The Vanderbilt defense did everything they could to keep points off the board. For the first three quarters, it seemed like the Vanderbilt offense had the same goal.
A disappointing offensive effort erased one of the Commodores' best defensive stands under head coach/defensive coordinator Derek Mason, unraveling this team en route to a 14-12 loss to Western Kentucky on Thursday night. Vandy wasted five trips to the red zone and nine possessions that rambled into WKU territory en route to only one touchdown. Johnny McCrary threw for more yards than an opponent who had more passing yards than anyone else in the country last season. Ralph Webb outgained the 18th-best rusher in the FBS on Thursday. And still, despite outgaining one of the NCAA's most explosive offenses, Vanderbilt lost their home opener.
It was an improvement over last year's 37-7 first-game loss to Temple, but almost anything would be. Mason stuck with one quarterback and let Johnny McCrary learn from his mistakes, but it turned out to be too little, too late. In the end, Vanderbilt held a Hilltopper team that had averaged more then 53 points per game in their last four outings to a final score that would be more appropriate in a beer league softball game. The only problem was that their offense averaged just 2.4 points each time they reached the red zone.
McCrary was volatile behind center for the Commodores. He showed off more athleticism than we'd seen in 2014 when he took a handful of read-option runs for 66 yards and emerged as a dangerous dual-threat athlete behind center. He showed off increased awareness when throwing deep, making sure to put the ball in spaces where only his receivers could find it down the field. However, he also locked on to those receivers in the middle of double - or triple - coverage; the result of an inability to look off safeties or switch targets once the pass rush closed in on him. McCrary had open receivers throughout the night thanks to a lackluster WKU defense; unfortunately, he failed to find those players once pressure forced him to move up in the pocket.
In the end, it turned out that McCrary was at his best when he relied on instinct. The sophomore QB led Vanderbilt on a 12-play, 77 yard touchdown drive that gave this team the chance to tie the game late in the fourth quarter, and the key appeared to be the team's hurry up offense. When he was asked to stand and deliver, McCrary distilled the drive down to its simplest parts and came up with big chunks of yardage that gave his team a chance to win. He may not have done enough to inspire confidence, but it was clear on Thursday night why Johnny McCrary won the starting quarterback battle in Nashville.
Now, we're left to wonder if that will be enough to carry the Commodores to improvement in 2015. No matter what he does, McCrary is going to be this team's headline as long as he's the starting quarterback. On Thursday, he put together a 7-10, 72 yard touchdown drive that nearly flipped this team's default setting from disappointment to relief. If he can harness that skill for a full 60 minutes, then this Vanderbilt squad - complete with swarming defense - can create a major turnaround in Nashville.
That defense. Western Kentucky ended 2014 averaging 524 yards per game and 44.4 points. They brought back their 6th year quarterback and senior tailback from that team to face Vanderbilt. On Thursday, they gained 247 yards and scored 14. The Commodores were flying to the ball and putting pressure on Conference USA Player of the Year Brandon Doughty all night. They only relented when the humid Nashville night and limited Vandy offense gassed them in the fourth quarter, but they came back to force a huge punt with 2:50 remaining in the game. There are several reasons why Vanderbilt lost this football game. The Commodore defense is not one of them.
Ralph Webb and Dallas Rivers's rushing attack. Ignore the game from the middle of the third quarter on. That's when Western Kentucky reverted to sticking nine defenders near the line of scrimmage to stop a Commodore attack that had little to offer downfield. Vanderbilt's most potent offensive attack - excluding an impressive two-minute passing game from McCrary - relied on Webb and Rivers busting up WKU defenders inside the tackles. That's the kind of offense this team can build on, assuming they can create enough of a passing threat to keep SEC programs from stacking the box against their runners.
Vandy's gameday cups. Hey everyone! Remember that sport we're really good at?
Johnny McCrary's Check-Down Offense. McCrary performs well when his first option is open. He's shown that he can excel on designed option plays and identify opposing run defenses well. Where he failed on Thursday - and failed hard - was when it came to shifting down to his second, third, and fourth options against Western Kentucky. McCrary forced no fewer than five passes into double or triple coverage last night. Both of his interceptions in the end zone were the result of missing windows of opportunity but failing to resort to plan B. The young passer is too eager to force the ball into tight spaces rather than checking down for a safe play - or throwing the ball away. Ultimately, that's what kept this team out of the end zone for the first 59 minutes of this game.
LB Nick Holt on Vandy's two-point try: "They ran the exact play that offensive coordinator has ran for years for two-point conversions."— Zach Greenwell (@zach_greenwell) September 4, 2015
at least it wasn't a jet sweep to Melvin Gordon.
The blocking. McCrary earned some scorn on Thursday, but he still stood in the pocket and took some big hits from a defense that was not known for its pass rush. The Hilltoppers took advantage of a Vandy offensive line that has yet to gel together and create a cohesive unit. If that sounds familiar, it's because we've been levying a similar criticism for what seems like three straight years.
The mistakes. A general complaint, yes, but Vanderbilt put themselves in debt this game. If we take away this team's self-inflicted wounds, the Commodores get a win. McCrary's end zone interceptions? Avoidable. Nathan Marcus's drop? A fluke. Tommy Openshaw's horribly shanked 29-yard field goal? Unacceptable. 30 yards of penalties in the first 6:30? Insanity. Put them together - and those are only the four most obvious examples - and you've got no fewer than 10 extra points right there. These mistakes were mitigated by Western Kentucky's own problems, but they're a showcase of how leaving points on the field can bury a team that's on the precipice of relevance in the SEC.
The PiBB Ice Player of the Game
Trent Sherfield. Sherfield earned his WR1 distinction last night. His sure-handed effort turned a contested end zone slant into a potential game-tying touchdown. His ability to juke defenders after the catch flipped a potential fourth-and-1 to a first-and-goal situation. C.J. Duncan's production will still be missed, but Sherfield - a converted high school quarterback - proved that he can handle wideout duties for a team in desperate need of playmakers. Expect him to have a major impact this fall.