Texas A&M pushed eight different drives into Vanderbilt territory and didn't come away with a touchdown on any of them. Of course, that doesn't matter when you get shut out by an Aggie defense that had given up 29.5 points per game to their last four SEC opponents.
The Commodores dual-headed attack of Kyle Shurmur and Johnny McCrary combined for just 23 passing yards in this team's worst offensive performance of the Derek Mason era. Early runs with Ralph Webb and Darrius Sims helped move the chains early, but without an efficient passing game to pull Aggie defenders from the line of scrimmage, Vandy's runners never stood a chance. The only thing that kept this game from looking like a portal to 2014 was a strong defensive effort that prevented Saturday's pile of sadness from growing into a mountain of despair like last season's losses to Mississippi and Mississippi State.
That performance is especially discouraging after the progress this team made in last week's 21-17 win over Kentucky. A confident Kyle Shurmur identified open targets and plastered them with accurate passes in the first half of Mason's second-ever SEC win. On Saturday, he struggled to find anyone downfield and rarely threw passes more than seven or eight yards downfield. He gave way to Johnny McCrary, who gave the team an additional running dimension early on but never threatened the Aggie secondary with his passing. That allowed A&M to essentially dig a trench around the Vandy offensive line, and the 'Dores ran headlong into it time after time.
It wasn't surprising, but it was disheartening. Vanderbilt could explain away their first shutout loss of the season - to a top 25 Houston team - as a fluke. It's tougher to ignore Saturday's beating at the hands of an A&M team that had beaten only one of their last four FBS opponents. The Commodores now rank dead last in the NCAA when it comes to scoring. Though they boast a defense that can hamstring any high-flying offense in the country, that doesn't mean much when you're averaging only 14 points per game.
Vanderbilt's goal line defense. The Commodores held A&M without a touchdown in four red zone trips on Saturday. They now rank fifth in the nation when it comes to keeping points off the board when an opponent crosses their 20-yard line. That's something this team can build on for the future.
Special teams still need work. Vanderbilt's kick coverage and return games still remain a tangled web of mistakes. A total lack of blocking gave no fewer than four different Aggies an opportunity to block Tommy Openshaw's second punt of the game. That handed A&M three points. His next kick went all of 21 yards before a running into the kicker flag bailed him out. His second chance effort went FIFTEEN YARDS, resulting in a net of -1 yard after the TAMU penalty. Ryan White has emerged as a solid defensive back, but he consistently seems to misjudge punts as a returner, calling for fair catches on returnable kicks and braving returns despite an onslaught of opponents bearing down on him. These are mistakes that a offensively-challenged Vandy team can't afford to make.
Jay Woods's fumble recovery skills.
So close, Jay.
A return to the unwatchable offense of 2014. The reason 2014 was one of the darkest seasons since before Bobby Johnson showed up wasn't just because this team went 3-9. Watching Derek Mason's Commodores was often an interminable slog of three-and-outs and then watching a tiring defense age in dog years as the game drew longer and their rest grew shorter. Saturday's shutout was a return to those hard times. Aside from a few six-10 yard Webb or Dallas Rivers runs, this team gave us nothing to cheer for.
The PiBB Ice Player of the Week: Zach Cunningham
14 tackles - three for loss - a sack, and a forced fumble that should have led to Vanderbilt points if Jay Woods had been able to fall on it. Cunningham is this team's most consistent performer, though Webb and Torren McGaster deserve consideration as well. He had another huge showing in the season's penultimate game and has established himself not only as an All-SEC candidate, but as a darkhorse All-American pick as well.