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Vanderbilt 31, Western Kentucky 30: Yeah, we probably shouldn’t have won this game

Derek Mason’s strategy is apparently waiting for the other guy to self-destruct. And it’s worked against C-USA teams!

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Western Kentucky Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports
Vanderbilt at Western Kentucky: Five Factors
Vandy WKU
Total Yards 389 496
Plays 71 74
Yards Per Play 5.48 6.70
Points Per Play 0.44 0.41
Success Rate 40.85% 47.95%
Rushing Success Rate 41.03% 53.13%
Passing Success Rate 40.63% 43.90%
Points Per Trip Inside 40 4.43 3.75
Avg. Starting Field Position 24.3 32.3
Turnovers 1 3

So, let’s recap a few things that happened yesterday.

  • In the first quarter, Western Kentucky intercepted a pass and started a drive at the Vanderbilt 42. They fumbled on the first play of the drive. Vanderbilt recovered.
  • On Western Kentucky’s next drive, the Hilltoppers drove 81 yards down the field and... fumbled again. Vanderbilt recovered.
  • In the third quarter, after a 13-play, 64-yard drive, Western Kentucky threw an interception when they had the ball at the Vanderbilt 11.
  • After a six-yard (!) punt by Vanderbilt, which gave the Hilltoppers possession at the Vanderbilt 16, Western missed a 25-yard field goal.
  • On its final drive of regulation, with a 21-17 lead, Western Kentucky went 70 yards in 6 plays, then effectively decided to settle for a field goal.
  • On 3rd-and-10 at the WKU 15, Vanderbilt got bailed out by a pass interference call in the end zone, and punched it in on the next play.
  • After scoring a touchdown in the first overtime, Western Kentucky went for 2 — and failed.

In the first four games of Vanderbilt’s season, Derek Mason’s strategy, such as it is, can probably be best described as avoiding mistakes and waiting for the other team to implode. That worked against Middle Tennessee, strangely didn’t work against a Will Muschamp-coached team, and failed miserably at Georgia Tech. On Saturday in Bowling Green, that strategy worked... by the narrowest of margins.

It’s honestly an odd strategy for a team that’s not actually undermanned compared to the four teams it’s played thus far, but it’s led to a 2-2 record. But you can argue accurately that Western Kentucky lost that game moreso than Vanderbilt won it. Yes, Vanderbilt made the plays they needed to win — but the fact that Vanderbilt was even in a position to win in the first place had to do with some ill-timed turnovers on Western Kentucky’s part as well as some, let’s come out and say it, boneheaded strategic decisions on the part of Jeff Brohm. Western Kentucky’s decision to play for a field goal (or, I guess, run some time the clock) on their last possession of regulation might have been defensible because of the relative unlikelihood of Vanderbilt scoring a touchdown to tie — with the way that Western was gashing the Vanderbilt defense all day, why not just punch it in the end zone and put an end to it? Why go for two in the first overtime when Vanderbilt’s offense is considerably more likely to fail to find the end zone in a subsequent overtime than Western’s is?

(Random aside. David Williams, if you’re reading this — whatever your opinions on our football coach are, if they’re changed significantly by whether a two-point conversion attempt fails or succeeds YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG.)

But still, even with a 2-2 record, there have been a lot of danger signs in the first four weeks. While the passing game is improving (more on that in a moment), the running game is pedestrian at best, and the defense has gotten gashed in three straight games and 5 of the last 6 going back to last season (and even South Carolina could make plays when they needed to.) Waiting around for the other guy to self-destruct might be a viable strategy against C-USA teams, but does anybody see this strategy working against SEC teams?

Stat of the Game

Vanderbilt was 8-for-16 on third down, and Western Kentucky was 3-for-12. Granted, the Hilltoppers were 2-for-3 on fourth down, but in spite of averaging 6.7 yards per play WKU somehow repeatedly came up short when they got to third down.

Vanderbilt Passing
Comp Att Yds YPC YPA TD INT Success Rate
Kyle Shurmur 18 29 279 15.5 9.6 1 1 40.6%

In the past couple of games, Kyle Shurmur had shown signs of emerging as a valuable efficiency quarterback; this week, he added big plays to that package. Averaging 9.6 yards per pass attempt — and 15.5 yards per completion! — is pretty damn solid, and the big plays did a lot to cancel out something of a decline in efficiency in the passing game compared to last week.

Vanderbilt Rushing
Rush Yds YPC TD Success Rate
Ralph Webb 27 95 3.5 3 44.4%
Khari Blasingame 6 19 3.2 0 50.0%
Kyle Shurmur 5 26 5.2 0 20.0%
Darrius Sims 1 -6 -6.0 0 0.0%

On the other hand... well... ew.

I like Ralph Webb and all, but 3.5 yards per carry just isn’t cutting it. Take away a 38-yard run, Webb’s only run of longer than 10 yards yesterday, and he ran for 57 yards on 26 carries for 2.2 yards per carry. That’s just ugly.

The flipside to that, of course, is that if this whole big-plays-in-the-passing-game isn’t just a one-time team, Webb will probably find more room to run as opposing defenses decide that they do, in fact, have to worry about giving up a 30-yard pass play. But right now... this just isn’t working.

Vanderbilt Receiving
Targets Catches Yards Catch % YPT YPC TD
C.J. Duncan 6 5 66 83.3% 11.0 13.2 0
Jared Pinkney 5 3 41 60.0% 8.2 13.7 0
Kalija Lipscomb 4 3 56 75.0% 14.0 18.7 0
Trent Sherfield 4 2 38 50.0% 9.5 19.0 0
Ralph Webb 3 2 4 66.7% 1.3 2.0 0
Nathan Marcus 2 1 5 50.0% 2.5 5.0 1
Caleb Scott 1 1 66 100.0% 66.0 66.0 0
Sam Dobbs 1 1 3 100.0% 3.0 3.0 0
Darrius Sims 1 0 0 0.0% 0.0 0

Fine day for the receiving corps. There were some big plays in the passing game (particularly on the last drive of regulation) and there weren’t the usual problems with drops. Also, welcome back C.J. Duncan!

In conclusion — a win’s a win. I’ll never complain about a win. But this shouldn’t be anything to get too excited about otherwise. If you told me in the preseason that Kyle Shurmur would be looking like this in Week 4, I’d be pretty damn positive about the season... but with how the defense and run game look right now, I’m still struggling to see this team winning too many more games this season. We’ll beat Tennessee State, and maybe we’ll beat Kentucky. Anything beyond that is probably going to qualify as an upset.