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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Georgia Tech

Last week we learned from a win. This week we did not. Last week was more fun.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Georgia Tech
Mason was wishing his players had learned their assignment lessons better.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Topics We Are Learning

I want to start with a group that we were all nervous about going into this year. The offensive line was a big question mark, especially with the expected return of Jelks ended by another knee injury. They have actually done a very solid job so far. A good stat to look at for their performance is tackles for loss allowed and sacks allowed. The TFL allowed stat was actually brought to my attention by an Auburn discussion about how they are LAST in FBS, allowing 10.67 TFLs per game, under our old friend Herb Hand. Vanderbilt has less than half that many negative players per game. We are T-40th best in the country with 5.00 TFLs allowed per game. Interestingly, that ties us with WKU and Georgia Tech. In the passing game, Shurmur has only been sacked 4 times this season which ranks T-36th. Neither of those numbers are great, but they’re well above average, and the TFL stat is above where we were under Franklin with 7.23, 6.77, and 6.23 TFLs per game in 2011, 2012, and 2013, respectively. It is also improvement from 5.83 per game last year, although down from 2014 when we only had 4.25 per game. Although, that stat may be heavily skewed due to our absurd number of “3 deep throws and a punt” drives. Either way, the line is holding their own and giving the backs holes while letting Shurmur have time to get through his progressions.

Speaking of Shurmur, he had another improved performance, even with his first interception of the season. If you told me pre-game that Shurmur is 17/26 for 149 yards, a TD, and an INT, I would probably think that’s a win unless it’s a pick 6. It turns out the INT didn’t really matter. It was a bad decision, but we were in a situation where someone had to make a play, and Shurmur tried to make a throw on the run that he just couldn’t throw hard enough to get to his target. The rest of the day was a good performance though. He was looking confident in the pocket and delivering good, catchable balls. We had a few more drops, but those were not as bad either. Kyle may be tested against Saturday in an effort to keep up with WKU’s high-powered passing attack. This game for him personally should be a building block for him and confidence builder for Andy Ludwig. If the running game had not been stuffed so many times, he may well have crossed the 200-yard threshold for the second time in his career. More games like this should back a defender or two off to help open up the run.

Part of Kyle’s growth has to go to another guy who is getting better game-by-game. Kalija Lipscomb was not expected by many to have a big impact in his first year on campus. He struggled with some drops and misjudged deep balls against MTSU and South Carolina and had only caught a pass of 15 yards in week 1 and one 16-yard reception in week 2. He did have the first receiving TD of the year thanks to his catch against MTSU. He hauled in 6 receptions for 59 yards, and the lone Commodore TD against GT.

Scoring is something Vanderbilt has really only done against MTSU. Lone touchdowns against SC and GT are not good signs. The good that can be gleaned from the scoring is that red zone chances are not being wasted. Thus far, the offense is 10-for-10 on drives that reach the opponents 20. Even better, only 2 of those scores were FGs. Only 23 teams in the country are still perfect. Only 10 teams have gotten there more times and are also perfect. The offense absolutely needs to get down the field more, so it is almost a reverse of last year where we had chances to score then turned the ball over. With Shurmur’s improvement week-to-week, the expectation would inherently be that the offense moves the ball better and better with more and more chances to score as the season unfolds. The hope is that a similar efficiency, even if not continued perfection, means any extra drives into this area result in points.

Another offensive point is that the deep ball holds a heavily strategic place in Ludwig’s plan. Last year, Andy Ludwig started off with some downfield passing, but Johnny McCrary’s tendency to complete passes to the other team nixed any further experiments in that direction. Kyle Shurmur’s mid-season injection meant the playbook was not fully open, and Ludwig clearly wanted to protect his true freshman QB from himself. Now, Andy is putting more and more on Kyle. As stated above, Shurmur is doing fairly well, if not spectacular. More attempts at explosive plays in the passing game are coming, and we have nearly connected on a few. It was stated last week that one or two of those need to connect to really set our offense on a good path. That statement is still true. Georgia Tech did a good job of taking away some of those downfield routes, but we still had a couple of drops in that area. Keep your eyes out to see if Ludwig tries to catch WKU loading the box to stop the run then hope that we finally connect on a play that can really give this team some life.

