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The Commodore Review: How Vanderbilt Really Looked in Their 21-17 Win Over Kentucky

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The Shurms MacKenzie era has begun in Nashville. Vanderbilt's true freshman quarterback looked like the answer to the team's offensive woes in a 21-17 win over Kentucky.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

For one half, Andy Ludwig showed us the potential of a Kyle Shurmur-led Vanderbilt offense. After a conservative start, the Commodore offensive coordinator allowed his freshman quarterback to show off a strong mid-range passing game. Shurmur did a solid job of identifying open targets and delivering powerful passes that hit his receivers between the numbers. He delivered the team's first passing touchdown in nearly a month and, with the help of an opportunistic defense, guided Vanderbilt to 21 first quarter points against Kentucky.

And then, seemingly deciding that he'd seen enough, Ludwig rolled it all back. The Commodores sat on their 21-10 lead and forced the defense to hold on for dear life as a conservative gameplan and a string of three-and-out drives relied on runs up the middle and predictable third-and-long passes. Vanderbilt gained only 34 yards in their final four possessions. Fortunately, they held the Wildcats to only 64 yards and a missed field goal in that same span.

Vanderbilt's 154-yard offensive output in the first half was reduced to 122 yards after halftime. Shurmur passed for 129 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. He slowed to 37 yards in the second half. None came after the third quarter ended. The Commodores averaged about five yards per play in the first two quarters. They gained only 3.3 when they sat back and dared Kentucky to beat them in the second half.

If the purpose of that gameplan was to limit turnovers, it worked. Shurmur didn't throw an interception against the Wildcats, but his first half performance didn't indicate the kind of scheme-ignoring offensive shakiness that had defined this team's offense throughout Derek Mason's tenure. This wasn't a swarming Florida defense that gave Vandy's wideouts precious space to operate; it was a Kentucky team that left windows open all afternoon. Several of Shurmur's incompletions to that point were as much a function of dropped passes as they were cornerback interference.

Was it just an audition for the final two weeks of the season? An extreme response to this team's turnover woes? An unreported injury? It's unclear, but it was a return to the Vanderbilt offense of weeks past that wasn't just ineffective, but frustrating to watch from the stands. Without Ralph Webb embracing his role as workhorse, this team may not have had the juice to pull off Mason and Ludwig's "come prove it" gameplan.

Webb is here, and he's helping pull Vanderbilt back to respectability while breaking school rushing records along the way. Any win you can walk away from is a good one, especially an SEC game in Nashville, but Saturday's victory left fans wanting more. I bet Kyle Shurmur felt the same way, too.

The Good:

Oren Burks breaks out. Burks emerged as a valuable safety who can cover the deep ball while providing key run support this fall, but his pass defense really stood out on Saturday. He had two huge interceptions against the Wildcats. The first came when Torren McGaster, who tormented UK's passers all afternoon, batted an end zone fade route into Burks's outstretched arms in the corner of the end zone. The second came after the sophomore safety stared down Kentucky freshman Drew Barker, read the quarterback's eyes, and rumbled 30 yards for a pick-six touchdown. Vanderbilt hadn't earned a defensive touchdown yet in 2015, and Burks's big score was exactly what this team needed.

Ralph Webb keeps the engine running. Derek Mason turned to Webb to protect his team's 21-10 lead on Saturday. The sophomore tailback earned 23 carries in the second half and gained 96 yards despite a Kentucky defense that was increasingly keyed in on stopping the run. Webb could have had even more, but several of his carries ended with shoestring tackles as he was braced to blast into the open field and carve up the Wildcats for big yardage.

Webb's ability to churn up turf and sustain drives gave Vanderbilt the possessions they needed to grind down the 'Cats. He set the school record for most rushing yards by a sophomore along the way, and now holds the Vanderbilt record for most yards gained in his first two years on campus. Barring injury, he's set to eclipse Zac Stacy's school marks, and while he isn't yet the kind of powerhouse, game-changing rusher that Stacy was, it's clear that the Commodores have something special in Ralph Webb.

Caleb Scott turns up. Vanderbilt's sophomore wide receiver showed off a strong on-field rapport with Shurmur on Saturday. Scott was able to shake off man coverage downfield (or, in the case of the Sneaky Pete play, avoid detection from the defense altogether) and provide a sure-handed target for his quarterback. He finished the game with only three catches, but a 29 yard-per-reception average shows that he can be a deep threat alongside Trent Sherfield and Latevius Rayford in the Vandy offense.

That bend, don't break defense. Kentucky had 1st-and-goal situations at the Vanderbilt one-yard line and the Vandy three. They came away with zero points. An incredible effort showed just how special - and balanced - this punishing defense can be.

The Bad:

Trent Sherfield's dropped passes. It's probably unfair to single out Sherfield here. He wasn't the only Commodore to let passes carom off his hands, and he made some difficult catches that proved his value to this team's passing attack against the Wildcats. However, no one on the team is a more dangerous running threat after the catch, and a Trent Sherfield drop seems more devastating as a result. The young wideout is still growing into his position, but he's averaged only two receptions per game in Vandy's last five contests. Much of that struggle can be chalked up to the play of his quarterbacks, but he'll need to seize a bigger role in the team's offense if he wants to cement his status as WR1 heading into 2016.

ShurmsPOTW

The PiBB Ice Player of the Week: Kyle Shurmur

The Shurms MacKenzie era has begun. Whimmie wham wham wozzle, everyone!

With all due respect to Burks and Webb, Shurmur wins this week's honor after looking like the answer to Vanderbilt's quarterback woes. Shurmur looked composed in the pocket and stood up to the pass rush to deliver accurate passes downfield and give this team's offense a presence it had lacked since Austyn Carta-Samuels was slinging the ball to Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause. If he can continue to accurately find receivers 10-15 yards downfield, it will do wonders for this offense - and the primary benefactor could be Ralph Webb if that means not having to beat eight defenders every time he gets near the line of scrimmage.