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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: MTSU

Improve your knowledge like Vanderbilt improved it’s PPG!

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Vanderbilt
See this? It’s the joy of a passing TD!
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

It is always better to learn from success. Vanderbilt football found some success as they handled MTSU to the tune of 47-24. Those 47 points are the most against an FBS opponent since a 52-24 beatdown of UAB in 2013. It also matches the 47 points put up against FCS foe Austin Peay as the most points scored during the Mason era. Middle Tennessee may not be a national power by any stretch of the imagination, but they will likely be a bowl team.

What new information came to the surface?

Apparently, the offense likes to have nearly 2 hour delays in the middle of games. There had not been a completed pass and the offense had only churned out 57 yards through just over 24 minutes of game time. Lightning then cause a delay only 15 minutes shy of 2 hours. In the final 5 minutes and 40 seconds, Kyle Shurmur went 9-of-10 for 79 yards. All told, Vanderbilt wracked up 2 TDs on 138 yards from 14 plays. Yes, our Vanderbilt Commodores went on 2 really good drives in 5 minutes and 40 seconds.

The real key to this came in the form of some new options in the playbook. Offensive Coordinator Andy Ludwig found some crossing route combinations along with a healthy dose of play action. The lateral routes stretched an MTSU defense that was trying to stay compact in order to stuff up the run game. By making them move sideline to sideline, TEs and WRs were able to find gaps. By having them move across the sophomore QBs field of vision, it helped simplify some reads so that Kyle could get to his 3rd and 4th reads.

The first three completions went to Sam Dobbs, Sean Dowling, and Khari Blasingame. If you told me those three would make Vanderbilt’s first receptions, I would have laughed in your face.

Dobbs is the 3rd option when it comes to receiving TEs while Dowling has almost exclusively been a blocker since moving from OT to TE due to ROTC fitness concerns before last season.

It would be a disservice to Ralph Webb if he does not get a special mention. Who else knew Webb could fly? He hurdled 2 people AND had a Bo Jackson-esque leap into the endzone. Any Bama fans remember “Bo Over the Top”? Good. Just be glad there were no short FGs returned for TDs to mention. Oh, whoops. Anyway, back to flight #7 with service to Six Points, how much fun was it to see Ralph do his best 6 foot hurdles?

These were not even jumps over defenders diving low on him that he just hopped over. These were defenders that were standing mostly upright and just made the poor decision to lower their facemask enough that Ralph thought he could take the aerial route. Both attempts worked. In fact, on the first and most impressive attempt, Webb dragged another defender about 4 yards. The amount of balance required to land that leap in pads while sprinting is impressive enough. To do that AND be able to get your balance enough to move another person is just unbelievable. Oh, and by the way, he did manage to become the 3rd Vanderbilt player to get over 200 yards rushing. It is a special night when that takes a back seat to your moves.

What things can we really start to believe in as fact?

There really isn’t much to put here. The things that we did not already really know as fact are too early in the observation stage to be very confident in staying true. Things like Ralph Webb’s ability to chew up lots of yards (even if he DID go above and beyond against MTSU), Zach Cunningham’s ability to be everywhere, and Oren Burk’s versatility we all already documented. However, we did get to see some new stuff that might hint at future developments…or might just be one-off instances.

So what things might be developing trends or things to watch out for going forward?

Another promising development from the post-delay moments started with disaster. The very first play coming back from the weather break was a blocked Sam Loy punt. The middle man in the 3-man protection shield absolutely got lit up and shoved back into Loy’s kick. The Pony Boys would proceed to score after starting within 10 yards of their goal. The scoreboard now said Vanderbilt only led 19-17 with 5 minutes left in the half.

Many of us knew what was inevitably coming next. Middle was likely going to force us to go 3-and-out then score again before the half to take the lead. From there, they would never look back. We were all wrong. Vanderbilt would instead rip off the aforementioned 2 TDs while allowing nothing against them before half.

In fact, from that MTSU TD to the final whistle, Vanderbilt would control the game. With only one other scoring drive near the end of the 3rd quarter, MTSU never really threatened in the 2nd half. It was incredibly refreshing to see that extra bit of fight from Vanderbilt. Honestly, it was the absolute antithesis of SOV. Will it continue? I do not know, but it was a promising change to see our lousy expectations proven wrong in a positive fashion.

One thing that I hope does not continue is our receivers struggles on the deep ball. CJ Duncan had a chance to haul in a deep ball in the endzone but had it go right through his hands. The throw did slightly cross him up by being over his outside shoulder as he looked over the inside one. However, it was not so far off that CJ could not have made a play on it.

The real culprit was true freshman Kalija Lipscomb. To my recollection, there were two deep balls that he absolutely should shave hauled in that would have gained in the neighborhood of 40 yards each. Then a third one probably could have been caught, but it was a more difficult play to make. There were some other concerning drops in the first half, but everything outside of the deep ball seemed ironed out after the delay. Hopefully, more chances to make long catches will only lead to being more effective at snagging those bombs.

Another concern actually came from the defensive side of the ball. Some people reacted more strongly than I did, but I think most of the credit should go to Tony Franklin for being a wizard and Brent Stockstill for having a great arm. That style of offense is one we will see possibly two more times with WKU and Ole Miss left to play. Both teams use similar spread out, pass-heavy attacks, but the wrinkles on what route combos are used and how certain positions on the field are involved are significantly different. Both of those teams and other future opponents will likely look to replicate some of the things Middle was able to do well. Derek Mason will have to find some solutions to those possible flaws in personnel, scheme, or execution.

Of course, first, he has to focus on a totally different type of offense. Georgia Tech is as run-heavy as MTSU was pass-heavy. The triple option attack will challenge the Vanderbilt defenders’ abilities to recognize plays and quickly react without getting caught out of position on a reverse or different misdirection play. Oren Burks and Zach Cunningham will have to be on their A games to provide the athletic sideline to sideline coverage needed to clog the potent rushing attack. Torren McGaster, Tre Herndon, and other DBs will also be tested. They will spend long portions of the game just chasing decoy receivers downfield while having to make sure their coverage is spot-on just in case it is the time GT will actually take a downfield shot.

The triple option is a test for everyone really, so how they handle it, especially sandwiched between two very pass-happy attacks in MTSU and WKU, could be very telling about the versatility or lack thereof of the defense this year.

Finally, can we see the offense keep a rhythm. They were effective from the end of the lightning delay until the end of the game on Saturday. That trend has to continue in Atlanta. Momentum has to keep rolling forward. If drives can be sustained to keep the defense somewhat fresh, we could see that Tech running attack start sparking and leaking fluid like a real Ramblin’ Wreck. Or we might learn that the delay is the only reason our offense got going and that without the benefit of one-hour and fourty-minutes that the offense is going to continue to be a liability.

Now, I did not say this last week because I knew the article was going up on Saturday and would not be the center of a ton of discussion so close to kickoff. However, since it is going up on a Friday now, I am curious to see how others feel, not just about the article but what other things you have noticed. Maybe you even disagree with what category into which a “lesson” was placed. Is something more set-in-stone in your opinion? Or maybe something I am taking for granted is not QUITE as sure of a thing as I have suggested. Let me know! I like to learn too.