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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Ole Miss

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Derek Mason forgot to bring the scuba tanks, and the Landsharks devoured plenty of Commodore optimism along with Kyle Shurmur.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Mississippi Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

The losing streak continued. Ole Miss won by 22 while scoring 57. It was painful. The game was also rather enigmatic. Plenty of trends from the previous losses were eschewed for new failures. The learning experience was enough to make a man want to drink himself into oblivion while watching awful Pac-12 football. My commitment to exercises in futility means that I am revisiting the game for the full learning experience, too. As a bonus, I am also getting studio update reminders of the Auburn Tigers totally collapsing against LSU after a 17-0 lead.

Lessons We Are Learning

After game 7 of 12 in the regular season, this team’s identity seems fairly solidified. As such, lessons we are still learning are essentially nonexistent. All but one of the things seen in this game either confirmed what had already been seen or were such an aberration that declaring anything based on one game would be foolish. The one factor? Sam Loy. Loy had punts of 42, 32, 35, and 46 yards. The shortest kick was the only one not to be downed, and it went out-of-bounds. None of them ended inside of the Ole Miss 25-yard line either, so they were not placement kicks to prevent a touchback. I have been defending Loy and pointing out that his kicks have been shorter but unreturnable. Losing some distance to prevent a return is acceptable to a point, but half of your kicks being 35 or less net is not a recipe for success. Loy needs to find more consistency.

Lessons We Know Well

Since my reputation here is as the eternal optimist, the reminders of what we know well start with Kyle Shurmur. The stats were pretty bad against Ole Miss. No sugar-coating will be applied. The reality is Shurmur had an awful day. However, a second bad performance out of seven should not shake anyone’s confidence in Kyle. The only concern should be the OL’s atrocious pass protection. Shurmur’s Total QBR for the season is still 70.6 which ranks him 28th in the country. His ball-security was problematic against the Rebels, but he has been very secure so far this season. In fact, Shurmur’s interception was only his second of the season and first where it did not tip off a receiver’s hands first. Kyle will want to respond well with the full two weeks to prepare for Will Muschamp’s Gamecock defense.

Bluntly, the run defense is killing us. Mississippi sprinted their way to 252 rushing yards. That breakout performance managed to raise their average to 112.1 from 76.0. To me, this performance is probably the worst of the bunch. Guys were not only missing tackles, but they were being blown off the ball and not setting the edge. Assignments were consistently blown. Going into South Carolina, the team is out of excuses. They should be well-rested after the bye week. The defenders get no reprieve here though. They are not doing their job against the run. If they fix it against a very poor (118th in the country with 110.9 ypg) Gamecock rushing attack, the case might be reopened on them. My faith in that is lacking, but improving from useless to weakness would be helpful.

Overall, we must accept that the improvements offensively have not been able to keep up with the off-the-cliff decline of the defense. The 3-4 record is exactly where the team was after 7 games last year, but we had already beaten UGA. The biggest difference is that a strong defense had us believing that we could stay in any game. Any sort of offensive competence would be enough to start winning some ballgames. The offense is not prolific enough that any amount of defense will be enough. Defensive improvements need to be significant.

Lessons We Will Study Further

Was the rushing attack a one-hit wonder thanks to facing a bad Rebel defense? Ole Miss is the 126th “best” rushing defense. Will Muschamp has the Gamecocks at 43rd and only allowing 142.0 yards on the ground. Another big day from Webb and his backfield battery mates would be a sign of real improvement. Their yardage numbers were held down more by Vanderbilt trailing than anything Ole Miss did on defense because Webb averaged 7.1 yards per carry while Blasingame moved 26 yards on 6 carries.

Was the total failure of the pass blocking a fluke or harbinger of pain for Kyle Shurmur? Ole Miss was struggling to get after opposing passers before we waved them right through to our backfield. The offensive line has been shifted a bit to hopefully open more running lanes, so the new alignment may not be as proficient at pass blocking. Most linemen are more proficient at one skill or the other. The trade-off cannot continue like it did in Oxford. The bye week better be enough to sort things out, or more sack-fumbles and debilitating hits will be in Kyle Shurmur’s future. He has been too effective when given time to let him be hammered repeatedly.

Has the pass defense been exposed now? We were 15th in passing efficiency defense before the game then fell all the way to 53rd. The raw yards per game totals are still good (11th), but that efficiency number is very concerning. Shea Patterson torched us by going 22/35 for 351 yards and 4 TDs. Blown coverages helped Patterson find targets numerous times including a WIDE open DaMarkus Lodge for a 35-yard TD to tie the game at 14. The hope is that these mistakes were also rectified during the off week while also being a product of schematic changes designed to contain Shea Patterson’s dual-threat ability.

Will we see the same bye week boost as last season? The 2016 Commodores came out of the bye week and took a very good Auburn team to the brink in Jordan-Hare Stadium. Critical mistakes doomed them against Missourah before breakout performances against Ole Miss and THEM got the Commodores to 6-6 and sent the team bowling the conventional way. The 2017 Commodores have the reverse problems of the 2016 version. The run defense and offense are the question marks while the passing attack has been mostly effective. Continued, glaring problems will remove almost all hope, and hope for improvement is just about all there is left. Those continued struggles would also help me learn exactly where my alcohol tolerance limit is for the remainder of football Saturdays.