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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: South Carolina

It is time for a reprieve from SEC games.

Vanderbilt v South Carolina Photo by Todd Bennett/GettyImages

The Gamecocks may call their pre-game show Space Odyssey 2001, but this game felt like a negative of 2016. A struggling unit had a much better showing yet made just a couple too many critical errors to get this team a victory. Meanwhile, the other side of the ball could not be quite effective enough to overcome the mistakes of the struggling unit. The deep dive might give us a little hope, especially since South Carolina is a better team than anyone else we have left on the schedule except maybe Kentucky.

Lessons We Are Learning

The offensive line had made Kyle Shurmur’s life hell in Oxford, but they kept the Gamecocks from getting too much penetration. They were not perfect and some pressure forced Kyle to throw off his back foot a few times, but they were not getting beat so much as pushed backwards. In pass protection, you would much rather have that than pass rushers finding ways to get to the QB. The bye week was clearly a benefit to the big guys. The run blocking was also improved. Continued offensive line improvement bodes well for the offense going forward.

Thanks to the improved blocking, the running attack may be turning a corner in the positive direction. The team only amassed 107 yards rushing, but we only ran the ball 23 times with one of those being Kyle Shurmur falling on a bad snap for a loss of 13. On the 22 true rushing attempts, we picked up 120 yards. Most offenses will take an average of 5.45 yards per carry. If you want to be negative and only look at conventional rushing plays and take out jet sweeps (and maybe a lateralled screen), the ball was handed off 19 times for 79 yards for a 4.1 average. Continuing to run the ball at that clip will give Andy Ludwig the balance he needs to keep defenses completely off balance. It should be noted that Ralph Webb left the game with in the first half while Blasingame had hurt his foot badly enough to go off on a cart to end the 2nd quarter. Khari returned for only one carry near the end of the 3rd quarter then left again.

The run defense even looked passable for most of the game. They had 5 or 6 breakdowns during the game. Obviously, 212 yards rushing against is not great, but their 5.7 average (6.2 with kneel downs removed) would be dropped significantly with just a few more plays. The bar is pretty low in that regard, but passable is much improved from totally useless. These guys need to keep going in the right direction and make leaps and bounds forward, not just incremental improvement. Western Kentucky is literally the worst rushing attack in the country at 83.3 yards per game. They also only average 2.56 yards per carry. If any improvement is being made, the Hilltoppers will go nowhere on the ground.

The pass defense also redeemed themselves well after a really poor showing against Ole Miss. It may be that the threat of Shea Patterson running disrupted our coverage packages, but the DBs acquitted themselves after a bad day in Oxford. Outside of Tarpley getting juked out of his jockstrap on SC’s 3rd TD, there were not too many bad coverages. Jake Bentley is just an efficient passer when he is playing well. Bentley was 19/29 but only amassed 174 yards passing with 36 coming on that aforementioned miss by Tarpley.

Lessons We Know Well

Kyle Shurmur continues to lead this team. The 27/49 effort yielded 333 yards. The numbers hide that Kyle actually had an off day. He threw an interception that was part of a trend. The Vanderbilt QB was throwing off his back foot a bit too much. Pressure forced it a few times, but he did it other times when it was not necessary. Back foot throws have a consistent effect on throws: high. That effect is precisely what led to a number of overthrows including the pass that was picked off. Gerry Gdowski will certainly work with Shurmur this week to prevent the habit from continuing. Kyle also made a few poor decisions while trying to force balls into coverage like the last 3rd down play where he went deep down the right side instead of the open man in the flat for a short 1st down. The good news is that that Western Kentucky averages only 0.75 sacks per game which is worst in FBS. The bad news is that WKU statistically has a very good passing defense, only allowing 182.3 yards per game on 6.13 yards per attempt for a defensive passing efficiency of 105.87 to rank 12th best in FBS. Vanderbilt’s passing attack is the most potent aerial attack WKU will have faced though.

