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The Commodore Review: The football gods favored Vandy, even if the refs didn’t

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How Vanderbilt really looked in a 23-16 loss to No. 9 Auburn.

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

Vanderbilt’s comeback effort against No. 9 Auburn fell short on Saturday, but the Commodores’ last-ditch drive was as unlikely as it was thrilling. Let’s recap those frantic final three minutes and 27 seconds and measure just how much luck was interwoven between some fantastic plays and performances.

1. On third-and-1 at the Auburn 28, Kamryn Pettway breaks into the open field and towards a sure touchdown...before the gods strike him down, pulling his hamstring and forcing him to effectively tackle himself before reaching the end zone.

Luck meter: INCONCEIVABLY LUCKY. Pettway should not have drank Jobu’s rum before the game.

2. The Vandy defense, furious about getting blown up on third down, stops three Auburn runs for -6 yards to set up a seemingly automatic 36-yard field goal.

Luck meter: Not especially lucky, as this defense is great. Shutting down a tremendous Tiger running game is pretty impressive, however.

3. Zach Cunningham gets bitten by a radioactive kangaroo on the sideline, does this to give Vanderbilt one final drive with a chance to tie this game up:

Luck meter: Not lucky, Zach Cunningham is basically just 230 pounds of fast-twitch muscles and bad feelings toward running backs, quarterbacks, and kickers.

4. Facing fourth-and-18, Kyle Shurmur throws a pass into double coverage. Two Auburn defenders converge; in their battle for the ball, they tip it right into Caleb Scott’s waiting hands.

Luck meter: Extremely lucky. This is why defensive backs are told to bat down Hail Mary passes.

5. Kyle Shurmur throws a game-ending interception.

Luck meter: Normal. This was the result of a miscommunication between the quarterback and his receiver. This ball deserved to be picked.

All in all, the Commodores got a lot of breaks that gave them the opportunity close out one of their best games of the season with an era-changing upset. The football gods saw Vanderbilt’s changes in the bye week, and rewarded the team with fruitful opportunities.

So did Vanderbilt get screwed by the SEC referees when this fumble was overturned?

Absolutely. But all the bounces and awful luck typically associated with Vandy losses finally swung in the team’s direction. Maybe things are looking up after all.

The Good:

The offensive playcalling. We’ve never seen a Derek Mason offense spread the ball as efficiently as it did on Saturday. Ten different Commodores earned receptions as Kyle Shurmur looked as good as he ever has against an SEC opponent. Offensive coordinator got creative in the running game as well, giving non-traditional runners like Darrius Sims, Kalija Lipscomb, and Trent Sherfield handoffs to keep the Tigers on their toes.

Moving away from Vandy’s staid between-the-tackle approach paid dividends. Kyle Shurmur had the most accurate passing game of his career as his receivers found holes in the Auburn secondary. A solid blocking effort gave him time to set his feet and show off the kind of decision making he’ll need to be a legitimate starting quarterback in the SEC. Shurmur has the strength to consistently pass to the sidelines without lofting up potential pick-sixes. Let’s hope Saturday’s effort was enough to spark a full time change in the Vandy playbook.

Tommy Openshaw levels up. ESPN called Openshaw a great kicker all afternoon, and the embattled junior lived up to their billing. He drilled all three of his field goal attempts in a hostile environment, including a career-long 52-yarder in the first quarter. Openshaw instilled confidence in a position that’s been unstable since Carey Spear was murdering kick returners at Dudley Field.

Kyle Shurmur plays better than his stats suggest. Shurmur’s final line say he completed 24 of his 36 passes for 241 yards, but a pair of ill-timed drops likely prevented him from pushing 300 on Saturday. The sophomore made good decisions throughout the afternoon, cycling through his route trees and fitting the ball into tight spaces with accurate passes. He proved he can be this team’s starting quarterback of the future if Ludwig tailors the VU playbook to his strengths.

Vanderbilt’s bowl hopes. Five wins likely get the Commodores to the postseason. Six wins guarantees it. Here’s what the team’s final three games look like:

There could be two wins in that stretch. There might even be three. But I think the odds are pretty damn good there’ll be at least one.

The Bad:

Ralph Webb’s nagging ankle injury drains his effectiveness. Webb was limited to only 13 carries and 49 total yards. That forced Khari Blasingame and Josh Crawford into action out of the backfield, and the team’s traditional tailbacks were held to a mere 3.1 yards per carry on Saturday. The Commodores had much more success with jet sweeps and other handoffs to unconventional speedsters like Sims, Sherfield, and Lipscomb, but it’s clear they need a healthy Webb to man the backfield in a traditional I-formation setup.

The PiBB Ice Player of the Week: Zach Cunningham

Kyle Shurmur made a run at the award. But he didn’t hurdle any long snappers to get there, so we went with Cunningham, who is fixing to be Vanderbilt first first-round draft choice since Chris Williams in 2008.