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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Western Kentucky

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Was that really Vanderbilt football doing those un-Vanderbilt things?

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Western Kentucky
Back to .500!
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

With my reputation as one of the most optimistic on AoG, it could be assumed this week’s article is easy to write. The nature of the win makes it infuriatingly difficult. It has nothing to do with who Vanderbilt beat either. My whole premise is that each game is a learning experience. How am I supposed to approach a game that challenged literally everything we know about Vanderbilt football? Should I just tear back all the things that myself and others thought to be true?

The simple answer is that is NOT what I will do. Each game is one data point. A good scientist will not scrap all previous research due to any single result because outliers do occur. There are too many variables for me to take this game as proof that everything else is wrong. Some trends are developing though that do challenge assumptions I made in previous articles.

Lessons We Are Learning

First and foremost, this defense is at least different than last year’s unit. Last year’s defense smothered basically everyone we played and held multiple opponents to season lows in points scored and/or yardage. The 2016 defense does not appear capable of similar shutdown performances. If they are, it has not been shown yet. However, when they do give up yards, they are forcing turnovers at a very high rate. The 2015 defense forced 17 turnovers over the course of the season with 4 of them coming against the next opponent, Florida. Through one-third of the schedule, the 2016 defense has forced 8 turnovers already. Both units showed their mettle in the Red Zone though. Only 71.4% of opponents’ drives into that territory last year were converted into points with an astounding 38.8% of all red zone attempts resulting in a TD. This year’s group is allowing scoring at a better clip (64.7%) but more of those scores are TDs (58.8% of all attempts). Oh, and in case your rage had finally faded, they should be even better since a lateral returned for a TD against WKU was WRONGLY overturned and then punched into the end zone by the Hilltoppers.

Speaking of red zone efficiency, the offense leads the country. They are part of a 14-team club that has gotten points from every trip inside the 20-yard line this season. They are not settling for FGs very often either with only 3 of 15 attempts not ending with 6 points. The drastic improvement from last year’s putrid conversion rate of 66.7% with only 45.4% of their red zone tries finding paydirt. Hopefully, that prowess in the dangerous areas can be on display again this week.

A mainstay in this section is Kyle Shurmur. He earned his place for the 3rd straight edition. His career day against WKU dragged the team back to a win in Bowling Green. Shurmur went 18/29 with a TD and an INT. This is the second where he has thrown a pick, so that trend needs to end. Florida will definitely make him pay for bad decisions or poor throws. The interception was really the only bad decision he made against WKU. A few other throws sailed on him, but none of them were really in danger of having Western snag them. His composure on the final drive and in OT showed a level of maturity that will need to be present for every single snap this Saturday.

Lessons We Know Well

I did say that I am not scrapping everything that had already been established. However, this game did nothing to really confirm things I thought were sure things. The only thing that I am 100% sure of is that this team is 2-2, but they could finish anywhere from 3-9 to who knows what. Florida was hilariously bad in the second half against THEM. THEY were awful in the first half against the Gators but then played up to every expectation in the second half. Georgia got abused by Ole Miss. Missouri is scoring at will against teams that might as well be for the deaf and the blind for football purposes. Basically, every other team on our schedule is trying to have as many personalities as our Commodores.

Lessons to Learn

The biggest key to this team now shifts to the offensive line. They had only allowed 2 sacks prior to WKU. They allowed 3 against the Hilltoppers. Western Kentucky is far from the best front 7 they will face this year. However, I have to credit the DC at WKU for dialing up some creative blitz packages. There were a lot of 5- and 6-man fronts with movement to make it hard to determine who was blitzing and who would drop into coverage. One of the sacks came on a safety blitz that had 6-men rushing with 2 linebackers in a “spy” or some sort of tight zone coverage near enough the line of scrimmage that linemen had to account for them in their pass protection. That confusion left the safety free to fly in and take down Shurmur. Those guys have some film of themselves to look at and learn from now, so hopefully the blitz pickups are better against a Gator defense that will be a much more daunting task.

