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Ungunking the Sunshine Pump - UGA Edition

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Vanderbilt started their season 0-1, but there was a lot to build on in their 14-12 loss to Western Kentucky. Here's why the Commodores are primed for a revival, starting with Saturday's game against #9 Georgia.

Tommy Openshaw has found a trusty steed to ride into battle.  Unfortunately, we cannot ride with him.  We can be as excited for the battle as he is though.
Tommy Openshaw has found a trusty steed to ride into battle. Unfortunately, we cannot ride with him. We can be as excited for the battle as he is though.
Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

Football is fun. Specifically, college football is amazing.  We all get to get away from the obnoxious daily grind of life on fall Saturdays to cheer on a group of college kids to beat up other college kids. To make it all better, this spectacle is often accompanied with copious alcohol and delicious food. However, for some unknown reason, people like to cast a dark cloud over all the sunshine and happiness. Even worse, if you have the audacity to pump in extra sunshine by actually being positive about your team, they want to throw all their negative gunk and angst at you. No more It is time to Ungunk the Sunshine Pump.

Okay, so yes, Vanderbilt lost to a Sun Belt Conference USA team, but if we give Western Kentucky that treatment then we are no better than the talking heads who gave us no credit under our previous regime.  It does not matter how bad the defenses you face are if you can score 44.4 points per game, roster the nation’s leading passer, and have the 18th leading rusher in the country. Are they the literally the best offense in the country? Probably not, but they are definitely good at what they do. So what happened when they came to Nashville? Western Kentucky scored 14 points. They gained 37 rushing yards on 23 attempts. Surely that great quarterback of theirs totally lit us up though, right?  Well, 209 yards is pretty tame.  Huh…so maybe our defense is pretty solid.

Wait, what happened?  Our defense was pretty lackluster last year.  Everybody from UMass to Mississippi State moved the ball.  Oh, right, we hired that new Defensive Coordinator.  Who did Head Coach Derek Mason hire?  Himself.  That hire seems to have worked out well so far. One game is a small sample size, but I cannot magically create more data points.  Judging on that solitary data point makes me think this HC/DC experiment might actually work.  It might not, but why panic until I have a reason to panic?

Speaking of needing a reason to panic, we do have to play offense. Somewhere near Florham Park, New Jersey, Karl Dorrell just felt a disturbance in the Force. He is beginning to wonder if maybe the purpose of offense is not to run three plays then kick the ball back to the other team. That thought is soon banished, and he goes merrily about his way because ignorance truly is bliss. Meanwhile, a certain Vanderbilt and LSU graduate is hoping no one proposes a drinking game involving the number of dropped passes and wrong routes run by the Jet receivers.  Let’s get back to West End from East Rutherford though.

Most people, including myself, were incredibly cautious to predict anything too positive about our offense.  Last year was a train wreck of awesome proportions.  It was almost impressive to know that Karl Dorrell could be so useless at his job and be making so much money to do it.  In fact, with his penchant for helping the other teams score on interceptions was so great that the other teams should have had to pay part of his salary since he was making sure they scored more points.  However, none of that awfulness matters now.  That season is over, and he is someone else’s problem now.  So how did this 2015 Vanderbilt football team look when we have the ball?

We actually outgained Western Kentucky’s prolific offense by 139 yards.  Johnny McCrary passed for 217 yards while going 18-of-34 with a TD.  217 yards really is not a great number, but it is good for 4th among all SEC passers so far.  Yes, on a weekend where most SEC teams played defenses offering all the resistance of mashed potatoes, Vanderbilt’s quarterback was in the top third of the best conference in the country.  Unfortunately, Johnny had 2 very bad decisions that resulted in WKU interceptions in the endzone.  Was he perfect the rest of the night? Absolutely not. But when it came to crunch time, our quarterback stepped up.

McCrary went 7-of-9 for 72 yards and a TD on our final offensive drive of the game.  If anyone wants to mention a phrase about past Vanderbilt collapses, you clearly do not understand what that phrase really means.  Of all the players on the team, Johnny McCrary should be the most likely to wilt under pressure if you consider how QB mistakes were handled last year.  Instead, he regrouped, stayed upbeat, and led us on a great drive that nearly tied the game in the closing seconds.  Now McCrary knows this staff really is behind him.  This team is absolutely behind him.  We should all be behind him too.  Do not harp on his few mistakes.  He is going to learn from them.

