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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football - South Carolina

It is time to go to class with the least qualified member of the site!

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Here at AoG, we are almost unanimously nerds of one distinction or another.  As such, we all love learning a good lesson, right?  If so, Vanderbilt football is perfect for you.  It may not be perfect for your liver though.  We have learned a multitude of things in the last 2.083333 seasons that make up the Derek Mason era.  Vanderbilt University should probably offer a course on his opening game alone where we learned exactly how the NCAA lightning protocol works, that Temple actually fields a somewhat competent football team (but apparently, not a similarly competent webpage editor), and Vanderbilt was probably not going to win 9 games for the 3rd consecutive year.

It would require a much more dedicated historian to go over everything gleaned, on or off the field, about the individual 2014, 2015, and 2016 teams.  That effort would also be more deserving of a Master’s thesis, which I am not all qualified to even attempt.  Furthermore, who wants to relive every moment of those 3-9 and 4-8 seasons?  We won’t be doing anything quite that painful…yet.  Quite simply, this will be a collection of the things I learned, had reaffirmed, and want to know.  Most of you will be thankful to know this will not be intentionally over-the-top optimism that my article last year had.  Unfortunately for some of you, I am actually a fairly optimistic person, if only because I would like to stay a functioning alcoholic instead of spiraling down into a permanent, bourbon-induced stupor.

Another point of contention may be how much I try to set this season apart as a separate entity.  It will not be viewed in a vacuum, especially as it pertains to lessons about Mason, but we are only through one game after a long off-season.  In that view, I will be much more lenient on players.  I am doing that for two basic reasons.  First, as I already said, we are ONE game into the season.  First games have a tendency to be awkward and ugly.  Secondly, nearly every coach (not just the one’s at Vandy praying the saying is true) will tell you that the biggest improvements occur between game one and game two.  The third, less important, reason is that our opposition from last week are a pretty big unknown considering their coaching change.  With all of my ass-covering and pre-emptive defending done, it is time to get to grit of things.

What lessons did I learn?

Wade Freebeck is apparently a situational quarterback that the coaches trust to start a drive from our 6-yard line.  The explanation for this was basically that Ludwig and Mason think he can execute as well as Shurmur, and further comments this week have slated Freebeck as better dual threat than Shurmur.  The strange part is that his rushing stats are not good.  At Vanderbilt, Freebeck has carried the ball 14 times for -31 yards.  If you go back to his senior year at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, Wade carried the ball 35 times for -2 yards.  As a quarterback, you can have rushing stats skewed downwards by sacks, so I even looked at his longest carries to see if they suggested he can break things open at times.  His longest rush his senior year went for 11 yards (with at least 2 others going for 10 yards), and his farthest scamper at Vandy occurred against SC last week when he picked up 7.   I think it is safe to say that Wade Freebeck does not have the explosiveness of a Dak Prescott, Josh Dobbs, or other truly dual-threat QB.  However, I will say that upon rewatching the SC game again, there is zero respect for a zone-read.  Either Freebeck or Shurmur could probably have a few 5 or 6 yard carries if they were given the chance to actually keep one of those zone-read looks.  If the coaches think Wade presents a better threat, I will hold off judgement for now, BUT my patience with this package failing will be VERY short.  So, yeah, I did kind of sneak in a "what do I want to know?" topic here.

The second new take-away from the game against South Carolina was that Khari Blasingame is absolutely ready to be the guy who can spell Ralph Webb this year.  The only downside to the tandem appears to be that both runners are very similar, but Blasingame does offer a bigger boom to any defender trying to take him down.  Neither is exactly a home-run threat, but they definitely have enough horsepower to get to the second level.  With Webb not shouldering the entire offensive load, the offense SHOULD be able to keep wearing teams down over the course games.  Even when the passing game went exactly nowhere (more on that later), South Carolina’s defense was clearly tiring at the end of the game.  Webb and Blasingame both found ways to get runs over 10 yards in the final quarter, even though the offense failed to put a single point up after the TD to start the second quarter. Hopefully, Khari can build on the first game’s success as he and Webb get to face what should be a less formidable defense against MTSU.