A close second to the offensive line is the growth of the receiving corps. The pass-catchers stepped up on those well-documented last two drives. Jared Pinkney had 3 catches. Trent Sherfield had a catch and was interfered with once. Lipscomb showed up for an important snag on the tying drive too. Vanderbilt’s final offensive play of the game also let someone redeem himself. Thanks to Zac Ellis at vucommodores.com, Nathan Marcus’s personal revenge was brought to my attention. Marcus was stopped on the would-be tying 2-point conversion at the end of the 2015 Vanderbilt-WKU football game. He had also dropped a fairly easy toss in the end zone that led to Johnny McCrary throwing one of his two end zone interceptions in that game. Marcus redeemed himself by catching the OT TD pass from Shurmur on 3rd and goal from the 5-yard line. For the game as a whole, 8 players caught a pass. Spreading the ball around can keep the defense from keying on any one receiver and give all of them a chance to find some space.

In the most bizarre part of the game, Vanderbilt actually looked adversity in the face and fought to victory. They may not have played the game they were capable of playing for 60 minutes. The result, no matter what Kentucky’s governor Matt Bevin OR the ESPN app say, was a Commodore victory. Our team went on the road and not only covered 75 yards in one minute and two seconds to tie the game as regulation time expired but then followed that with a TD drive in OT instead of doing something totally Vanderbilt like having to settle for a FG in OT. Then it all looked like it might be lost again as the defense slipped up and let WKU score very quickly on their OT possession. To make matter’s worse, Jeff Brohm saw his chance to beat Vanderbilt for the second time on a 2-point conversion. This time though, his squad would be scoring one instead of stopping a Commodore attempt. Even I was preparing to start swearing up and down about how this team cannot catch a break, much less create its own breaks. Then Mike White’s pass attempt was deflected high into the air and hauled in by Ryan White. Somehow, some way, the Commodores had found a way to deny their opponents. In the exact opposite circumstances of the SC game to start the year, Vanderbilt snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

Do not discount what a result like that can do for a team. Even more than whether this team can repeat some late-game heroics, I want to know whether they can respond to such a feat appropriately. They have to take on a Florida team that could very motivated and pissed off after their second half defeat to THEM. Will Vanderbilt come out just as ready to go? Will they be content with a win over Western Kentucky or will we see a team that is ready to be more than any Derek Mason team before it?

Extra Credit

I was asked by AoG user srshouse to take a special look at the final offensive play of the game. The request particularly wanted some discussion of the offensive line’s splits. However, I want to start with the tying TD to end regulation. I was somewhat critical of the offensive line already. When it mattered though, they got it done. On Webb’s dive, one defender did submarine through to make Webb have to leap from about the 3-and-a-half-yard line. Every other defensive player was blasted back the 2+ yards necessary to push all of them into the end zone to let Ralph fly unimpeded across the plane.

As for the final play, I have to admit that nuances of offensive line play such as pre-snap splits are not my forte. However, on that play, the splits, especially on the right side of the line, are quite wide. From center to guard, it was probably a little over 2 feet. From guard to tackle, there is about a foot and a half. One benefit of this is to create clearer passing lanes when the ball is going to come out quickly. By setting wider than normal, Skule at tackle is going to force any edge rusher extra wide. No one rushed from that side though, so Reagan at guard actually forced the man rushing over him wide to Skule. This opened an interstate highway-sized lane for Shurmur to stare down to see Nathan Marcus. The design of the blocking scheme, along with some luck about WKU only bringing 4 pass rushers and where they came from, allowed Kyle to throw the ball low enough for Nathan to use his body to protect the pass from any defender’s attempts to break it up along with letting him catch it and go to the ground quickly to prevent a big hit from dislodging the ball. I hope this answers what you wanted to know, srshouse.