Another Top 5 opponent demolished our Commodores in Nashville. They also ran for a lot of yards. I vote we do not play anymore games against Top 5 teams. Thankfully, the rest of our schedule looks much less intimidating. Trial by fire may not be fun, but it can be educational. The problems against Georgia have spawned quite a bit of debate. Maybe re-watching the game and looking closely at some statistics can add to the conversations.
Lessons We Are Learning
We are going to get into specific issues that have reared their head this season, but most of them stem from trying to do too much. Listen carefully though because it is NOT related to being mentally weak or not understanding their assignment. Quite simply, guys are making just a few plays a game where they try to go beyond their ability. Watch Ralph Webb’s 3rd down run at the end of the second Vanderbilt drive. Webb tries to get all the way to the boundary to get a first down on 3rd and 3 in plus territory. At no point was there really a good hole, but he could have cut it up and at least gotten back to the LOS. 4th and a short 3 is probably a “go for it” situation but 4th and a long 4 was a punting situation. Later, Trent Sherfield takes a jet sweep to the right side on first down then, instead of following Nathan Marcus inside of a block and upfield for an almost guaranteed 1st down, tries to get all the way wide to hit the home run. A few plays later Webb again ignores a small crease between guard and tackle to get upfield only to go off tackle for only 2. On defense, we are all tired of seeing would-be tacklers try to strip the ball away while being carried downfield. Mason needs to make sure this team settles down and just plays within the schemes instead of trying to break games open on every play.
The struggling run defense has been one of the facets most obviously effected by failed strips. However, some mitigating factors keep this from being really solidified as bad going forward. The run defense has gotten enough scrutiny from everyone including myself. Most of the consternation is deserved. The yardage totals for the last three games have been 496, 218, and 423. No matter who you are playing or what talent gap they have those totals are hard to swallow. I did not go back to re-watch the Alabama game, but the prevailing issue in the Florida and Georgia games came down to tackling. Guys are, for the most part, hitting their assignments and filling gaps. The over-reaches to strip the ball instead of just getting a ball-carrier on the ground have already been discussed. These issues were exacerbated by the raw talent of the teams the last three weeks. Florida has backs with great athleticism, too, even if they cannot match Alabama or Georgia’s absolutely ridiculous stables. Mason touched on the ability to fix what ails the run defense. He had an interesting message, calling them “minor” before clarifying that while the issues are in the details and not big picture problems the mistakes being cleaned up are critical to success going forward. Coach is right. The technique issues are very fixable. With an Ole Miss team who are even less successful at running the ball than we are (2.88 yards per carry and 76.0 yards per game) before the bye week, incremental improvement should show up in Oxford before a big step forward can be made during the bye week.
Since I am already being optimistic, let’s keep going down that route. The Vanderbilt rushing attack has been consistently terrible. With averages of 2.0, 2.0, 2.5, 2.3, and 2.9 yards per carry in their games against FBS foes, running the ball has been an exercise in futility. A glimmer or two of hope did show up against Georgia. Webb was able to take the first play from scrimmage for 11 yards. A later driver-starting run went for 28. Some more runs were poor decisions on which hole to attack, and Ralph is smart enough to go see the tape and fix those mistakes. His vision was one of his best features in his first 3 years. The lack of running lanes early in the season has Webb looking for any chance for a big play, so the expectation is for him to settle down if gaps continue to become more plentiful. Logically, the remaining defenses will not be anywhere near any of the most recent 3 teams. The offensive line changes and natural growth within a season could give us just enough of a ground threat to open some space for Shurmur, finally. Oh, and Ole Miss is 122nd in FBS against the run because they allow 248.6 yards per game on the ground thanks to opposing ball carriers getting 5.57 yards per carry against them.
