Sometime after Vandy’s surprising 17-16 victory over Georgia, a quick blurb from reporter Alex Scarborough flashed across ESPN’s front page. “No question now that Derek Mason is off the hot seat at Vanderbilt after pulling off the upset at Georgia. Tough defense and just enough offense gets the job done.”
But was the biggest win of the Derek Mason era the culmination of three years of building a program? Or was it the product of an opponent whose first-year head coach out-Masoned Vanderbilt’s own conservative playcalling.
Georgia was stuck at 16 for two reasons. The first was a stellar Vanderbilt defense that limited the Bulldog rushing game to a season low in yardage and forced a freshman quarterback into uncomfortable situations. Zach Cunningham notched 19 tackles on Saturday, bringing his season total to 81 through just seven games. For reference, Nigel Bowden led this team in tackles for the 2014 season...with 78.
The key factor behind Georgia’s second-worst scoring output of the year was an inability to get out of its own way. UGA’s inability to make plays created opportunities on which the Commodores capitalized. The Bulldogs had two drives cross the VU 36 before heading backwards and ending in punts. They were gouged by the random event generator known as Vanderbilt’s special teams, which landed on “95-yard kickoff return,” “Sam Loy launches a 60-yard punt while simultaneously being tackled,” and “UGA returner steps out of bounds at his own 3-yard line” after a season of inconsistent play.
Most damningly, with the most important play of the game looming on fourth-and-1, they called a run play to a wideout. Twice.
That’s right. The Bulldogs lined up for a toss sweep to 175-pound receiver Isaiah McKenzie, forcing Vanderbilt to call a timeout after it identified the play. Then, apparently honor bound to remain true to his instinct, Kirby Smart ran the play Vandy had sniffed out again. It didn’t work, thanks to Zach Cunningham’s 19th tackle of the day.
So while any win over Georgia in Athens is an accomplishment, this one came with its own caveats. Ultimately, we’ll remember this game for two huge plays, one inspiring drive, and 55 minutes of football that blend in with the rest of a season that’s started 1-3 in conference play.
The Vanderbilt offense did enough, but was by no stretch good. An injury-limited Ralph Webb gained just 2.5 yards per carry. As the fourth quarter dawned, the Commodores had gained only 85 total yards of offense. Even with a game-winning touchdown drive on the books, their 171 yards was lowest total a Division I team has posted in a win this season.
That’s not sustainable. While this team deserves every ounce of that victory, Vanderbilt can’t play this way and expect to notch wins five and six this fall. Saturday was nice — but there’s still plenty of work to be done for this team’s offense.
This defense. When Vanderbilt’s non-conference opponents put up over 30 points per game against the ‘Dores to start this season, there was cause for concern. The stout defensive Mason has built his career on has stabilized since, limiting SEC opponents to just 15.5 points per contest. More impressively, Vandy limited one of the nation’s most explosive tailback platooons to 75 rushing yards and 2.1 yards per carry.
While Zach Cunningham was the team’s headliner, safeties Ryan White and Ladarius Wiley played a huge role in the team’s typical bend-don’t-break defense. This team’s best athletes are living up to their potential as the season kicks into full gear. That’s exactly what this team needs to rally to the postseason in 2016.
Special teams snaps back. Darrius Sims finally exploded for a big kick return, Sam Loy sprang for 47+ yards per punt, and Tommy Openshaw made all three of his kicks (two extra points, one field goal). It wasn’t all good -- it wouldn’t be a Vanderbilt game without a kickoff going out of bounds, it seems — but it was still a major step forward for a unit that’s been a major deficiency for the ‘Dores.
Vanderbilt’s recruiting prospects. A road win against Georgia — at the time ranked 26th and 27th in the polls — is something you can sell on the recruiting trail. Vandy got the kind of win that offers tangible proof Mason’s team is trending upwards. That will only help lure some of the nation’s top high school football players to Nashville.
The passing game remains inconsistent. With a 7-18 performance, Kyle Shurmur had his worst game since...week five. The sophomore quarterback has struggled against SEC competition. He’s completed just 41 of his 94 passes and hasn’t thrown a touchdown in 2016 against conference opponents.
The PiBB Ice Player of the Week: Zach Cunningham
New rule: if you’re the national player of the week, you’re AoG’s, too.