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Vanderbilt 14, Kansas State 7: This is the type of game Vanderbilt used to lose

Woody Widenhofer would have lost this game and we damn well know it.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports
Plays 53 63
Total Yards 274 277
Yards Per Play 5.17 4.40
Rushing Attempts 29 33
Rushing Yards 71 206
Rushing YPP 2.45 6.24
Passing Attempts 24 30
Passing Yards 203 71
Passing YPP 8.46 2.37
Rushing Success Rate 20.69% 45.45%
Passing Success Rate 45.83% 20.00%
Success Rate 32.08% 33.33%
Avg. Field Position 28.1 31.0
PP40 3.5 2.3
Turnovers 1 2

The Five Factors box score tells us that Saturday night’s game was incredibly evenly matched. Vanderbilt had a slight advantage in yards per play, was slightly better at finishing drives, and won the turnover battle by one. Kansas State had a slight edge in success rate (look at the mirror images in yards per play and success rate — Vanderbilt couldn’t run the ball but had a lot of success through the air, while Kansas State was very much the reverse) and a somewhat larger advantage in field position.

A game like that was bound to come down to a few plays, and let’s be clear: Kansas State made some mistakes. The Wildcats had a scoop and score overturned on (an admittedly questionable) replay review, had a punt return touchdown called back on (a completely legitimate) block in the back, missed a field goal, and gave Vanderbilt great starting field position after throwing two interceptions — though Vanderbilt coughed up one of those opportunities on a Ralph Webb fumble. Otherwise, Vanderbilt lost the field position battle pretty badly, with Sam Loy having an iffy night (to put it charitably) while Kansas State’s punter repeatedly pinned Vanderbilt deep.

Of course, Vanderbilt’s first touchdown drive of the night came on a 13-play, 84-yard drive that drained seven minutes off the clock. More generally, though, we’ve certainly seen plenty of bad Vanderbilt teams in the past. But even when Vanderbilt was relatively evenly matched, things frequently didn’t go their way. (Looking at you, Woody Widenhofer.) So the real takeaway here, aside from the fact that Vanderbilt was roughly equal to the #18 team in the country (which seems pretty damn important), is that Vanderbilt took advantage of the opportunity instead of blowing it.

Hey, that’s something.

Passing Comp Att Comp % Yds TD INT Sacks Yds Lost Net Yds Success Rate YPP
Kyle Shurmur 14 23 60.87% 205 1 0 1 2 203 45.83% 8.5

Kyle Shurmur looked great through the first two games of the season, but that was against bad competition. Against Kansas State, Shurmur went from great to merely good. Still, a 61 percent completion rate and 8.5 yards per play are going to be good enough to win most games.

Rushing Att Yds YPA TD Success Rate
Ralph Webb 21 47 2.2 0 9.52%
Sam Dobbs 1 10 10.0 0 100.00%
Khari Blasingame 5 7 1.4 0 20.00%
Kalija Lipscomb 1 5 5.0 0 100.00%
Kyle Shurmur 1 2 2.0 1 100.00%

The elephant in the room, though, is that for the third game in a row, Vanderbilt struggled to move the ball on the ground. In fact, if you just highlight Vanderbilt’s running backs, this looks even uglier: Commodore running backs combined for 2.1 yards per carry and an ugly 11.5% success rate. When the longest running play of the night is a 10-yard jet sweep by a tight end, you have... issues.

That said, if we were struggling on the ground against MTSU and even Alabama A&M, it’s probably not news that we were going to struggle in that department against an actual good team. Just what the hell is going on with the running game? And why does Andy Ludwig insist on running the ball so much when it’s not going anywhere?

Receiving Targets Catches Yds TD Catch Rate Yds/Target Yds/Catch Success Rate
Trent Sherfield 5 4 97 0 80.00% 19.4 24.3 80.00%
C.J. Duncan 6 6 52 1 100.00% 8.7 8.7 83.33%
Jared Pinkney 4 2 41 0 50.00% 10.3 20.5 25.00%
Kalija Lipscomb 6 2 15 0 33.33% 2.5 7.5 16.67%
Sam Dobbs 1 0 0 0 0.00% 0.0 #DIV/0! 0.00%
Trey Ellis 1 0 0 0 0.00% 0.0 #DIV/0! 0.00%

But if you really want to see the biggest difference between this year’s offense and last year’s... well, just look at the receiving corps. Trent Sherfield, Kalija Lipscomb, and Jared Pinkney are legitimate deep threats, while C.J. Duncan has emerged as a great option on underneath routes. And just think where this offense will be once Caleb Scott gets back up to speed. (Scott didn’t have an official stat line, though he did catch a pass that was erased by a penalty.) This is a legitimately good group of pass catchers.


  • Charles Wright had 1.5 sacks last night and now has 4.5 sacks this season. This is a guy who had one sack in 2015 and 2016 — combined. I’m not exaggerating when I say this guy might have come from nowhere to be an All-SEC player.
  • Jonathan Wynn also got half a sack (with Wright.)
  • Ladarius Wiley picked up his first career interception.
  • So far this season, Vanderbilt has played four true freshmen (all played last night): Dayo Odeyingbo, Jalen Pinkney, Tae Daley, and Cole Clemens. Odeyingbo and Pinkney were obviously going to play, as they were college-ready defensive linemen joining a rather thin unit. Daley was an early enrollee and could be in line to start at safety in 2017. Clemens is the real surprise here, not because I didn’t think he was ready but because it’s pretty rare for offensive linemen to play as true freshmen. And while I’ve generally liked Mason’s philosophy on redshirts since his second season, I have to wonder if there are concerns that somebody on the offensive line might not stay in the starting lineup for long. Otherwise it’s hard to think of why you’d burn a guy’s redshirt to get him a few snaps here and there.

What’s Next

Yeah, we’re nitpicking a bit — particularly with the running game -- but a win over a top 25 team is a win over a top 25 team, and 3-0 is 3-0. Vanderbilt is quite likely going to find itself in the Top 25 on Monday, and while we’re only three games in, it already feels like some of the expectations for this team are changing. Gone, really, are any concerns about Vanderbilt struggling with a tough schedule or crashing and burning to a 3-9 record. In fact, the November stretch of Western Kentucky, Kentucky, and Missouri at home — given how those three teams have performed -- has gone from “three winnable games” to “three games we should win if we don’t screw up.”

In other words — and I don’t want to jinx this, because we know how these things often go with Vanderbilt — it’s almost a given that this team will go to a bowl game (before the Kansas State game, S&P+ said Vanderbilt had a 63 percent chance of winning at least six games, and that’s only gone up.) Oh sure, we’ll be satisfied if this team goes to a bowl game, but right now eight or nine wins looks like a realistic goal for this team.

Oh yeah, and next Saturday at 2:30 PM this team gets a free shot at moving from “fringe Top 25 team” to “SEC East frontrunner” when Alabama comes to town. Get ready.