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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Kentucky

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Why can we never do things the easy way?

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Vanderbilt
We hate it just as much as you, Derek. Please fix it.
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The Commodores dove back into SEC play after a one-week respite against WKU. The other Kentucky football team on the schedule had a much better day against Vanderbilt. A number of self-inflicted wounds let what should have been a close game turn into a blowout. Vanderbilt’s offense did themselves no favors with 4 interceptions while the defense gave up too many explosive plays. One of those is very uncharacteristic while the other may have actually obscured some improvement. If you are looking for the doom-and-gloom lessons, your time will be spent looking elsewhere. I would implore you to stick around though because the points about to be made are not just hopes and prayers but possible signs of change. That change may be coming too late with only 2 games remaining and 2 wins needed for bowl eligibility.

Lessons We Are Learning

Allowing 5 sacks averaging 2.70 per game often points to a porous offensive line, but Vanderbilt’s offensive line actually had a decent day. Only one of those sacks occurred in the first half, and the other four all came while Kentucky held a 20-point or larger lead. Those situations, along with Ralph Webb being dinged up, dictated a predictable pass-heavy attack. Shurmur was not put under much pressure except for situations where everyone in the stadium knew he would be passing. The only recorded tackle for a loss came on a snap that was low and away from Shurmur that he just dove on to avoid a scramble. The line, outside of two bad snaps, did a pretty good job. If they can have another good showing against a Missouri defense that averages 2.7 sacks and 7.7 TFLs per game, the line may have earned a more solidified spot as decent but nothing special after a very poor start to the season.

In another category of total stats maybe not telling the whole story, the run defense may not be QUITE as porous as before. Do not start yelling at your computer screen how big of an idiot you think I am just yet. The Wildcats ran for 232 yards on 47 carries. The 4.9 yards per carry is on part with a tie for 30th best FBS rushing attack, so in the bottom 90s for the rush defense. However, 124 of those yards showed on 6 runs. Half of their yardage came on just over twelve percent of their carries. In fact, an equal number of runs went for a loss yardage as those who went for 10 or more yards, the threshold used to find that 6 carries accounted for 124 yards. The defense still has to clean up those critical errors, but the majority of plays were actually good with the other 41 rushing attempts netting 2.35 yards per carry. A statistic like that sounds a lot like what we saw from the 2016 offense where it started atrociously then played mostly okay with some crucial errors before finally exploding for the last two games. The final product defensively needs to show up just as explosively over the next two games because Missouri is actually 38th in FBS with 195.6 yards per game rushing.

Lessons We Know Well

Kyle Shurmur is not yet good enough to win games on his own. The junior quarterback may have tried too hard to do just that in a doomed effort. He is credited with 4 interceptions and an atrocious QBR of 7.5. The positive part of the stat line is going 30 of 43 for 308 yards. Shurmur also really owns blame for 2 of the 4 interceptions, including the one with 0:22 seconds left in the game while he was trying to salvage anything to improve the scoreboard. The first picked off pass was tipped straight into the air at the line of scrimmage due to a blocker allowing Denzel Ware to keep him at arm’s length, freeing Ware to jump and block the pass. The 2nd was an underthrown route down the sideline to Shurmur’s left that allowed the safety to step over and snag the pass. The 3rd came on the very next offensive snap for Vanderbilt when CJ Duncan tipped a pass up perfectly into Mike Edwards’s waiting arms. The last one was the desperation effort to get another score before the final whistle blew. It was not Kyle’s best outing of the year, but he needed some help once the ball left his hand…or a healthy Ralph Webb.

Speaking of Ralph, he gets to go here. The performance this season may not have been great, but we all know Ralph is a great RB. He had 70 yards on 9 carries with 17 yards on 3 receptions on top. Webb is struggling with an injury, or he would have been able to help Shurms. Vanderbilt’s leading rusher has been at his best in recent games. Webb getting healthier and adding a big rushing punch to Shurmur’s existing passing prowess could help us struggle to 6 wins.

Lessons We Will Study Further

Why do people still want to fire Andy Ludwig? The offense has not been the problem this season. They have been mostly effective. The Commodores may not be lighting up scoreboards for 35 points per game. They have averaged 23.6 points per game this season. That includes efforts in futility against Alabama and Georgia, where 14 points actually did not hurt the average too badly. Overall, the offense has held up their end of the bargain, but they have been asked to do too much by a massively disappointing defense. Against Kentucky, the offense had the ball 5 times in the second half and mustered two TD drives and another that resulted in an INT at the Kentucky 2. Ludwig is not the best OC in the country, but his style of offense matches what Mason wants and should complement a Mason defense when that defense lives up to the typical Mason standards.

What happened Khari Blasingame? Seriously, I missed the injury report on him. I know he got hurt against South Carolina, but will he be back soon? Both him and Webb being hurt is really bad. Vanderbilt’s RB room is talented, but our third option is not good enough yet to be the main option.

Will the 2017 Commodores replicate the 2016 Commodores finish? Last year, we lost a very winnable game at Missouri and needed to win the final 2 games against a surging Ole Miss and SEC East contender Tennessee. This year, we lost a very winnable game against Kentucky and need defeat skyrocketing Missouri and struggling Tennessee. Missouri has become a somewhat scary opponent, but their recent resurgence has come against teams that either had or have since fired their head coaches along with Connecticut and Idaho. The Vawwwls may have fired Vandy fans favorite coach since WWII, but the mess he has left behind should be beatable with Michigan-flop Brady Hoke at the helm, even with the game at Neyland.

Am I crazy? Am I pulling at straws to find anything to be optimistic about? I probably am. The 2017 Vanderbilt Commodores are really struggling. They have fell well short of optimistic goals set before the season. The worst-case scenarios have not come to pass as we went 4-0 in out-of-conference games, but the winless conference slate has been a gut punch. My personal struggle with believing in what I have written is why the article is a day later than usual. I had to watch and re-watch the parts of the Kentucky game that I wanted to point out as outliers or circumstantial. The optimistic tone alone was something I questioned a few times.

Poll

Do you have any shred of optimism left?

This poll is closed

  • 37%
    No. Don’t try to make me feel any.
    (30 votes)
  • 29%
    YES! If by "optimism," you mean alcohol!
    (23 votes)
  • 26%
    Sure. Why not?
    (21 votes)
  • 6%
    Absolutely! I am now convinced we are going bowling!
    (5 votes)
79 votes total Vote Now