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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: TSU

What happens when a middling SEC East team faces a Top 25 FCS team and what can you learn from that encounter?

NCAA Football: Tennessee State at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

We can all agree that this game did not start as we expected. The halftime score was only 21-17 for the good guys. The final of 35-17 felt like it was even wider than the score showed though. The only drive where TSU threatened in the 2nd half ended with fumble at the Vanderbilt 25. What can you really take away from a game like this against a decent but not spectacular FCS side? With that in mind, this week’s edition is going to be fairly short.

Lessons We Are Learning

In the struggle to think of any new information that inspires any confidence, it has to fall to Andy Ludwig. For the first time in a while, the receivers were making some catches, and the playbook really came open. It was not spectacular, and the yards per carry was absolutely inflated by facing an outmatched opponent. The template was on display though. Even if the YPC gets cut from 8.5 to the 4.0 range, the offense can stay on schedule when short passes are being completed. Ludwig got Shurmur rolling out and hitting his TEs while using shallow crossing routes with WRs on straight dropbacks. The most important, obviously, was the lack of true drops. Some passes were overthrown or broken up, but the passing game felt competent.

The other aspect that I am willing to put some faith in is Josh Crawford. He has only had 12 carries on the season, but he has 68 yards. His running style is very similar to Ralph Webb, but Crawford is smaller, shiftier, and faster. The tradeoff is that Webb is stronger and more capable of breaking through arm tackles right now. These next four games are really going to test this team, so Josh may not get many more chances. He may also contribute some key runs. Who knows? Whether down the stretch or next year, Josh Crawford looks like he could be the next really good Commodore ball carrier. He may not live up to Webb, but Webb is indisputably one of the Top 5 Vanderbilt halfbacks in the modern era, if not ever.

Lessons We Know Well

Tommy Openshaw’s kickoff duty will be the death of us all. He had two straight kickoffs go out of bounds. The penalty may only be 10 yards from a touchback, but if he could keep them in bounds, we would gain even more than that due to our coverage team stopping them short of the 25-yard line in most cases. Mason has repeatedly talked about “moving Tommy’s landmarks,” but the changes are not helping. When you play the way that Vanderbilt is trying to play, every phase of the game has to be in synch and performing well. The margin of error is not big enough to spot the quality of teams we will face in our last 4 games 10 yards at a random moment…or maybe more than one moment.

Lessons for Further Study

We all know that Khari Blasingame is coming into his own as the hammer in Vanderbilt’s rushing attack. With Webb’s ankle possibly still not 100% and facing a team Blasingame was more than ready to lead the charge against, Khari had double digit carries for the first time since opening night. That night, he had 15 carries for 68 yards. Against TSU, 100 yards were compiled over 14 rushes. His ability to grind opponents down could be absolutely crucial to the next 4 games. Drives need to continue to give our offense the best chance to score points and to keep some rather explosive offenses off the field. The good thing is that Blasingame still has enough speed and quickness to be an every-down sub for Webb without sacrificing too much. Will Khari be a key cog in keeping bowl hopes alive?

As touched on above, the receivers finally managed to hold up their end of the offensive bargain for more than a drive or two. The ability to catch passes that hit them in both hands finally was a game-long trait instead of just during a late two-minute-style drive. Their play was not spectacular, but it was at least consistent. Admittedly, my film study was a bit laxer this week, but there were no glaring drops noticed. Some key 3rd and 4th down grabs on distances greater than 5 to go kept scoring drives going. Almost magically, a little faith in the passing game’s ability to show up when called upon led to more creative play calling with a few extra jet sweep wrinkles. The reason passing helps Ludwig call those plays is that jet sweets and other trick plays, minor or major, often carry and increased risk of negative yardage. If you cannot pass the ball, anything more than 2nd and 10 becomes a very daunting task. Can the receivers keep their consistency against SEC competition after finding it against an FCS team?

Now, the defense does deserve a slight mention. I think the fact TSU put up 17 points is really nothing to be concerned about. The ONLY real reason for concern is that TSU was allowed to start so quickly. The 93-yard play was helped by an uncharacteristic slip and possible injury to Torren McGaster. Torren played sparingly the rest of the night and never seemed to be at his best. The cause for that is unknown to me, but he has played very well all year. A second bad game seems unlikely. After the first big play, the defense really only allowed 2 more significant drives. The second TSU possession went 7 yards for a TD, and they had a 64-yard drive to start the fourth quarter that was ended by a forced fumble at the Vanderbilt 25. The yardage was ugly due to the first two drives, but after sorting things out, a potent if not undermanned attack was soundly thwarted. Can they avoid slow starts against much more impressive offenses like Auburn, Ole Miss, and UT? Even Missouri could take advantage of a weak start.