Topics We Know Well

Unfortunately, this week really offered next to nothing in the way of confirmations. The things that we all know work like the rushing attack and defense fell flat on their faces. Neither of these have earned the right to be listed elsewhere as possibly being causes for concern…yet. If WKU smothers the ground game, we might be in trouble. If WKU puts up the points that Georgia Tech did, it might be fair to start wondering if Mason has given us such a great defense after all. Now, some people may point back to last year and how the team finished with less than stellar performances against UT and Texas A&M along with the yardage surrendered to MTSU. The performance against THEM was an abomination. There really is no defense for how that game went for the defense. THEY just ran the ball, seemingly at will. It goes into a category with this Tech game, even if I think the GT game deserves the triple-option asterisk. As for Texas A&M, it is hard to blame a defense too much when the offense only had 148 yards of offense. The Aggies almost matched that with one 95-yard pass, which massively inflated their stats. That game also had at least 3 other 30-yard plays. A handful of blown assignments while getting no help from the offense is not part of a trend.

I did say there was next to nothing that was set in stone this week. The one thing that cannot be refuted any longer is that Sam Loy is a damn good punter. With how Vandy wants to play, that punter is important. He was TOO important against the Yellow Jackets, but he will be needed to help flip field position and to maintain it. Of his 18 punts in the first 3 games, only 5 have been returned for a grand total of 23 yards. Of those 18 punts, 4 have traveled more than 50 yards and 7 of them have been downed inside the opponents 20. His net average is 40.89 yards per punt which would be good enough for the team to be 28th in the country if not for Reid Nelson’s 28.0 net yards per punt on his two kicks of the season. I want to see less of Loy, but everyone should have plenty of confidence in him when he is called upon to help the team. I would put good money down that if we are leading by 1 with time running out that he will get the ball more than 12 yards downfield to give our defense some buffer space.

Topics for Further Study

The defense was mentioned above, and I said it would not be scrutinized too closely. However, one aspect of the unit has given me pause. The triple option isolates defensive players in one-on-one positions with RBs and the QB in space. It makes those defenders win every battle, or a well-drilled offensive unit will pick the apart, just as GT did to Vanderbilt last weekend. That type of dismantling piece-by-piece makes me wonder how much this defense is a “whole is greater than sum of the parts” situation. We definitely have difference makers in Zach Cunningham, Oren Burks, Torren McGaster, and others. Individually, those players can play with nearly anyone in this conference. However, is it possible there are some weaker links in the chain that are covered by the play of those around them? It is not an indictment of anyone from Mason down to any player, but it is some food for thought. How one could ascertain this for sure, I cannot say. It would likely take a VERY lengthy film study with access to particular defensive calls to say for sure. It is purely an interesting question that I did ask myself, especially during my second viewing of the game.

Another thing to look further into is Andy Ludwig’s play calling. Personally, I have liked it fairly well so far. The results have not been all that positive, but the offense looks like a unit working towards the same goal with plays called to both use our strengths and exploit weaknesses in the defense’s attempts to stop our strengths. The first game was a bit of struggle, and I still wonder how much of a hand Ludwig had in getting Freebeck on the field. However, since then, the play calling has been what we were promised the system would look like, even if it has not succeeded as hoped. The run game was fantastic against MTSU, and the passing game was what we needed against Tech. Unfortunately, in Atlanta, the run game was finally let the other part of the offense down. What adjustments will Ludwig make against WKU and beyond?

To go with the earlier mention of red zone efficiency, Vanderbilt has turned the ball over only twice in three games. Kyle Shurmur threw his first INT of the season against Georgia Tech once things had become very dire, and Khari Blasingame fumbled against MTSU. Those are the two giveaways Vanderbilt has had so far. In contrast to last year when Vanderbilt turned the ball over 25 times with 16 INTs and 9 fumbles lost, that improvement is also drastic. Going from 2+ giveaways per game to less than 1 per game should absolutely help the team in any tight games down the road. Even when you look at just fumbles, Vanderbilt fumbled 20 times last year for an average of 1.666 per game while only putting the ball on the ground 3 times in 3 games so far. Ball security, something we have heard from the coaches about over and over, is finally showing up on the stat sheet. Will that continue or will some more opportunistic defenses down the road find ways to take the ball away?

Finally, there is some off-the-field news that could have a big impact on the field. DeAndre Woods, who has been someone many people, myself included, were ready to see make some plays this year, is fully fit. Mason was asked about Woods by Joe Fisher during the Coach’s Call-In Show. The head coach said that Woods is back to full practice but did add the caveat that the big, athletic TE was still getting confidence back after the serious knee injury that ended his season 3 games into last year. For a guy his size with his athleticism, the knee has a lot of pressure on it. Sudden cuts can really stress those tendons and ligaments. It can take some time before guys trust that their body will not fail them after an injury like that keeps them out for so long. Hopefully, DeAndre can figure it out sooner rather than later and start making a positive impact on the football field.