The Commodores went to Athens and got Derek Mason his first road win in the SEC. It was not pretty. The defense had to make a play late to save the game. The offense was outgained by over 200 yards. Do you know what matters in the record book though? Vanderbilt had 17 points while Georgia only had 16. As fans, the record book is not the end-all be-all of this team and program though. The process matters. The tactics and individual plays matter. What we can learn from the game that indicates future results and growth matter. Those factors are why I am here.
Lessons We Are Learning
The attitude of this team has been a subject of debate. We all saw some very negative signs against Georgia Tech while being drubbed in Atlanta. However, ever since that game, the young men who wear the Black and Gold have poured their hearts into every game for a full 60 minutes. This game was another example. As fans, we can be honest though. When UGA went up 13-10 then eventually 16-10, things started to look bleak. The chance looked like it might have slipped away. The offense decided they wanted to get themselves on track a bit and then drove 75 yards on 8 plays with Khari Blasingame finishing the drive with 3 straight rushing attempts.
The defense then made the 17-16 lead stand up for Derek Mason’s first SEC road win. Our conditioning from years of Commodore collapses, including some heartbreakers this year, led us to stop believing. Athens is also the third away game where fourth quarter drives by the offense with game-winning or game-tying implications. Against WKU in Bowling Green, a TD and PAT tied the game with all zeroes on the game clock. A trip to Lexington ended sourly when 4 throws to the end zone from close range all fell incomplete.
The little things that Vandy had done wrong actually went our way in the game. We will get to special teams in detail later, but they were a huge factor. More importantly, they were an almost entirely positive factor which is how this game diverged in that phase. In addition to playing well on special teams, Vanderbilt mostly avoided shooting themselves in the foot with penalties. There were 5 for 45 yards. Those penalties were 2 false starts, a VERY questionable DPI on Tre Herndon, an illegal formation (remember that punt with the fumbled snap?), and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Lealao. Nifae made a totally bone-headed decision to shove someone after the play, but we did not have any others glaringly stupid penalties.
Remember when we were worried about the defense when some OOC opponents threatened them? We should have considered that they are playing against SEC East offenses for 6 of the 12 games this year. Yes, they did allow 346 yards passing to Eason who had only 29 yards the week before, but they held UGA to 75 yards rushing on 35 attempts. The defense has given up 15.5 points per game in SEC play. The telling sign of how strong the rush defense was the fact UGA thought they had to go to a little bit of a trick play on 4th and 1.
Our defense made another SEC team too afraid to try and out muscle them in a crucial short yardage situation. The Black Death is going to need to show up big time as the back end of the SEC slate will require them to face much more explosive SEC offenses. The expectation is for them to hold up their end of the bargain, even if they cannot quite keep that 15.5 points per game stat intact. We will get to the biggest reason Commodore fans should be confident in just a second.
First, the defense needs credit for doing one thing extremely well as a unit. One primary focus when playing a team with elite running backs like Nick Chubb and Sony Michel is tackling. It was not just Zach Cunningham either. Of the 75 offensive plays by UGA, 34 defensive stops were credited as solo stops. Zach Cunningham and Ryan White led the team with 6 solo tackles each with McGaster trailing by 1 along with Tarpley and Smith attributed with 4 of their own. Tackling like this against Georgia Tech would have totally changed how the game went. In the last trip to Georgia, too many plays in space were missed which let GT keep drives going and really embarrass the Vanderbilt defense. They were not going to let that happen again.
Lessons We Know Well
Drops are still a glaring issue. Kalija Lipscomb was slightly underthrown on a play that would have been good for 47 yards. He still had a great chance at catching the ball when he slowed up and had it drop into both hands, but he could not hold on for the catch. Lipscomb also had a play earlier in the game where he got two hands on the ball and took what the announcers called a “glancing blow” and could not make that catch either.
The true freshman may be Shurmur’s favorite target, but he needs to repay the QB’s trust. CJ Duncan had one down the seam where he took a decent hit, but it was a pass you would really prefer to see your receivers make. The receivers do not have a ton of chances to make plays when Kyle Shurmur only throws the ball 18 times in a game. He is only averaging 25 attempts per game. The guys on the other end need to be maximizing their effort on every route and on every chance to get their hands on a pass.
