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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Tennessee

These lessons are as sweet as Sugar!

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

We have all had almost two weeks to sit back and enjoy Vanderbilt’s third win over the “University” of Tennessee. Yes, that statistic is about football. Someone should go ask Dooley about his famous locker room speech about what Tennessee does every year. Since then, they have a losing record, including two 40+ point offensive outputs by the Commodores. Those are the only two such point totals against SEC competition. With all of that enjoyment bubbling up inside you, we should have a fun learning experience.

Lessons We Are Learning

To slow the hype train a bit, the rather poor first half defense needs to be discussed. The trend has come up in a few games this year, so it is getting a bit worrying. As Mason said after the game and at half time, the Commodores were atrocious at getting players in white on the ground. Alvin Kamara broke tackles with very little effort on the way to his first two TDs. The other scoring drives had major plays with missed opportunities for tackles. Then the final TD of the half was a massively blown coverage that left Josh Malone with acres of space inside the 5-yard line. It was flat out bad. Mason was using soft coverage to keep plays in front of his DBs on the perimeter. That strategy only works if the DBs and LBs will actually make a tackle, and it just was not happening in the first half. The team from Knoxville was able to pile up 289 yards and 31 points in the first 30 minutes.

Whatever was said at halftime should have been said before the game. Maybe it was, and the players just needed to hear it again. The end result was 28 points less allowed in the second half than were allowed in the first half. The defensive alignments and assignments did not look much different either. The difference was that when a Commodore got to a ball carrier he was putting that man on the ground. That explanation may seem overly simple, but the yards after contact really were the difference. Josh Dobbs was still completing passes at a historic rate. He finished 31/34 for 340 yards. However, the total offense allowed in the second half was only 176 yards. The thought of what could have been had the defense made those plays all game is borderline erotic.

Tommy Openshaw is really turning into a reliable kicker. It is very tempting to put this into the “Know Well” category, but I am hesitant to get too comfortable with him just yet. His kickoffs have stayed in bounds lately with a few of them really well placed in the corner, although he might have had two go out against TN if returners were not so intent on trying to make a big play instead of just taking the penalty. The field goal kicking has really been the bright spot though. Openshaw has gone 14-17 on the season with the misses being from 45, 48, and 49. His best game was the kicker duel with Auburn’s Daniel Carlson, who is one of the best kickers in the country. In that game, Tommy hit from 52 (first career make from 50+), 34, and 47. He also was good from 48 against Kentucky. After showing promise his freshman year, it is good to see the kicker recovering nicely from a dismal sophomore season.

Lessons We Know Well

Kyle Shurmur keeps growing. The sophomore QB is still yet to throw for 300 yards in a game, but he delivered passes for 416 yards against THEM. He also has yet to show any real emotion. His cool but demanding demeanor makes it easy to believe that success will not go to his head and that he will continue to improve. Shurmur’s post-game on-field interview was one of the most incredibly calm conversations that I have ever seen in that type of situation. His measured responses were a far cry from his head coach, who was shouting about how people need to “fear the V” and that “Vanderbilt is back in this place.” That cool head is what you need in a leader, and Shurmur has stayed composed in some high-pressure situations this season. He has engineered a handful of late-game pushes, successful or not, with the composure of a seasoned professional. Shurmur now gets a month to build on the best game of his Vanderbilt career before leading Vanderbilt in the Independence Bowl. The trend for the last 6 games is an improvement in passing yards per game, but it might be a bit unfair to expect Shurmur to top this performance so soon.

However, the offense is not all about Kyle Shurmur. The newfound production is proof positive for the saying “a rising tide lifts all boats.” The passing game’s production boost is obvious. It has been said repeatedly, especially by me, that receivers making plays is the difference in early season and late season offensive production. The problem for opposing defenses is they do not know who we will target on any particular play. Caleb Scott and CJ Duncan have made some fantastic plays when we need them, but 8 players recorded a reception in this game. Over the course of the season, 5 players have 20 or more catches on the year. That list is filled by CJ Duncan (38 for 447), Trent Sherfield (31 for 448), Kalija Lipscomb (25 for 306), Jared Pinkney (22 for 274), and Caleb Scott (20 for 417). Meanwhile, the running game laid down 192 yards (including an 11-yard sack) for a 5.1 YPC average. Without the sack, the average goes to 5.5 YPC. The offense was a consistent present all night too. They racked up 340 yards in first half and 268 in the second half. For a team that came into the game averaging 336.5 YPG, it was a textbook case of coming through when it matters. Those yards were turned into points with 24 first half and 21 second half points.