Another positive from the night came in the form of punter Sam Loy.  Most people who follow the team closely were perplexed to find out that Loy was named backup to starting punter Reid Nelson.  Nelson’s first punt was less than stellar, only traveling 35 yards from scrimmage, but it was muffed.  The lack of distance was pretty well forgotten since we ended up with the ball.  His second punt would prove enough to make the switch to Loy though.  That kick was a 21-yard shankopotamus that thankfully the defense was able to negate by forcing a turnover.  After that point, it was all Loy.  The young punter saw the field more than anyone would like to see, but he performed adequately for his first game action with punts of 43, 36, 43, 45, 42, and 32 yards.  The last two were downed at SC5 and fair caught at the SC16 in that order.  The 45-yarder was the only one returned with only 7 yards gained back by the Gamecock returner.  That means he averaged 40.2 yards per punt with a net average of exactly 39 yards.  The NCAA does not track net punting for players, but Loy is 49th in the country in total yardage on his kicks.  I would hazard a guess that he would move up a few spots from that for a net punting statistic since he only loses 1.166 yards per punt when you account for return yardage.  That is not bad for a freshman in his first game that he was not even set to start.  I just hope we see him less in the future.

We also found out that Kalija Lipscomb is going to be a focal point of this offense.  The true freshman receiver only had 1 catch for 15 yards and 1 rush for -1 yards, but he was targeted 5 times.  He did misjudge a deep ball down the Vanderbilt sideline that could have been a big gain, but it would have been a stretch to catch it anyway.  The point is that Andy Ludwig, and more importantly Kyle Shurmur, keep looking to #16 for production.  When you only throw the ball 23 times (not including plays that were negated by penalties), and 5 go one player, he is clearly someone the coaches and quarterback expect to produce good things.  The one rush carry Lipscomb had was a jet sweep that could have gone for probably 10 yards if Sean Dowling had not inexplicably ignored the man lined up across from him at the snap, who got into the backfield and took the WR down behind the line.  Lipscomb should have some explosive help back against the Blue Raiders when Darrius Sims is set to return from injury.

What lessons were drilled into our skulls again?

The coaches still have some really innovative (see: ludicrous) ideas about how to handle the QB position.  As mentioned above, Wade Freebeck has been named as the QB2 AND situational QB.  His skills are apparently seen to offer something Shurmur does not in the run game. Derek Mason has defended his choice to insert the junior QB on his own 6-yard line with only a 10-point lead in the second quarter following probably the best offensive drive Vanderbilt has had since Mason took over the team.  That reasoning just does not make sense.  It became almost more inexplicable when the defense was that they called the same plays as if Shurmur was in the game.  Derek Mason just said that he signed off on Andy Ludwig putting in a backup QB that they think has a different skillset and then Ludwig ran the exact same plays as if the starter was in the game.  If someone offers you a different skillset, CALL DIFFERENT PLAYS!  The whole situation was bad, and the explanation was worse.  This QB decision may in fact be the WORST way the QBs have been handled since the opening game against Temple.  This decision alone has made me think Mason should probably be gone barring some incredible evidence that declares (not just suggests) he has learned how to be a head coach for an SEC football team.

Fortunately, we got to see that the defense is again going to be very good.  South Carolina may not have much of an offense (or they may go light up other scoreboards, but I doubt it), but they were actually held below Vanderbilt’s defensive season averages last year.  The 2015 squad held teams to 350.5 yards per game on 5.17 yards per play.  South Carolina managed only 308 yards (220 of which came in the second half while the defense was on the field much too often) on 4.97 yards per play.  Middle Tennessee’s explosive offense under offensive guru Tony Franklin and with Brent Stockstill at QB will obviously present its own issues, but Mason is still a great DC.  Luckily, he also does that job along with his head coaching duties which he seems to be struggling at doing correctly.

Standing out on defense, Zach Cunningham showed that while he may not have been pre-season First Team All-SEC, he will be making another excellent case for post-season awards.  His 6 solo and 6 assisted (note: saw that number as 13 total earlier, but am now going by Vanderbilt’s official box score) were complimented with a fumble recovery. He also had 3.0 TFL.  Whether that means 3 solo or some combination of solo or unassisted, I’m not sure.  It does not really matter though.  When a player is involved on the tackle for 19.35% of the other team’s offensive plays, he is flying around the field and making a real nuisance of himself.  We all knew Zach would do that.  He did not forget how to be awesome in the offseason, so we can be happy about that fact.

