Lessons We Are Learning
It may be a weird place to start, but the offense is one player away from being dangerous. Incredibly, the missing piece is the one piece we were all confident in making plays to start the year. A healthy Ralph Webb would make this offense really come alive. Unfortunately, the likelihood of Webb being fully healed before the end of the season is slim at best. The crazy part is that somehow the offense has found a way to evolve and improve since Ralph got hurt. In no way am I suggesting Ralph was holding the team back, but some players may have decided to finally step up when Webb could no longer be expected to carry his typically insane load. Each of those causes is a lesson in and of itself.
Kyle Shurmur is still growing. His confidence is almost tangible. He is playing like a guy who expects himself AND his receivers to make every play. Throws are on target and on time the vast majority of the time. Completion percentages of 65.2 (TSU), 66.7 (Auburn), and 58.6 (Missouri) support that idea. At this point, it feels like his play deserves to be something we know well because Shurmur was looking better and better even before the statistics started backing it up. He has some teammates to thank for that change from good QB play to an effecting passing game.
The two guys most instrumental in that upgrade are CJ Duncan and Caleb Scott. These guys are gamers. That term is a favorite of pundits, but it really applies to Scott and Duncan. Neither is elite athletically, but they make plays. Both of them run good routes to get open. Duncan has had 7 catches for 79 yards and 5 grabs for 89 yards in the last two games. Meanwhile, has made the most of his targets with 70 yards from 4 completions against Auburn and 63 yards on 3 catches against Missouri. Both of them have been making big plays on third down and in other critical situations where a play needs to be made.
Unfortunately, another wide receiver is not holding up his end of the bargain. Trent Sherfield is hurting this team in the passing game far too often. An awful route led to a pick 6. He later gave up on a route down the right side as the deep man while Shurmur rolled to his right. Instead of staying inbounds and coming back to the ball, Trent lazily goes out of bounds while Shurmur is trying to find someone open. This was two plays before the failed 4th and 2 Wildcat play. His play is getting to the point where it cannot be questioned as just an isolated game or two. Hopefully, Sherfield can step up his play in the final two games, but effort has been sorely lacking.
A big key to the offense being able to sustain without Webb being anywhere near his best is Darrius Sims starting to show up. He was the leading rusher against Missouri with 86 yards on 7 carries. He has had 5, 5, and 7 rushes in the last three games with 50, 29, and 86 yards respectively. He has not been used in the passing game at all really with 1 catch for 4 yards against both TSU and Missouri. However, the stats may muddle his effect a bit since he does catch screens on a lateral sometimes, so those would count as rushing attempts.
Ultimately, first half struggles bite us in the ass again. The score was 19-0 with 9:50 left in the 2nd quarter. Over the next 39:50 of game time, the Yankee Tigers would be outscored 17-7. Although, the more important time period was that final 9:50 of the first half through Vanderbilt’s first offensive possession of the 2nd half when all 17 visiting points were scored.
Lessons We Know Well
Andy Ludwig has figured his personnel, except Sherfield, out. The wildcat sets with Blasingame are really clicking. The passing attack is finally finding rhythm. The running game is producing even without Webb. He may not be perfect in his play calling, but Ludwig is making the most of what he has at his disposal. It is unfortunate that the execution is just now getting to the point where the playbook can really open up and threaten defenses in so many different ways. At the very least, Andy Ludwig has shown that he deserves to stay for next season.
Khari Blasingame deserves a lot of credit. His numbers will not jump off the page, but he is a very useful player in Vanderbilt’s offense. We all saw from the very beginning of the year that Blasingame was a very physical runner, but his vision has been great too. The ability to operate the wildcat has opened opportunities for Khari and others, namely Darrius Sims on jet sweeps, to try and counter the hobbled Ralph Webb. Number 23 has not gotten a lot of press here, so it is a bit weird to have his ability as something we know well, but his role in this offense is pivotal if not prolific. While trying to help Webb’s number of touches limited, Khari has had 37 of his 84 carries on the season come in the last three games, two of which he led the team in carries.
It feels redundant to even mention it, but Zach Cunningham deserves the recognition. His play is absolutely incredible each and every week. No, there were no linemen leaped in a single bound this week, but he did blow up a 4th and 1 play in the 4th quarter that gave Vanderbilt some life. He also tipped a PAT attempt enough to get it to flutter wide enough to hit the upright and fall short. Cunningham’s play is worth the price of admission all by itself. You already know that though.
Lessons for Further Study
Can Jeff Genyk plan a counter for another team setting up for punt returns like Missouri? The Tigers utilized two deep returners so that one of them was able to field Loy’s rugby-style punts on the hop. The low trajectory of those kicks means the coverage is often not in position yet, so they had issues stopping returners without a significant return. The other part is that rugby-style punts often do not travel very far in the air, relying on rolling to get the desired length. Having a returner field them early significantly reduces their distance. Lessened distance along with lagging coverage is a recipe for disaster. Hopefully, Genyk has a plan in case Ole Miss or THEY use a similar strategy.
How effective can Ralph Webb be? Webb has been hobbled for a while now, but he has been useful in spurts. Even without his normal burst or cutting ability, Ralph’s vision is enough to get decent yardage on most plays. The damage does not seem to be worth the tradeoff though. The best course of action would probably be to keep Webb on the sidelines as much as possible to see if he can possibly be better for the game on the 26th instead of this week. With that said, if he can play a role, even a small one, it could be enough to get Vanderbilt past Ole Miss if the rest of the offense keeps playing well, and the defense can prevent big plays.
Will the defense be able to stop the big play? Missouri struck on some chunk plays, most notably an 82-yard TD pass after Blasingame’s failed pass attempt. Shea Patterson has only played one game, but his performance indicates that Patterson will test the Vanderbilt defense in many ways. Minimizing the big plays will be a key to the game. Not only will taking those plays away help the defense, but it will force Patterson to make more plays into some tighter situations which could give the true freshman troubles in his second start.
Can Derek Mason get back the positive feelings from the UGA, TSU, and Auburn games? This question really comes down to getting his team to move on from the loss against Missouri and competing with two very talented, if not underachieving teams. Winning either game will likely earn a trip to a bowl game thanks to the oversaturation of postseason play and Vanderbilt’s commitment to actually having true student-athletes. Mason needs to get at least one of these games to outdo last season’s win total. Then, even as a technicality, that bowl game would all be guarantee him year 4 at the helm of the Commodores.