Adam Butler is a massive part of this defense. The high-motor defensive lineman plugs holes, eats up blocks, and engulfs anyone who has the ball near him. The statistics do not do his contribution justice. Even we as Vanderbilt fans do not give him his due respects. A big part of that is what Derek Mason asks of his defensive line. The scheme requires those guys to do exactly what Butler does so well. The 3 of them are intending to occupy all 5 defensive linemen to free up the LBers to make plays. Butler, and his DL mates, deserve more than a few assists for all the plays those guys, including Zach Cunningham make.

Ralph Webb is probably the best RB Vanderbilt has ever had. His running style was exemplified on his final TD of the night when he absolutely destroyed a safety and drove him the last 3 yards into the end zone. He did not need to get to the career rushing record to prove it either, but that record certainly adds to his case. He did take 718 carries compared to Zacy’s 518, but Webb was almost the entirety of the offense for his 3 seasons here. It may in fact be his final season at Vanderbilt. His return will almost certainly depend on what draft evaluations he gets after the bowl game. For Webb’s sake, I hope he has a chance to go to the NFL after this season and start earning a big second contract since RBs have such short shelf lives. Selfishly, I would love to see him back in Black and Gold. He will put that rushing record to a point that we may never see it broken if he does return.

Zach Cunningham needs no one to campaign for him around here. The national awards may not think he is the best LBer in the country or the best defensive player in the SEC, but he is an absolute monster for this team. For every blocker Butler or a defensive lineman occupies, Cunningham is ready to finish the play. He had a fumble recovery in the first half and forced one himself to end the 3rd quarter. The FF was absolutely key and led to a Vanderbilt TD to take the lead for the first and decisive time. Zach has likely played his last game on West End and only has one more game left as a Commodore. His stock for the NFL draft has him going in the middle of the 1st round. He does have one more year of eligibility, but it is time for the man to get paid.

Ultimately, everything about this team comes down to not quitting. The season as a whole is one thing, but how many Vanderbilt teams come back from being down 21-7 to a team trying to get to the Sugar Bowl? Vanderbilt had never beaten a ranked UT team while unranked with 38 tries to do so. The AP had the Vols at #17, and that streak ended. They scratched and clawed their way back into this game and won it going away. When past Vanderbilt teams would make mistakes, these guys make plays.

Lessons for Further Study

How important was the addition of Bailey McElwain? He has two receiving TDs in the last two games. His blocking has also been a big part of the running game’s success. Not many offenses use a fullback as much as we do, and McElwain rarely misses his assignment. He has also provided a good outlet on play action passes with simple routes into the flat. He may not get the ball often, but the times that he does are normally very important short-yardage 3rd or 4th down conversions. He did get the depth wrong on a crucial 4th down earlier in the year, but that may be his only big mistake on the year. For a player who did not get onto campus until August, the coaches must be ecstatic with the late addition.

How much fun do our TEs and WRs have run blocking? I know it is their job to block on running plays. Watch how they go about it though. If you want an example, go back to Ralph Webb’s TD with 7:57 left in the 2nd quarter. Jared Pinkney, typically seen mostly as a receiving option, pulls to lead Webb on the play, and no one is there to block. The play is from the 9-yard line, and Pinkney goes barreling into the end zone just HOPING the safety tries to make a play, so he can light someone up. It is not just Pinkney or that one play either. It is consistent effort from nearly every player. The way they all react on pass plays once a receiver has the ball makes me think these guys just like hitting people in general too.

What tricks will Andy Ludwig have for the bowl game? After seeing the playbook really open for the game at Auburn, every week has seen more wrinkles come out. Each new play then has another option the week after it. If we have a particular jet sweep look one week, we run a play action or double reverse off that very same look in the following game. The only new play that stuck out to me to build on was a TE end around to Sam Dobbs from a simple single back set with a TE and WR to each side. The obvious counter would be a fake to the TE then pitch it the opposite way to the RB.

How did our guys finish this game after the Gatorade table was destroyed with 18 seconds left in the 3rd quarter? John Kelly took a sweep towards our sideline and was shoved out of bounds. He slammed into the table where all of the hydration supplies are kept and sent it tumbling. More accurately, Kelly slammed into the UT ball boy on that side who was then rammed into the table. Very little, if any, of that liquid was saved. The tremendous toughness and resilience to go that long without hydration is amazing!