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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Florida

For the second season in a row, Vanderbilt cannot take advantage of Florida playing with a backup QB.

Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Last week in this space, I pointed out that the WKU game meant we had no idea what was going on with this team.  This week things went back to the 2015 script.  It was not the prettiest game of football you’ve ever seen unless you just love defense.  However, there were plenty of bright spots as our Commodores went toe-to-toe with the then #23 and now #18 team in the country.  Unfortunately, unlike against WKU, our drive with just over a minute to go (1:01 instead of 1:02) ended with an interception on the first play instead of a touchdown.

Lessons We Are Learning

The offensive line got back into my good graces after a shoddy performance in Bowling Green.  They only allowed 10 or pressures, depending on what you define as a pressure.  There might have been 12 if you include any time a defender is free past the line of scrimmage when the quarterback releases the ball.  To me, it should only matter if the QB actually reacts to the pressure by throwing early or scrambling.  Two of the pressures were screen passes and a third was on a hot-route swing pass to Webb where the OLB was left unblocked intentionally.  Another light pressure came from a flea-flicker which is a notoriously slow-developing play, so pressure, as long as it is not early, is not unexpected.  Shurmur was sacked twice. The first was on a PA pass with jet sweep motion where the blitzing CB was disguising over the motioned WR, so he got a full head of steam going and was unaccounted for due to an unfortunate perfect storm of play calls.  The second sack was the RG or RT just getting bull rushed back into Shurmur.  Before the game, Florida was averaging 4.25 sacks per game before the game, too.

When it comes to run blocking, the offensive line really shines.  Ralph Webb and Khari Blasingame are both really good or great backs who do not go down easily.  They had some pretty big lanes to run through on their way to gashing the Gators for the second most rushing yards allowed all season.  Vanderbilt put up 149 yards which is only topped by THEM racking up 179 yards on the ground.  The line gave Ralph Webb wide enough creases to become the first individual over the century mark against Florida this year.  On the year, they have paved the way for him to lead the SEC in total yards with 582.  Obviously, Webb is a great back, but the line is at least holding up their end of the bargain.  In fact, against the Gators, we did not have a negative rushing play recorded except the 2 sacks which the NCAA counts as rushing plays and botched punt since Loy picked it up before fumbling.

Unfortunately, the guy we are most worried about the line protecting did not keep up his string of cromulence.  The career day against WKU was followed up by a listless and frustrating 9/25 for 82 yards outing that included a bad interception.  After going 2 games without a giveaway, Shurmur has completed a pass to the wrong team once in each of the last 3 games.  This one was just not a good decision at all.  To Shurmur’s right, CJ Duncan was in the slot with Trent Sherfield wide.  They both ran similar 10 yard "In" routes.  The idea is that either the slot receiver will be open due to an early hole in a zone or by beating the linebacker in man-to-man or the outside guy will be open if the inside man is covered in zone and pulls the coverage guy across the field.  For some reason, Shurmur locked in on Sherfield on the outside, who was one-on-one with Jalen Tabor who jumped the route easily.  Kyle did not even look anywhere except to Sherfield and rightly paid.  The rest of the game was not particularly bad, but his throws seemed rushed.  It was as if he expected to be under pressure and was rushing.  In many cases, that pressure was either not there or not nearly as heavy as Shurmur seemed to feel.  The Gators are known to hit the QB a lot (see, 17 sacks through 4 games before playing Vanderbilt).  The young signal caller is somewhat justified in being anxious, but a big step in his maturation will be learning to settle into games and learn to live with a little pressure.  We will see if he can find a little more success as he goes from the #2 defense in pass efficiency (which was only inflated from #3 to #2, I believe, by playing us) to the #96 defense against the pass.

The defense looked much more like its 2015 self.  The Gators are only 77th in the country in total offense after the game, but this defense did everything they did last year as far as stopping the run cold while playing tight enough coverage to keep Austin Appleby from getting into rhythm.  They should have another feasible task in front of them as they face the 102nd ranked total offense in Lexington.  Now, a big, literally and figuratively, part of the defensive resurgence was Adam Butler.  Number 69 got two sacks early in the game along with some disruptive plays in the run game that forced Florida to shift blocking schemes his way and free up others while Butler still used his high motor and strength to push double teams into running lanes and force plays away from where Florida wanted to go.  On the back end, LaDarius Wiley played a huge role in keeping Florida in check.  He had 10 total tackles with 4 solo tackles that all saved us from giving up at least 20 yards and one probably prevented a TD on a drive that ended with only a FG.  His step up in play has given a good duo at safety with Ryan White.  Ja’Karri Thomas also deserves acknowledgement for how he stepped in for the injured Nigel Bowden with 11 tackles (4 solo).  His athleticism actually might make him the perfect complement beside Zach Cunningham two have two ILBs who can fly around and make plays everywhere.

The last thing we are seeing is that this team will not give up.  They did not win this game, but it was not due to stupid plays late, although I thought Loy was going to put things out of reach with his mishandling of the snap.  Appleby bailed him out by mishandling a snap of his own from under center at the 2-yard line.  The defense did well all game but really buckled down at the end of the game while also being helped by the failed snap, but they had already made 2 goal line stops to force UF to keep running plays.  Of course, in that situation, you are expecting the defense to actually have to force a turnover, not have one given to them.   Derek Mason did not put his team in the best situation to win (more on that later), but they did not buckle.  Some teams would have seen the punt with 1:40 left as a white flag and given up.  The defense was swarming as hungrily as ever though.  They wanted to get the ball back to the offense and see them drive down the field.  Unfortunately, without Kyle Shurmur and while facing a much better defense than WKU, the drive failed on the first play with an INT.  They lost, but this was not a typical Vanderbilt game where there was no hope.  It was a long shot, but you could tell the young men on the field were ready for the challenge, even if they did fall short.

