hit a streaking Nathan Marcus in the chest only to watch the ball carom to the ground a split second later. He did put the ball on the turf thanks to a strip-sack that led to Missouri's only points of the game, but it's tough to fault him for the Will Holden whiffed block that presaged it.
Shurmur was a perfectly cromulent quarterback, but that wasn't enough to get him on the field for the final quarter. Johnny McCrary returned to the lineup to take every snap in the fourth and led the team to 73 yards and a field goal. He completed eight straight passes in an effort to close out the game, but it was clear that Ludwig was handling him with the same kid gloves that used when he was planning Shurmur's debut. Those eight passes went for a combined 47 yards. While it was a solid step forward for the guy who turned the ball over four times in his last outing, it wasn't enough to instill confidence in the QB who formerly sat atop the Commodore depth chart.
Head coach Derek Mason, cautiously confident after his first SEC win since taking the job back in 2014, suggested that playing two quarterbacks had been his plan heading into Vanderbilt's Homecoming game. After Saturday's effort ended in a win, it seems like a safe bet that he'll do it again. Rolling with a two-headed quarterback is a step in the right direction after starting four passers last year, but it's still far from ideal. Florida made this system work en route to a national title in 2006, but Kyle Shurmur is not yet Chris Leak, and Johnny McCrary will need to curry the favor of a vengeful God to be Tim Tebow. Huge questions will follow this offense into week nine when they face an undefeated Houston team that doesn't subscribe to Missouri's "run aimlessly like a howler monkey" offensive philosophy. They'll need to score more than 10 points to steal 0 from the Cougars' 7-0, but the foundation for improvement is there.
Will Shurmur get a full four quarters to shine this season? You never know with Derek Mason, but he planted his flag by showcasing the potential that made him a high four-star prospect in the class of 2015. Expectations are high, but the true freshman has a long way to go before he proves that he can consistently make plays against an SEC opponent. A steady - albeit unspectacular - performance in a Commodore win is a strong first step towards getting this offense back to respectability. We just need to see what he can do when Mason asks him to throw the ball further than 15 yards before we can get too excited about the latest young quarterback to pass through Dudley Field.
Vanderbilt's run defense. Missouri's two tailbacks, Russell Hansbrough and Ish Witter, combined for 10 carries and 15 yards. Drew Lock was able to find space in scrambles and Corey Fatony tuned up Vandy's special teams for a 26-yard run via fake punt, but the Commodore D made sure that any traditional running plays were non-starters on Saturday.
Vanderbilt's run offense. The Commodores' running backs - Ralph Webb, Darrius Sims, Josh Crawford, and Dallas Rivers - ran for 183 yards and a touchdown on 42 carries this Saturday. That's a per-rush average of 4.36 yards. One week earlier, Missouri held Georgia, the SEC's #2 rushing offense - to just 132 rushing yards and 3.07 yards per carry from their running backs. The week before that, they held Florida to only 3.22 yards per touch. Vanderbilt's running game gave Andy Ludwig the latitude to install a conservative passing game that hid his quarterbacks' weaknesses, and the team rode that strategy all the way to their first conference win. It's not shocking that it happened - but it's impressive that it came against one of the nation's top 10 defenses.
Tommy Openshaw's kicking woes. Openshaw looked like this team's secret weapon when he connected on 49- and 47-yard field goals in the first two weeks of the season, but he's fallen off since then. The sophomore has yet to record a game in 2015 where he hasn't missed a field goal - and that includes three misses from inside 40 yards. His latest miscue, a 32-yard attempt that clanked off the right upright and landed in the end zone, cost his team a chance to close the door on Missouri and gave the Tigers a chance to tie this game up with a last-ditch drive into Vandy territory. The Commodores can't afford to leave any points on the field thanks to their inefficient offense, but Openshaw keeps doing just that.
Missouri's passing attack. It's pretty rare for Vanderbilt's opponents to make this list, but it's nearly impossible to ignore the role that Drew Lock's terrible passes played in the Commodores' win. The Mizzou freshman missed open receivers all day, often on deep balls that exposed the Vandy secondary and left Tiger fans reaching for bourbon with one hand while tearing out their hair with the other. Lock finished the day with a 41.2% completion rate, but the 'Dores weren't able to pick him off even once. Next week's opponent, Houston, won't miss those opportunities. That could destroy this team's momentum after a confidence-building win.
The PiBB Ice Player of the Game: Ralph Webb
Webb, along with Darrius Sims, was the perfect pressure-reliever for Shurmur early in this game. His driving runs helped Vanderbilt move the chains early and created the space that allowed the freshman quarterback to complete passes for modest gains against a top-10 defense. The Tigers adjusted for his presence at halftime - he gained 84 yards in the first half and only 15 in the second - but Webb was the avatar for a rushing attack that carried this team to their first SEC win since 2013.