The Vanderbilt Commodores faced task number one in their two-stage conquering of Kentucky and won. Like many SEC teams facing lesser competition before them, the Commodores had a mediocre first half. A halftime tie was only avoided thanks to Trey Ellis’s awesome tip-drill TD reception. The win may not have been quite as dominating or impressive as we hoped, but the victory never really felt in doubt. A 14-point margin of victory did not meet expectations. A few things could be learned from a somewhat lackluster performance though.
Lessons We Are Learning
Cameron Norcross has struggled to field a unit capable both run and pass blocking. An outmanned Western Kentucky DL thankfully struggled. Our big men up front allowed 1 sack and 3 negative rushing plays. The offensive line was able to get an appropriate amount of push on most runs, too. Compared to efforts against MTSU and Alabama A&M, the running lanes were bigger and yards before first contact were more readily available. Shurmur was also given clean pockets with plenty of time to fire the ball downfield. The upcoming Kentucky Wildcats will be a much stronger test as they average 2.44 sacks per game (tied for 32nd for FBS with teams including Ole Miss so this could be interesting) and 5.4 tackles for loss (81st in FBS). This game was the second straight good performance for the line as South Carolina only managed 1 sack and 1 TFL. This improvement continuing will be key to finding at least 2 wins out of the next 3.
In the battle of the resistable force and the movable object, Vanderbilt’s rush defense showed that they may be tired of getting pushed around. The official stats have WKU as losing 6 yards rushing for the entire game. In reality, WKU managed to eke out approximately 31 yards on the ground since 37 of the lost yards were due to sacks that the NCAA counts towards rushing stats. The Hilltoppers were the worst rushing offense in the country before the game, and we held them well below half of their normal production, so that maybe some slight glimmer of hope. The lesson here is not that our rush defense might be really good but that it may not suck anymore. The Wildcat rushing attack averages 161.4 yards per game which is good for 67th in FBS and is more than double what WKU was averaging. They are led by Benny Snell Jr, who plays a lot like Ralph Webb with an extra 30 pounds. Snell may not have great breakaway speed, but he runs with excellent vision and drives through contact. The defensive line and linebackers need to get him down or our safeties could find themselves on the train tracks going the wrong way.
Speaking of defense, the pass defense had some struggles with the spread attack Mike White commanded to 324 yards through the air with Drew Eckels deputizing for another 6. A big part of the allowed yardage was a reversion to the bend-but-don’t-break defense identity from last year. To protect the lead and prevent WKU from creating too many big plays, corners were playing soft coverage. Mason also limited the number of blitzes to help put more bodies into coverage. The bright spot is that Charles Wright and company found their way to WKU QBs 6 times. Vanderbilt has now sacked opposing QBs 23 times on the season which dwarfs their total of 15 from 2016. Wright also leads the SEC, a league noted for elite pass-rushers, with 9 grocery trips. The fun part is how many other guys have contributed. Dare Odeyingbo has the second most with 3.5 sacks. Emmanuel Smith (1.5), Josh Smith (2.0), and Dayo Odeyingbo are the only others with multiple sacks or enough partials to have more than 1. All told, 11 different Commodores have been involved with taking down an opposing QB. Fun fact: The number of Vanderbilt players with a sack is equal to the total sacks allowed by Vanderbilt.
Lessons We Know Well
Kyle Shurmur is still really good. Gunslinger Kyle Shurmur was replaced by Game Manager Kyler Shurmur, resulting in going 14/21 for 220 and 2 TDs. The 92.0 RAW QBR (11th in FBS) and 84.3 Total QBR (20th) helped his season totals to have Shurms at 70.6 RAW (30th) and 72.8 Total (25th) QBRs for the season. Is there really anything else to say about the quarterback this season? It feels a bit like talking about Ralph Webb last season. Shoutout to Webb for a decent showing against Western Kentucky, too!
If you are not a fan of offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, this game certainly did not help. Last Saturday only served to emphasize the one, sometimes glaring, weakness Ludwig has had for most of his career. Ludwig’s two reputations are that he can work some magic as a “mad scientist” and that his playcalling can be astoundingly bland, conservative, and predictable. Somehow, those seemingly opposite tendencies manage to be true. The real truth is that Andy Ludwig often has too much faith in his basic offensive sets to be successful against competition like MTSU or WKU. Then, against a team like South Carolina, Auburn in 2016, or other strong opposition, the offensive wizardry comes into play. We did run 4 jet sweep or end-around plays against WKU, but the screen passes, inventive play-action passes, and other tricky concepts were minimally or not employed. Even as one of Ludwig’s biggest fan, the first half sluggishness was followed a second half clearly not intending to step on the Hilltopper’s throat and get the reserves into the game with a big lead. The good news is that we saw the famous Sneaky Pete play the last time Kentucky came to Vanderbilt Stadium, and the “must-win” nature of the game should pull more tricks from the bag. The playcalling was dynamite against Auburn, Missouri, Ole Miss, and THEM last season. Auburn had a great defense that stymied most drives after a first down or two, and the execution was atrocious against Missouri. The last two games showed what happens when this offense is at its best with players executing while Ludwig goes for broke.
Lessons We Will Study Further
Will Bryce Lewis exact his revenge on the state of Kentucky? Lewis had a bit of a rough outing, especially in the first half, against WKU. Three of the longest passing plays went to Lewis’s assignment, including the double pass that had Mason very upset. Hopefully #30 can avoid the big mistakes because the Commodores will need to play very well to overcome the Wildcats.
Will the 2017 Commodores find their first SEC win? Vanderbilt has struggled in conference play and are 0-5. The final three games on the slate are against conference foes. Winning all to finish 3-5 would put a really positive finish on a somewhat disappointing season.
Will Derek Mason and company continue the trend of making it hard for me to find interesting things to talk about? The good news is Vanderbilt teams under Mason have managed to improve as each season goes along. New weaknesses do not spring up to learn about. These teams just slowly and surely figure out their issues and get better, which does not necessarily make for big talking points either. The bad news is that the Vanderbilt faithful are then looking back at weaker opponents they would have almost surely beaten had they faced them late in the season.