Lessons We Know Well

Derek Mason is going to be conservative to a fault.  Tom did an entire article based on exactly how conservative the team is this year.  I may quibble a bit with his assertions about the defense because I am not sure how much the drop off is due to the offenses we have faced taking advantage of some weaknesses versus the defense being less aggressive.  The higher turnover number would actually suggest Vanderbilt’s defense is more aggressive now.  However, the point is that Derek Mason punted twice as the clock neared the 5-minute mark.  Both punts, one with 5:14 left and one with 1:40 left, were from near midfield.  The first was on 4th and 4 while the second was 4th and 7.  I would say that such a staunch defense should make you trust them to get the 3 and out you need to get the ball back without giving up points even if you fail on 4th down.  This game should be a learning experience.  It probably will not be one.

Lessons to Learn

Will the receivers find a way to start fast?  They seem to come together by the end of the game, and Lipscomb and Duncan both had really nice grabs late in the game.  They came on back-to-back plays on the next to last offensive possession and were the longest two receptions of the game.  How can you go almost all game when the other team is keying mostly on the run and not find those plays then suddenly make some catches when the other team suddenly knows you are going to put the ball in the air?  These guys, both as individuals and a group, keep teasing us with specific plays or drives.  It all needs to come together.  Caleb Scott had one fantastic play where he put a double move on Jalen Tabor to create separation then had a great toe drag catch on the sideline.  Plays like that do not have to become the norm, but these players are capable of being more consistently good than they have been.  Kyle Shurmur needs their help early to make the late game easier or at least more comfortable.

Will we see Kalija Lipscomb mature as a punt returner? He had a rough go of things against Florida.  Johnny Townsend boomed punts for an average of 51.7 yards over 7 kicks with one punt that traveled 62 yards.  Lipscomb failed to field a few punts that he should have while fielding one inside his own five.  The problem was that Townsend got one to land inside the 10 then have it downed on the 1.  After that effort, it would be difficult to let any punt drop where it could be downed to really pin your offense back.  He did actually get a decent return on that punt too.  Jeff Genyk will definitely be working with him on those things this week, so we will see if Kalija can make steps forward to help with field position.

Will Vice Chancellor David Williams III cause another injury?  The Goldfather often takes in games from the sidelines, preferring to be right amongst the action instead of up in a suite or the press box.  He got really well acquainted with Brandon Powell last week as the Gator playmaker stumbled out of bounds.  It looked innocuous enough until he stumbled into our very sturdy AD and rolled his ankle as his cleat landed on and twisted over Williams’s foot.  The Goldfather should know better than to get his own hands dirty.

Will there be another of these articles next week after I have to deal with SEC Network announcers?  If we get Tom Hart and Andre Ware again, the game thread might be a stream of me swearing about them no matter the score.  They repeatedly got players wrong.  At one point, they got one player wrong twice.  When Taurean Ferguson (#3) dropped an easy interception, Ware initially made a comment about Tre Herndon then corrected himself about it being Torren McGaster.  Hart then went with McGaster.  Later, Hart asked a question about Josh Crawford getting 2 carries only to have Ware start off on a tangent about the physicality Khari Blasingame brings to the offense and to that play in particular.

Finally, back on a more serious note, this week could explain the rest of the season.  A win in Lexington will not be some groundbreaking accomplishment.  A good win, which could be defined a few different ways, could indicate that this team might just sneak up on some underperforming teams at the back end of the schedule.  This team has to eventually steady off as far as their performances go.  Florida and South Carolina were flashbacks to 2015.  GT was a look back to 2014.  WKU and MTSU were some sort of insanity.  Settling into a game against an even team in the SEC COULD be a good barometer for what we will see the rest of the year.

Extra Credit

El_Commodore was curious about Oren Burks and how he was being utilized.  I must admit that I forgot about this request until AFTER I had already watched the game again.  However, I did naturally notice Burks was doing a lot of coverage in the flat while in zone while handling TEs and RBs in man-to-man assignments.  For rushing defense, his main job is to set the edge now.  We have seen a lot of 2-4-5 personnel on defense, and that is counting Burks as a LB.  In that configuration, Oren is tasked with keeping plays from getting to the edge and forcing running backs to cut back to where Cunningham and Thomas are waiting.  It may be a less glamorous role, but it worked against Florida.  It remains to be seen if the system can hold its own after struggling to find its footing against explosive offenses like WKU, MTSU, and GT.

My own personal question for the week had to do with the botched punt.  My father had pointed out that Loy appeared to be looking up just before the ball got to his hands.  Considering the situation, it might have been a fake punt.  It took no time at all to disprove that theory.  Our players took off like they would on any other punt.  The ONLY possibility was if they expected Loy to field the punt then just take off running up field like Tommy Openshaw’s fake punt against MTSU.  I highly doubt they would use the same fake after it failed so miserably the first time.

Update: This article original identified Dave Neal as being incompetent on PBP. The real culprit is Tom Hart. The article has been edited to fix this erroneous accusation of commentary malpractice and turn it into a legitimate accusation of commentary malpractice.