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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Kentucky

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Another SEC game. Another one-score loss. Can we learn to win one of these?

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Another Saturday has passed, and the Vanderbilt Commodores still are winless in the SEC through 3 tries. Each of the three losses has been a heartbreaker. The total margin of defeat is 17 points. South Carolina hit a 55-yard field goal late in the game to break a 10-10 tie and win. Florida held onto a 7-point victory after never leading by more than 7. Most recently, Kentucky survived 4 shots into their end zone by the Vanderbilt offense from inside the 12-yard line. Incredibly, that drive was the first time this year Vanderbilt has not scored when in the red zone.

After failing to replicate the final drive heroics of the last trip to the Bluegrass State, the Commodores have to regroup and go south to Athens, Georgia. In a performance that was very much the same as the South Carolina and Florida games, was there really anything to glean? The script seemed very similar. The defense plays just well enough to keep it close while the offense does just enough not to win. The result was certainly the same, but the process (you’re welcome for whatever you just threw and/or broke in anger) was different. Let’s find out how.

Lessons We Are Learning

Andy Ludwig really does want to throw the ball more. In the first half, six of our ten offensive snaps (seven of eleven if you count a spike to stop the clock near the end of the half) on first down were passing attempts. Second down was more run oriented with four of those seven snaps staying on the ground. Third down was one-hundred percent passing with five drop backs. In the second half, things went more towards expectation with seven of twelve and eight of nine plays on first and second down respectively being rushing attempts. All five third down offensive plays were passing plays with a sixth third down being a missed forty-nine yard FG attempt. The pass-heavy first half resulted in an average third down distance of 10.6 yards. The return to a run-first mentality resulted in a significantly improved but still not particularly good third down distance of 6.4 yards. However, due to the next point, we cannot pin all of the long third downs on Ludwig’s play-calling or even offensive execution.

Penalties are being committed at seemingly the most inopportune times. Most everyone will remember that Vandy’s last play was going to come from the 9-yard line, but there was a delay of game. Personally, taking the penalty there does not bother me as much because it is more important to get the right play and make sure everyone is aligned properly. Obviously, it would be optimal for everyone to get things figured out and ready to avoid the need to take the penalty. Shurmur will get credited for the delay of game in the records, but it looked like the WRs were not aware of the clock running low as they broke the huddle and jogged out to their positions and did not get set quickly enough for Shurmur to get the snap off in time.

Even beyond that critical instance, there were others. Sean Dowling got called for illegal substitution to turn 3rd and 4 into 3rd and 9 on the second drive of the game when the offense actually tried to use a little high tempo action. A 3rd and 7 from the 25 got turned into 3rd and 11 where Shurmur got sacked for 6 yards. Faced with 4th and 17 from the 35, Mason took an intentional delay of game to give Loy room to punt. To top off a rough first half, a fantastic return by Darrius Sims was squandered when Shurmur was called for intentional grounding when he just threw it straight out of bounds while under pressure in the pocket, not over a receiver’s head. The penalty which treats the result of the play as a sack made it a 49-yard attempt for Tommy that he just missed to his left. The second half was a little better, but Dowling turned an 8-yard rush into a 6-yard loss with a hold to immediately follow Tre Herndon’s interception. This ultimately resulted in a failed 4th and 1 attempt. Justin Skule was later called for a false start before 3rd and 1, but Shurmur and Duncan bailed him out by getting a first down on the next play.

When the offense was not doing their best to throw themselves off rhythm, which is the most important thing to them right now, the defense spent the first half dropping easy interceptions. Four different passes had a defender get two hands solidly on the ball or had the ball go between their hands when they failed to close them on the ball. On Kentucky’s first drive, Torren McGaster looked like the intended receiver that would have given the Commodores the ball near the UK 45. To make it worse, Stanley Williams took the very next play for 30 yards on the ground on a drive that would eventually end in a TD for Kentucky. Then Ryan White just flat out did not close his hands on a deep pass over the middle that he played perfectly except for the catch. The very next play was his first muffed punt. McGaster then would drop one in the end zone where he outjumped the intended receiver and got two hands to the ball but somehow did not come down with it again. This drive would again result in seven points for Kentucky. Ryan White’s trouble handling the football showed up again as he at least got his hands on the dropped interception at UK’s 10-yard line. This time, the Wildcats were only able to come away with 3 points thankfully. If you want to review the first half points, that means Kentucky scored all 17 points after dropped INTs AND 7 points off turnovers while only having 17 points.

