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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Alabama A&M

Football awards no bonus points for quality of band, so the 42-0 shutout stands as played on the field!

NCAA Football: Alabama A&M at Vanderbilt
Kyle Shurmur’s back-shoulder TD pass to Jared Pinkney exemplified the offense’s growth.
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Week Two of Vanderbilt football ended with the same result as Week One. Alabama A&M was not nearly the competition of MTSU, but Vanderbilt did exactly what a quality team should do when faced with this level of competition. That ability to handle business the way it should be handled is not something the Vanderbilt faithful has witnessed on West End. A 42-0 shutout where the starters were mostly pulled with just a little over 4 minutes left in the 3rd quarter is just what the doctor ordered before a stretch of the schedule that will really test how far this team will go. Maybe there are a few things to learn from this game though.

Lessons We Are Learning

Derek Mason has now moved himself within one win of convincing me that he has done the right things this offseason to get the team ready for success this year. As stated when this series was started, the issues here will most self-contained to the season. The debate of whether Mason is going to bring long-term, sustainable success to Vanderbilt is a much bigger topic. As it is, Derek Mason has coached this team through two games where they have met expectations. An argument could even be made that the MTSU win exceeded expectations if Vanderbilt was seen as a borderline 6-6 team. No matter the opposition, Mason’s defense has only allowed 2 3rd down conversions of a possible 26 attempts. The team has also only surrendered one TD (which the record should show was assisted by a phantom defensive pass interference). The Commodores, particularly the defense, have done little to nothing wrong so far, so Mason deserves some praise for getting his team ready to go from the get go, both the season and each game. To that point, the Dores have garnered 14-0 leads from the first two sets of possessions in both games.

The defense does deserve some credit, even against a team that only managed 7 points against a returning UAB team. Shutouts are rare. Vanderbilt had not had one since November 3, 2012 against Kentucky. Shutouts are not just about out-matching an opponent either. To hold a team to zero points in modern college football is mostly about something Mason loves to talk about – straining to finish. Teams often give up points in garbage time against inferior opponents after the 2nd and 3rd stringers are in the game. Those backups are still typically better than whoever they are facing but lapses in concentration and effort can lead to points for the other team. The Bulldogs only earned 25 yards in the 4th quarter when the Commodores reserves were getting to play against Alabama A&M’s starters. Another pretty impressive statistic is that only ONE A&M possession ended on the Vanderbilt end of the field when the opposition got to the Vanderbilt 48 before being intercepted. That was also the only play the Bulldogs ran in plus territory, so the game was truly the definition of domination. The results may not be QUITE this emphatic in the future, but if the quality of play continues, very few teams will have good days against Vanderbilt.

Moving across the line of scrimmage, Kyle Shurmur kept his incredible season going. He maintained his place atop ESPN’s Raw QBR and Total QBR ratings with scores of 98.6 and 97.7, respectively on the season. His Raw QBR was an absurd 98.9, but the weakness of opposition drug the Total QBR score down to 97.1. The most impressive statistic of all came from a SEC Now segment about Shurmur’s impressive start. It was revealed that in Shurmur’s first 2 seasons at Vanderbilt, his Total QBR against the blitz was an atrocious 16.7. In that same column this year, he rates out to a 99.7. Remember, these scores are on a 0-100 scale. I do not care who are playing. A 99.7 out of 100 against the blitz is just stupid good. Shurmur must prove himself against a better pass rush and coverage this weekend, so if he keeps up any semblance of this play, the Commodores will be giving defenses fits.

The man in charge of ensuring that Shurmur continues to succeed by finding the balance, formations, and plays that will move the ball best is Andy Ludwig. Vanderbilt’s offensive coordinator is in a position that he has not experienced since 2008 at Utah where he is in his 3rd season with the same team. Two year stops at Cal, San Diego State, and Wisconsin preceded his appearance in Nashville. Interestingly, Ludwig had accepted the Kansas State OC job after the 2008 season, but he ended up taking the job at Cal only two months later. Week one of his 3rd season on the West End started with a great first half before some questions came up about play calls that seemed excessively conservative. Chiefly, the offense looked a lot like the one that sputtered to start the season a year ago, even though it was executed much better. This game took a big step to allay fears of going away from the things that worked to end the 2016 season. The first two drives were beautiful examples of what Andy Ludwig does really well and what this offense can do really well. The biggest trick that Andy likes to use is his personnel’s versatility. There were times where we had 22 personnel (2 RBs and 2 TEs) and went with an empty set. We had one in-line TE with a WR, 2 RBs, and a TE all spread wide. This alignment forces defenses to keep base defenses on the field then pulls LBs into very uncomfortable positions in space. The motions and jet sweep actions also serve to keep defenses on their toes because putting a fake on tape means opposing defenses have to be aware the actual play may be waiting in the wings to catch them napping. All in all, it looks like Andy may be back to what let the offense explode down the stretch, and the players appear to be executing better, especially in the passing game.

Lessons We Know Well

For the second week, there is nothing to put here. As stated, Vanderbilt won the way they were supposed to win. Nothing stood out except for Shurmur’s QBR. There should be a lot of questions answered and topics solidified next week, so stay tuned! Or I might have to dig myself out of a hole or two.

Lessons We Will Study Further

Has the offensive line regressed or was it mostly due to MTSU’s scheme to crash the box? Wait, we played Alabama A&M, so maybe this question does not apply. A review of the tape reveals that the same question stands. The rushing attack was better. Rushing plays averaged 5 YPC this week instead of 2.65 last week, but the competition was much weaker. Now is not the time to panic. Eight-man boxes are hard to run against. They are however fairly easy to throw against, and our man behind center is pretty efficient right now. The safeties and linebackers are going to be forced to back up a step or three and be more coverage-minded, or Kyle Shurmur will continue to decimate them. When that happens, the line can reasonably be expected to open some holes and let Ralph Webb, Khari Blasingame, Jamauri Wakefield, and whoever else totes the rock go get some good positive yardage. Like Derek Mason said mid-week, it is not our job to convince teams that they need to stop selling out for the run. When they do, Ludwig should be ready for them though.

How good is the depth on offense for this team? For the third week, the same question remains. Our 3rd string HB took 15 carries for 35 yards, so that was decent. The offensive line saw a fair bit of shifting but did turn into Swiss cheese. The second-string defense allowed 25 yards on 5 drives with a lot of them seeing action much earlier, including Dayo Odeyingbo’s interception where the true freshman defensive lineman batted the ball up into the air then “caught” (replay was inconclusive) it himself. To top it all off, THREE QBs played, and no one called for Mason and/or Ludwig to be tied to an anchor and dropped into the Cumberland! All of this occurred against a below average FCS team, so expectations should be tempered for those depth guys. For the most part, guys did what was expected. The only negatives were some dropped balls by guys like Sam Dobbs and Jaire George that dampened Deuce Wallace’s debut.

What does the team do with a bright start? Well, I went three for three on recycled study questions. The team moved to 2-0 and is even 24th in the country on Adam Zucker’s AP poll ballot. I have no idea what the significance of that may be, but it sounds like a good thing. What we all should know is that a 3rd consecutive win would catch the eye of every team on Vanderbilt’s schedule. Sure, Alabama is still mostly a hope and a prayer unless we repeat the 42-0 victory against KSU, but beating the Fighting Bill Snyders will firmly place every other game on Vanderbilt’s schedule in the winnable category. Where things go from this will be learned along the way.