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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Auburn

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Exceeding expectations while losing is a bitter way to learn.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

The Vanderbilt Commodores made the trek to Auburn, Alabama, for their biggest test of the season so far. In a game that nearly every pundit thought was an easy win for the Tigers, our Commodores showed their mettle and some offensive innovation and execution to fall just short of tying the game in the dying moments. The idea of moral victories is silly, but realistic expectations would say this was about as good of a performance as could have been expected.

Oddly, this week really did not offer too many topics of discussion. A couple topics that are almost unanimously agreed upon showed up again. A few other things can be pointed out, but one game is not enough data to change previous perceptions. The other part of the difficulty is where the improvements came is something I have pointed out over and over as being the small detail that was holding us back from a good performance offensively. With that said, it is time to learn a little bit from an ultimately disappointing trip to Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Lessons We Are Learning

Kyle Shurmur might really be settling into the offense. He has looked good in the last two games and did show up against WKU early in the year. He had a weird delay of game to start the second offensive drive and threw the last INT, which may have been on Sherfield running the wrong route. A 24 for 36 day is exactly the kind of performance that Vanderbilt needed on the day though. Completing a percentage of his passes in that realm will back defenders off of the run game. Chunk plays were still missing through little to no fault of Shurmur though. His decisions were quick and confident that meant defenders did not have a lot of time to cover open receivers before Kyle Shurmur was putting a pass in a catchable place for his teammates.

A big key to Shurmur’s success was the receivers showing up finally. Except for 2 big drops, the guys on the receiving end of Kyle Shurmur’s passes did their part. Those two drops were Sherfield on the first drive with a slant that hit him in the numbers and Lipscomb on a deep ball that would have gained 35 yards that dropped right over his shoulder. Other than that, guys were running good routes and making catches. Caleb Scott gets a special mention because he made some BIG catches. He had a number of 3rd down grabs, and made the play on the tipped 4th and 18 pass to keep the final drive going. CJ Duncan also showed out with some very important grabs while leading the team with 7 catches for 79 yards. All told, 10 players accounted for the 24 completed passes. None of them really stood out on the stat sheet. Being able to distribute the ball to so many players can work to this team’s favor in that other teams cannot key on one or two guys with their coverages.

The first two factors combine to form the third lesson. Andy Ludwig may be redeeming himself. Personally, I have been a fan of his play calling for almost the entire season. You guys probably got tired of reading about me begging for some execution to go with the plays being called. Vanderbilt fans finally got to see that execution three weeks ago while hosting TSU. Seeing even better execution in a hostile environment against a Top 10 team. Their defense was also only allowing 16 points per game and 358.2 yards per game. We put up 16 points and 341 yards. We have been hoping for something that is at least average to go with the superb defense. Auburn has also played some VERY good offenses with games against Clemson, Texas A&M, and Arkansas already having had their shot at the Tigers. LSU is not terrible either thanks to the second best SEC running back who wears #7. The offense was 7 for 16 on 3rd down too.

The other side of the ball offers some reassuring facets too. The turnovers seem to keep coming. These guys on defense are hunting the ball ferociously. Wiley’s forced fumble was textbook for how you force a fumble. He went for a good form tackle and made sure to put his helmet RIGHT on the football. John Franklin III has had issues with ball security, but he had the football tucked high and tight this time. It did not matter. Zach Cunningham appears to have forced a fumble, but it was questionably overturned to not being a turnover after a video review. Statistically, the team ranks T-60 for turnovers forced with 14 on the season. The extra possessions are not coming at a really rapid pace, but the defense is reliably getting the ball back to their offense a time or two per game. With the offense starting to possibly find their feet, those extra chances could finally become points.

Lessons We Know Well

Any early season doubts about our defense are being assuaged. We saw them give up 17 to Tennessee State, and some questions were raised. However, they stepped up and held Auburn to 122 yards and 13 points below their average. They more than did their part against a formidable Auburn offense. Thankfully, they got to see the offense do well too even if it was not quite enough to beat the #9 team in the country on the road. The biggest part of that defense wears #41.

Zach Cunningham is not a mortal man. He is 100% amazing. He keeps making play after play that no one can believe. There are no words to describe exactly how important he is to this team. His efforts have single-handedly kept us in many games and basically won the game against UGA. Cunningham’s blocked FG to give us life should be on every Vanderbilt highlight reel from now into oblivion. You can add it to his personal montage. Cunningham will need to keep standing tall for Vanderbilt to find itself in a bowl game this year, whether that comes after 5, 6, or 7 wins in the regular season.

Lessons for Further Study

Will the playbook stay open? Was Ludwig just in desperation mode and pulled out all of the stops? Will we see some new wrinkles on top of the already unveiled wrinkles? The execution is starting to improve. Ludwig should be feeling a little more confident and free to use plays with a bit more risk and reward with faith that the offense can make up for a negative play or two.

How is Ralph Webb’s ankle? He was clearly not fully healed against Auburn. As much as Blasingame offers, Webb presents more of a big play threat that this offense needs. The passing game is just starting to threaten, so Ralph could really blow open some plays with defenders backed away from the LOS. Kyle Shurmur played really well against Auburn, but he will need a rushing game to keep defensive coordinators from finding ways to scheme him into mistakes and performances that have seemed to plague the young quarterback.

What has happened to Trent Sherfield? Sherfield is the third leading receiver behind Duncan and Lipscomb, but he is not producing like a starting WR should. The passing game in general is not impressing anyone. Trent specifically has struggled with drops amongst a group we all know is not performing at its peak. Sherfield has done well when used in a jet sweep role, but it remains to be seen if he can find a way to live up to the hype generated by his record-setting day against Austin Peay last year.

Has Tommy Openshaw found his rhythm on field goals? Tommy has been mostly reliable with his only misses this year coming from 45, 48, and 49 yards. However, his 45-yarder missed against South Carolina proved to be a problem. Failing to connect on a kick from 49 yards out at the end of the first half against Kentucky meant the Commodores went to the locker room down 17-3 instead of 17-6. The final missed attempt was against Tennessee State, so it proved not to be an issue. The tone set by a 52-yard career best made FG was very important. Openshaw’s ability to connect on all three kicks kept the score close and were really important when his opposite number, Daniel Carlson, is one of the best kickers in college football.

In a first for this article, you get to voice your opinion officially. In the days since the game while watching how others react to this game, a question came to mind. Which game was a better sign that Mason might deserve another year as Vanderbilt’s head coach? The obvious answer is Georgia since it was a win, but the team did not look that much different in that game. However, the loss to Auburn showed Vanderbilt fans a real ray of sunshine with an effective offense and very strong defense along with a very effective kicking game. I know results are the easiest judge of success, but they are not necessarily the best. What do you think?