Lessons We Know Well

The offense can move the ball once they get rolling, but they struggle to get the gears unstuck to start drives. In this game, Kentucky’s style of play matching our own made it more difficult too. The offense only possessed the ball 9 times. They scored on 2 of those drives and got to the 9-yard line on another before time and downs ran out. According to College Football Analytics field position statistics, 33% of your drives getting to the Red Zone is about average in the country. Considering how awful our offense typically is, being “average” is a big improvement. The unfortunate part was that Ludwig’s attempt to attack UK in a way they were not expecting backfired because we only had 88 yards in the first half then finished the game with 282 total yards. The aforementioned change in average 3rd down distance also points to the fact that maybe this team does NOT need to totally change the formula, just add a little spice.

Lessons for Further Study

Kyle Shurmur is still learning how to manage pressure in the pocket. He was experiencing some happy feet and had three times where he really started scrambling around too early. On these plays, he managed to scramble for 4 yards on 3rd and 8, 6 yards on 3rd and 7, and get sacked for a loss of 2 yards on 3rd and 6. On a few other occasions, he held the ball too long, most notably on a 6-yard sack where the line kept him clean for plenty of time, but he loitered in the pocket and finally got hit pretty hard. Kyle has had a tendency to hold the ball a bit too long this season, but I hope he does not start flushing out too soon as an overcorrection because his legs are definitely not his most dangerous asset.

As well as the defense played for the most part, they had another issue besides dropping easy interceptions. Especially early in the game, tackling seemed to be an issue. Even Zach Cunningham was susceptible as he missed a tackle in the hole against the Kentucky HB for UK’s first TD. We struggled a bit to get ball carriers to the ground against GT, but otherwise, the tackling has been solid. The Georgia Bulldogs will be a test of whether these are isolated incidents or if guys are starting to lapse in their fundamentals. Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and Brian Herrien are a trio that all take some effort getting to the ground. Everyone better be on their best form, or they will eventually grind the defense as a whole into the ground while probably ripping off some chunk plays.

Special teams’ issues flared up numerous times. After not exhibiting any issues handling long snaps in his first 4 games, but Loy has now struggled on three snaps in two games. He let one fly through his hands in a critical moment against Florida and bobbled two against Kentucky. Both kicks against Kentucky got away and actually worked out well, but if it becomes a habit, teams will start bringing more pressure knowing he might be susceptible to getting a mishandled snap blocked. On the receiving end, Ryan White muffed two punts. White has already muffed one other on the season, so it is a bit perplexing why Kalija Lipscomb has not been the sole punt returner, even though he has shown an aptitude for the job. Lipscomb has not broken any big returns yet, but he has been fairly sure-handed with no balls hitting the ground. Although, Kalija did let a few punts drop instead of fielding them that cost Vanderbilt some significant field position. Hopefully, the true freshman can get another chance and make some good decisions.

Derek Mason actually showed a little aggression in this game too. Midway through the 3rd quarter, Vanderbilt had 4th and 1 on UK’s 37. To every fan watching, you probably knew the punt team was going to be on the field while you screamed at the TV. Then we were collectively wrong. Possibly the most conservative head coach in college football actually left his offense on the field. It should be noted for the record that this was not a “short 1” either. The ball was a full hashmark-to-hashmark yard away from a first down. Unfortunately, the offense was unsuccessful on the conversion attempt. There was another example just before the end of the first half. Kentucky had kicked a FG to go up 17-3 with just over 30 seconds left in the half. Darrius Sims made his dash into Kentucky territory on the kickoff, and Mason actually came out wanting a TD. With only 1 timeout and 20 seconds before the break, the team tried to go to the air 3 straight times. The first one resulted in a first down off a Kyle Shurmur scramble to the UK 24 before and incompletion and intentional grounding penalty forced a 49-yard FG that Openshaw was barely unable to convert. Those two instances, while not exactly the most aggressive decisions, are more than we have come to expect. It is likely the prayer of a fool, but could he be learning? We will have to see what he does to try and upset Georgia in Athens.