As important as it is, quarterback is not the only position on the field offensively though.  What about the guys who have to catch his passes?  Nine of them registered a reception. NINE. In the entirety of last year, Vanderbilt had 17 players catch a pass. We are over halfway there after game one.  As far as yardage goes, those 217 yards passing McCrary had are also over one-tenth of our entire for last year. We play 12 regular season games. That will be a pretty nice improvement if we can be on track to match last year’s yardage through the air if we play two less games.

The brightest spot going into this season on offense was Ralph Webb. Combined with Ludwig’s penchant for having great HBs, Ralph’s ability was expected to be on full display.  Webb only had 70 yards on 18 carries.  A little math points out he is below target to match last year’s totals.  However, as a whole, our rushing attack was much more dangerous.

Johnny McCrary added 63 yards on 8 carries. More importantly, he only lost 5 yards on 1 sack.  If you remember, JMac also was injured early in the 3rd quarter. His injury, and subsequent inability to scramble, roll out, or run the read option made our offense much easier to defend. Even with that hindrance, McCrary’s rushing total is higher than from all of last year by 29 yards already. Dallas Rivers and Darrius Sims contributed 26 and 16 yards respectively to get the total rushing up to 168 yards. Continuing the offensive trend, that is well above our pace for last year. In fact, if we sustained that yardage on the ground then the team will surpass last year’s total before the end of game 8. They could be running in the black with one-third of the season left.

So now what? Where do we go from a frustrating lost to Western Kentucky? Somewhat unfortunately, the Commodores now have to take on the 9th best team in the country when the Georgia Bulldogs come to Nashville.  Las Vegas has made Vanderbilt 21-point underdogs. Things look pretty bleak. They looked pretty bad 2 years ago when UGA made their visit to Music City. But the Bulldogs lost then. They can lose now. It will NOT be easy. When have things ever been easy for Vanderbilt football? However, there are signs of hope.

Georgia’s starting QB is Grayson Lambert who transferred from Virginia after earning a degree there.  He went 8-12 for 141 yards and 2 TDs.  Brice Ramsey also took some snaps and completed two passes for 51 yards and a TD.  Those numbers are efficient, but they are also indicative of how much UGA leans on the rushing attack.

The UGA game plan is very ground oriented for obvious reasons.  Nick Chubb, Keith Marshall, and Sony Michel are a scary trio who had 120, 73, and 41 yards, respectively, in their season opener.  They are all very effective backs.  They run behind an elite offensive line.  If I stop there, the pump is going to be chock-full of sludge. Vanderbilt’s front seven could very well bust up that rushing attack and simultaneously knock all of the gunk out of the pump this weekend.  Georgia’s stable of backs is deep, but so are the linebackers and defensive linemen for the Commodores.  The battle will not be easy, nor will it be pretty, but if the Black Death bows up, Georgia may have to rely on Grayson Lambert to lead their offense.

For Georgia, that sounds a lot like Deep Water. Coach Mason wants teams to do things that make them uncomfortable.  You can be sure that he will have a scheme to at least slow down the Bulldog ground game.  Then, when they have to throw, Vandy will look to capitalize.  If we can, this game could become VERY interesting, especially if Ludwig can build on the offensive improvements we saw in Game 1.

Last year, we were begging for miracles to win games.  Now, we just need to leverage a few battles the other way.  No one expects us to pull it off.  Some of the talking heads do think we can keep it close for a half or maybe three quarters before Georgia’s superiority takes over.  As one recent article stated, we don’t care.  Why should we?  People wanted to discount us when we won nine games.  Then we did it again.  There is no mistaking that we are a different team now.  We do not have Jordan Matthews, Jonathan Krause, Kenny Ladler, Andre Hal, or any number of other players.  Instead, we have Johnny McCrary, Trent Sherfield, Ralph Webb, Nigel Bowden, Stephen Weatherly, Torren McGaster, and a team of guys ready to buy into the systems of Derek Mason and Andy Ludwig.

Let’s stop looking for reasons that we are going to fail.  Look at the reasons we should succeed and the evidence that we are making moves in the right direction.  Last year was last year.  There were lots of problems.  Maybe some of them are still present or even prevalent on this team.  Wait for them to prove that this fall.  Nothing from this season suggests this team will be inept, unprepared, or aimless.

It is time to drop the anchor and ungunk the sunshine pump. Go Dores.