Zach Cunningham. Need I say more? He had 19 tackles. He went from A-gap to the edge to stonewall Isiah McKenzie and clinch the game on 4th and 1. He won basically every national player of the week award for defensive players. Enjoy it ladies because we are likely watching the first 1st round NFL draft pick since Smokin’ Jay Cutler. He would be the first Commodore to leave early for the NFL draft since DJ Moore after 08. Earl Bennett also left early after 07.
My research was unable to find if Vanderbilt has ever had a player leave early and go in the first round. His ability to seemingly be everywhere at once is the thing that gives Vanderbilt a chance to stop any offense they face down the stretch. Zach Cunningham is just that good. Some SEC media think he is the best LBer in a league known for its talent at that position.
Helping the defense have a little breathing room, Sam Loy has continued to be a weapon. He dropped another snap this week, but he did a great job to get it off for a 61-yard punt. Unfortunately, his screw up turned incredible effort was negated by an illegal formation. He averaged a net of 42.4 yards per punt including 2 dropped inside the 20 and one at the 21. Two other big kicks barely rolled into the end zone for touchbacks. His season average of 43.4 yards per punt is 33rd in the country. Loy and the coverage teams also have limited opposing returners to ONLY 17 yards on punt returns all season. The net average has Vanderbilt at 49th in the country at 38.43 yards netted on every punt attempt.
Lessons for Further Study
Is Derek Mason learning, or is Kirby Smart just that bad of a HC? Derek Mason actually outcoached the opposing head coach. Who thought THAT sentence could be said with a straight face during SEC play? It is absolutely true though. At the end of the half, Mason used 2 timeouts that convinced Kirby Smart to not kick a FG and instead try a deep prayer of a pass to end the half that was knocked down in the end zone. Then, with just over 5 minutes left, UGA had a 4th and 8 from the Vandy 41.
Originally, Kirby was going to go for it on 4th down, but Mason called timeout and got UGA to punt. Last, but certainly not least, Derek used his timeout magic one final time on that fateful 4th and 1 play. When he saw the formation the Bulldogs were using, he called timeout to make sure his players knew what to expect. For some reason, Georgia came out with the exact same play and were stopped short by Zach Cunningham. It may just be Kirby Smart, but Derek Mason clearly won the battle of the head coaches in this game. Mason also did not make any decisions that were the type of head-scratchers we seem to see every week. The only really questionable decision was sending 6 rushers when UGA was facing 4th and 13. It might have worked if someone did not miss their assignment over the middle of the field to give Eason a fairly simple throw as the pass rushers were bearing down on him.
The offense was a problem yet again. Why would it be in this section though? We have all studied the poor offensive production enough. This week, we actually saw something different that gave the offense troubles. Oddly, the run game is really what limited the offense from getting any rhythm going, as we only had 62 yards on 32 attempts which is only 1.9 yards per carry. 18 of those yards came on a Darrius Sims carry on the last offensive drive. That will NOT work going forward.
Meanwhile, the passing game only piled up 109 yards, but did so on 7 completions from 18 throws. For every completion, we got 15.5 yards, which nationally would have us in the top 10 in yards per completion if done regularly. Who has read the word “consistency” here? I feel like I have said this about the offense every single week. The good news is that this unit should be able to see this supposedly great practice play come alive against TSU. The Tigers supposedly have a few players in CB Ezra Robinson and DE Ebenezer Ogundeko who are transfers that could pose some threat, but if the offense cannot find at least solid production, we should really start to worry.
One player finally made a big impact that we have all waited for this season. Darrius Sims took the opening kickoff all the way to the UGA 4-yard line to setup a Ralph Webb TD run on the second play from scrimmage. He had another decent return later that got the ball out to the 30-yard line. However, his second biggest contribution was an 18-yard carry late in the game that helped extend Vanderbilt’s second to last drive on offense to burn some clock and let Loy pin the Bulldogs back. The commentators said they had been told Sims’s usage had been limited due to ball security concerns from the coaches. Hopefully, he is finally getting into their good graces because his athleticism can be a real threat. Game-breaking ability like that could give us a puncher’s chance down the stretch. Will we see more of it?
One other offensive twist gets a token mention. The team actually lined up in a wildcat formation once during the game, but a false start prevented the play from actually happening. Kyle Shurmur had lined up under center with Khari Blasingame as the tailback then Shurmur sprinted out to his left. Will we see more wildcat this week, or will it be saved until after the bye week against Auburn when they can really work on that package of plays with a bye week? A little bit of smoke-and-mirrors could also help our offense get kickstarted.