Johnny McCrary is not the answer to 2015's problems. Kyle Shurmur may not be, either.
Vanderbilt's quarterback situation got no clearer on a night where the team was trounced by a top 25 program 34-0. The Commodores turned the ball over four times, but it was McCrary and Shurmur's three interceptions that directly led to 21 Houston points. The two underclassman passers combined to complete just five of their 20 pass attempts on Saturday. Vanderbilt's aerial attack was downgraded from "malfunctioning WWII Peashooter" to "full Hindenburg" over the course of 60 minutes in Texas.
The pair made a decent Houston defense look otherworldly thanks to bad decisions and the lack of protection that came with two more offensive line injuries. It would be easy to blame McCrary and Shurmur's struggles on a blocking unit that had to hastily insert third-string players into the lineup, but the mistakes continued to pile up even when Vanderbilt's passers were given adequate time to stand in the pocket and deliver downfield. Footballs were repeatedly thrown to players with one, two, or sometimes three black jerseys surrounding them. #1 receivers were stared down for seconds on end before obvious passes were thrown.
Of course, Vanderbilt's playcalling didn't leave the team much latitude for mistakes. The quick outs and tight end targets that the 'Dores rode to success late against Missouri were in short supply against Houston. Andy Ludwig seemed intent on setting up a Darrius Sims jet sweep by trying it first with the team's slowest tailbacks. When they finally did give it to Sims, Houston had so much practice stopping the play that the usually explosive RB/KR/CB/WR barely got past the line of scrimmage. Every small step this team took by scoring 10 points against Missouri was backtracked on Saturday, and just re-reading that sentence may be the most depressing part of the 2015 season.
Saturday's loss was like smelling smoke inside a submarine; if this team's leadership can't find the cause, then this whole season is going to be sunk. Falling to 3-5 diminishes this team's already slim bowl chances to a dusty speck on the horizon. More importantly, it blurs the vision of a redemptive 2016 season now that the bloom has been taken off Shurmur's rose. There's plenty of time for the true freshman to recover and regain his composure, but it's impossible to say that his performance against the Cougars didn't draw parallels to early-career performances from McCrary and Wade Freebeck. Maybe it's not a lack of talent at quarterback that's haunting this moribund offense; maybe Vanderbilt has created a harsh and unforgiving environment for it's young passers that has stunted the growth of these four-star prospects.
The sample size is too small to invest in that last scenario. The Commodores' quarterbacks are still too young. Their offensive line has yet to gel together as a cohesive unit. Their receiving targets need to mature. Even so, you can't discount the possibility that the answer for Vanderbilt's problems isn't on the team's two-deep - or even the formal roster. Mason even suggested as much Saturday night.
Vanderbilt's defense does the best they can with what they've got. The Commodores limited Houston to below-average performances on the scoreboard (despite turnovers that led to 21 points) and in terms of total yardage (thanks, in part, to short-yardage situations caused by said turnovers). The play of guys like Stephen Weatherly, Darreon Herring, and Zach Cunningham limited a dangerous Cougar offense and kept this team alive early on. The Vanderbilt defense was on the field for 33:15 this weekend, but it must have felt like an eternity thanks to all the precarious situations their offense - and poor special teams play - put them in. Houston started five different drives at their own 48 or better, leaving the 'Dores to try and play catchup all night. For the most part, they did.
Ralph Webb. Webb was stuck behind a patchwork offensive line and faced a Cougar defense that knew that he was his team's only drive-extending threat - but he still managed to find holes and drive piles backwards en route to 99 hard-earned rushing yards. Webb isn't a flashy runner, but he's improved as the season has gone on and shown a strong ability to turn negative plays into positive ones. He's on pace for nearly 1,100 yards this season - but you can bet that Florida, Texas A&M, Kentucky, and Tennessee will be crowding the box with every intention of stopping him in November.
Everything offense, non-Webb edition. It seemed as though everything that could go wrong did on Saturday night. Important young players limped off the field early. Passes flew into double coverage, and on the rare occasions that they made it to a white jersey untouched, there was still a good chance that they would be dropped anyway. Only two plays gained more than 10 yards all night. Eleven Commodore drives lasted five plays or fewer. The gametape from Saturday's shutout loss should be studied in the Vanderbilt training facility, and then immediately burned so they can't hurt us anymore.
Special teams. The rain certainly played an issue, but Tommy Openshaw's punting and the special teams coverage that followed helped make the Houston 49-yard line the average starting spot for the home team's first half possessions. Openshaw averaged only 34.5 yards per punt against the Cougars, and while one of those was a perfectly executed pooch punt out of a field goal formation, the majority of those kicks came from deep inside Vandy territory. On top of that, Demarcus Ayers averaged 22 yards per punt return on Saturday. The combination of these two factors made it nearly impossible for the Commodores to flip the field against a dynamic Houston offense, and that put a ton of strain on an already tiring defense as this game wore on.
The PiBB Ice Player of the Week: Zach Cunningham
Cunningham had 2.5 tackles for loss and forced a pair of fumbles while doing his damnedest to keep the Commodores in this game. On a night without many highlights, he shined bright as a defensive beacon while limiting Greg Ward Jr. to just 1.7 yards per carry. He's got 59 tackles so far this season - 16 more than the next closest Vanderbilt player.