Thankfully, the man in charge of Vanderbilt’s offense is doing a good job of using what he has at his disposal. One of the serious parts of that infamous “Ungunking the Sunshine Pump” series was how I viewed the offense’s chances to improve. Ludwig gets plenty of flak for being conservative, and he is at times. The game against South Carolina was anything but conservative with deep shots on 3rd downs to attack man coverage along with airing the ball out. When he lost his best 2 RBs and was forced to use the starting FB as our main ball carrier, Ludwig had to get creative. Dallas Rivers filled in admirably for Webb and Blasingame, and the playcalling was designed to take advantage of SC trying to figure out who to key on with those two out of the game. Starting RT Devin Cochran also went down in the 2nd quarter. Vanderbilt did not punt in the 2nd half. Two drives did stall on downs, but 214 yards of offense without 3 key pieces shows an ability to play to your roster’s strengths. Continuing to do so, along with a possibly resurgent rushing attack (if Webb and Blasingame can be healthy), could give us enough offense to find our way to 6 games.

Lessons We Will Study Further

Where did the discipline go? Even after a game where we gave up 100 yards on 10 penalties, the Dores are 43rd and 48th in the country on penalties and penalty yards per game respectively while averaging 5.63 penalties for 49.25 yards. We basically doubled our typical laundry count. Some of the calls were soft, but they don’t account for stupid fouls like shoving a punter, no matter how gently, after he has already kicked the ball away. The two illegal substitution flags were also incredibly disappointing since one was while lining up for a PAT and the other was coming out of a change of possession. The two targeting were questionable, but Jones did break the letter of the law even if it was a frustrating application due to the WR ducking while Wright earned 15 for roughing the passer but not the targeting. We did get away with a targeting that should have been called on Herndon for a Bentley slide where Herndon contacted Bentley’s head. These fouls kept drives going or stalled Vanderbilt drives. These are the things that cannot happen in #DeepWater if this team is going to be successful.

Can we finish down the stretch like last year? Last year, the last 4 games were at Auburn, at Missouri, hosting Ole Miss, and hosting THEM. This year, the stretch run is comprised of hosting three consecutive games against WKU, Kentucky, and Missouri, before traveling to the buttchugging capital of the world. We were 4-4 going into that run, so we are a game behind schedule. There was not an OOC opponent though, and both Tennessee and Missouri look to be the same as last year or worse. Kentucky has shown flashes of brilliance and impotence this season. Winning three of these four is not impossible. It will be tough, but we have the ability to do it..

Where have the tight ends gone? Pinkey in particular was a key target early in the season with 33, 51, and 41 yards in the first 3 games with 10 against Florida, 4 against Ole Miss, and 3 against South Carolina. The interesting part is that he was not being targeted often (only 3, 4, and 2 receptions in first 3), but his athleticism was used to attack down the field. Recent games have seen him limited to short routes. Marcus and Dobbs have never been targeted heavily, but they offer redzone and short yardage targets.

Extra Credit

Does Vandy really have as bad of a fan base as people say? Let’s have some fun by comparing ourselves to the other SEC team in the state. THEY have an undergraduate enrollment of 22,317 while Vanderbilt’s undergraduate population is 6,871. Ignoring the disparity in geographic location of graduates after they leave school and affiliation of satellite campus students who root for the main campus sports teams, UTK theoretically generates 3.25 new fans for every Vanderbilt graduate. Things get even more complicated when you consider that many students come to Vanderbilt with pre-existing fandoms. However, the raw numbers are not as ugly as one might think. Finding an estimate for Vanderbilt attendance is difficult since the crowd is often made up of many visiting fans. However, I think using 25,000 as our average contingent of black and gold at Dudley is fair, if not slightly negative. For UTK, I will be generous enough to say they fill Neyland every weekend and only have approximately 2,000 visiting fans, so they get credit for 100,000 butts in the seats. The easy math means there are 4 times as many Volunteer fans as Commodore fans. I am not saying fans who do not go to games do not count. Attendance is just an easy, quantified metric.

Using attendance compared to enrollment, UTK generates 3.25 more fans by attendance than Vanderbilt would, with the wild and inaccurate assumption of 100% student to fan conversion rate, and has 4 times as many actual fans. With all of the factors that Vanderbilt faces that make it harder for fans to attend games along with the myriad of other factors like poor on-field performance, existing fandom of alumnus, etc, it actually paints the Vanderbilt fan base in a much more positive light. What this means or if it is at all useful, I have no idea. It was just an interesting discussion had riding back from Columbia. Feel free to add your own thoughts since the football team is not always fun to discuss directly, and I know the method was extremely shoddy.