Finally, what has me wanting to know more?

Andy Ludwig’s play calling was not Dorellian, but it did seem very predictable.  Obviously, Vanderbilt is a run-first offense.  Ludwig did use plenty of formation shifts and motion to try and create favorable matchups or clue the offensive players in on what pressures and coverages they might be facing.  The issue comes in when the ball goes to the air, not how often.  The split was 42 rushes versus 23 passes.  That number is probably lower than even Andy Ludwig would like, but he saw the QB was struggling and kept the ball in the very capable hands of Blasingame and Webb for most of the game.  The real problem with predictability came from the formations.  Including plays negated by penalty, Vanderbilt threw the ball 19 times from the shotgun while running 9 times, including 1 play where the QB scrambled on a called pass.  When 20 out of 28 (71.4%) of shotgun snaps are called passes, that’s too predictable for a run-first offense.  To compare, only 8 called passes happened when under center.  If you are going to be a run-heavy offense, Ludwig at least needs to be aware of those tendencies to not show his hand.  The offense not only needs to throw just enough but in varied enough situations to leave opposing DCs guessing.  They may not think we will throw often, but if they do not know when it is coming, it will make both types of plays more effective.  Will there be more balance in either play-calling or formation usage?

The biggest part of the offensive struggles probably falls on Kyle Shurmur unfortunately.  He was missing high against SC.  The good news is that meant his miscues often ended up uncatchable for anyone, and Shurmur did not commit any turnovers which were last year’s biggest frustration.  Kyle did at least show a willingness to throw downfield which was absent last year outside of the Tennessee game when we were getting drilled and HAD to press downfield.  The experts seem to unanimously expect Kyle to develop into a very good QB, but his accuracy stats are still leaving a lot to be desired.  Will he be able to start getting throws on target?

Unlike last year, Shurmur was not constantly getting hit on every drop back.  The OLine actually held up fairly well.  They only allowed the single sack on the final drive when we had to go downfield and everyone on the planet knew it.  Kyle was only statistically credited as being hit 3 times outside of the sack, so he was not even rushing off passes due to protection breakdowns.  Now, some of those hits were massive shots, but Will Muschamp knows how to dial up blitzes to free players to the passer.  Our line only allowed 5 guys (the sack was shared) to get to Shurmur after how questionable they were last year.  Coach Norcross seems to have sorted out some of the weaknesses up front, and I want to see if that continues or if SC was just struggling to convert to a 3-4 defense up front.

The question most likely to be answered this week has to deal with the team’s overall psyche.  There was a fair bit of hype from the media (excluding THAT USA Today ranking) with this team expected by many experts to flirt with a bowl game.  With the schedule ahead, 6 wins is still not impossible, but there will have to be some serious steps forward.  Those steps have to start this week.  A loss to MTSU will almost certainly kill any chance of a bowl game. Unless this game turns into a shootout, it will also make anything more than 3 wins seem like a stretch.  I need to see this team fight.  I need to see the coaches have the right answers, and not just in the post-game press conferences.   Middle Tennessee’s offense is going to be a major test.  If Mason and company try to be conservative, this game could get ugly as MTSU nickels and dimes their way down the field on a medley of slants, curls, and other short, quick-developing routes.  Can this team get over a come-from-ahead loss to beat a C-USA team that views Vanderbilt as a Super Bowl of sorts?

When it comes down to it, we are getting a pretty clear idea of the coaching staff, and the disdain is almost unanimous.  The players are still trying to prove themselves though.  It may be the start of year 3 under Mason.  It is only week 2 of 2016 though.  We lost to an SEC team, even if they were one of the teams we were looking at as very winnable.  Some other teams, especially in the east, came out of the gates very slowly. The trends for this season will start to solidify against MTSU.  I am going to hope for the best and prepare for the worst, which is seemingly the mantra of the Vanderbilt football fan.  I wonder what we will learn this week.