One reassurance has come out of the struggles to run the ball. Andy Ludwig had a reputation as being inflexible according to some folks, specifically those who watched his stint at Cal. The Vanderbilt edition of Ludwig does not seem married to one specific plan of attack. The offense will not be confused with a Chip Kelly, Gus Malzahn, or Mike Leach offense because it is very much a throwback when it comes to tight end usage and formations. A few 4-wide sets have shown up, but HBs and TEs are just as likely to be outside on empty sets as a true WR. We would all rather see Webb, Blasingame, and Wakefield running wild to go with Shurmur’s great play, but settling for learning that Ludwig may be evolving as an OC is encouraging. Even without a run game, Ludwig called a game that only included 2 3 and outs for the offense. Hopefully, the assessment of the rushing attack will come to fruition for Andy to go full-bore down the stretch.
Lessons We Know Well
Tommy Tuberville surprised us all by making one useful comment during the game. He said that Vanderbilt is a pass-heavy attack. Anyone who saw that coming pre-season is either from the future or a liar. Or maybe they watched the last few regular season games and drank all the Kyle Shurmur Kool-Aid. No disrespect to Kyle, who has proven himself to be a perfectly cromulent QB, but Ralph Webb is 5 yards from being the SEC’s 15th highest rusher by yardage. Common sense would be that he is the focal point for the 4th consecutive year, and the excitement was Shurmur being able to force teams to unstack the box or pay for it. The weekly QBR check reveals that Shurmur was 60th in FBS with a 53.8 QBR. Mediocrity is not inspiring, but mediocrity against a very good defense will earn a Total QBR of 80.1 which was good for 23rd in FBS. On the season, Kyle still sits at 11th in Total QBR and 27th in Raw QBR. That stat says that when we get to face a normal defense Shurmur will get back from mediocrity to the outstanding play we saw at the beginning of the year. Ole Miss, like Vanderbilt, has a good pass defense when it comes to raw yardage. They rank 46th with 207.6 passing yards allowed per game with each completion averaging 12.66 yards. The mouth starts to water at their yards per attempt against number. QBs average 7.36 yards per pass which is why the should-be Ackbars are 82nd (Vanderbilt is 15th) in passing efficiency defense. Basically, teams are not forcing Ole Miss to defend the pass often, but they are not particularly good at it when the ball is put in the air.
Lessons We Will Study Further
Will the offense find another gear against a statistically terrible Ole Miss defense? The Rebels allow 37.4 points per game which is 118th in FBS. Their yardage issues have already been described for each phase, but 110th in total defense is another promising number for Vanderbilt fans. Ludwig has some options in how he wants to attack Ole Miss, so it will be interesting to see if he wants to go with the strength of the team to get Kyle in a groove or try to exploit Ole Miss’s obvious weakness and get Webb, Blasingame, and company going. Expectations should be tempered slightly because Ole Miss SHOULD have the athletes to be better than the numbers say they are. Like us, they have faced some impressive offenses and are coming off consecutive games against Alabama and Auburn.
Can Shea Patterson be contained for a second year? The athletic QB has a penchant for extending plays then finding a man loose downfield. His QBR is surprisingly low with a 59.9 Raw QBR (67th) and 57.1 Total QBR (70th), and he has thrown 6 INTs in 5 games. A 66.3 completion percentage with 13 TDs shows how much a threat Patterson is. His WRs are an athletic group, too. The secondary will face their toughest test, and the pass rush will need to keep getting after the passer. Ole Miss has allowed 14 sacks on about 216 dropbacks. The rushers do need to avoid being too aggressive and letting Patterson escape to the edges to throw or run.
Where does the team go from 3-3 after starting 3-0? Mason is talking about this as a second season. A mirrored performance would meet the minimum plateau for a 2nd straight bowl appearance. However, the schedule is decidedly softer, so an extra win or two or three could happen. College athletics are known for the weirdness, though. Road games tend to cause wackiness, and the Commodores travel to Yavin-IV, the only Columbia in the SEC, and a city currently flooded with bricks.