After two weeks of victories over teams they should beat, the Vanderbilt Commodores lined up across from the Kansas State Wildcats. Led by legendary head coach Bill Snyder, the Wildcats were a stiff test for the boys in Black and Gold. The game came down to possessions of traded turnovers with Vanderbilt getting the game’s third and final TD before holding on to a 7-point lead. The Commodores had clearly prepared well for the test, so what can we learn from the victory over the team formerly ranked #18 in the AP poll?
Lessons We Are Learning
The offensive line is still a work-in-progress. The rushing attack struggled for the third consecutive week with Ralph Webb held to 46 yards on 21 carries. The rest of the team had 8 rushing attempts for 25 yards. Plainly, that production will not get this team where it wants to go. The good news is that the offensive line is not being bullied. The problem is the lack of push or open holes with any consistency. People often think that an offensive line must knock defenders backwards to create positive rushing plays, but lots of running schemes including traps and counters are designed to create lateral movement then walling off an alley for the runner to go through. The line did crease Kansas States front seven a few times on outside runs, but the interior attack is yet to get any traction, no matter what scheme is used. Some of those issues are definitely down to the lack of a true fullback with Bailey McEwan injured. The big guys up front still need to show some steps forward. Unfortunately, they face the toughest front 7 they will see all year when Alabama comes to town. If they can continue to keep Shurmur upright (only 2 sacks allowed in 3 games) and show any improvement for the ground game, it will be a big accomplishment and massive step in the right direction.
The other half of the offensive game plan has not suffered as much from the offensive line changes. Kyle Shurmur has actually been at his best efficiency of his career. Even with a somewhat pedestrian 69.4 Raw QBR and 67.9 Total QBR (which seems weird because that means ESPN thinks K-State is a below average pass defense), he still sits at 3rd in Raw QBR and 4th in Total QBR for the season. His rankings for last week were 46th and 44th nationally. Those numbers are up from 105th and 90th for all of last season, and a lot of the defenses he will face this year look worse than last years. The obvious exception is the next team on the schedule. The things we are learning about Kyle have now moved from if he is a good QB to how good of a QB he is. Kyle staying in the 40s for the duration of the season likely means for a 7- or 8-win regular season. If he can get into the 20s or 30s then the Commodores may be taking a trip to Atlanta on the first weekend in December. A resurgence of Webb and company on the ground will only serve to help Kyle, but the rushing attack no longer needs to protect the passing game. The two just need to work hand-in-hand. Alternatively, Kyle having continued success should help the rushing attack get on track, even if this week is not the week it really gets going considering the opponent.
The mastermind of how the two attacking options mesh and complement each other had another A-/B+ week. Andy Ludwig mixed in plenty of play-action passing, a couple of end-around runs, and a screen or two that gave the Wildcat defense some problems. The run game’s lack of traction could use a little more use of the edges since Webb has the athleticism and vision to make plays on stretch runs and weak-side rushes off-tackle. Blasingame has also shown an underrated burst of speed when he gets some space, so he does not have to be limited to going straight up the middle. It may seem strange to give such a good grade to the offensive coordinator for an offense that scored only 14 points, but drives were stalled more by penalties by linemen than by poor play calls. Execution sputtered a few times, but holding calls go back to the offensive line not play calling. Just like the players he commands, Ludwig will need to be at his best. He has a reputation as having a deep bag of tricks, so we may see some new plays to surprise one of the most talented and well-coached defenses in the country.
The phase of the game that is often ignored until things go horribly wrong has thankfully flown under the radar this season. Tommy Openshaw is 0/2 on the season, but one of those was a 55-yarder that bounced off the crossbar. His other miss was disappointing as it was on a 31-yarder. However, his kickoffs have been perfectly placed to scare teams into taking a touchback while punishing them if they try to bring the ball out. Our other foot-user, Sam Loy, has had his own struggles but without catastrophe. His 18 kicks have averaged 37.7 yards, but he has only allowed 8 to be returned with an average of 5.25 yards. That comes out to an average net of 35.3 yards per punt which is bad, so Loy needs to get a little more distance on his kicks while maintaining the low return yardage. He was outstanding last year, so he should get it figured out soon. On the return side, kick returns have not been an option with minimal oppositional scores. Punt returns have also been limited, but Lipscomb has taken 4 punts back an average of 6.5 yards. The important piece for Kalija is that opponent’s punting no longer causes Commodore fans to hold their breath. Lipscomb has been perfectly sure-handed when catching punts which has not always been the case.
Lessons We Know Well
Fortunately, this team is coached by 2017 Derek Mason and not 2014 Derek Mason. The new and improved model of Vanderbilt’s head coach may well be one of the best coaches in the SEC. The pool of coaches may be weaker than normal for the conference, but it is still higher than almost any other conference so being near the top of the list would be quite the accomplishment. Mason still has to prove his ability to handle a modicum of success and build upon it. This season will be an absolute failure if it follows a similar path to the 2005 team that started off well then failed to make a bowl game. That outcome seems highly unlikely, but it is a cautionary tale. Mason’s improvement has manifested in many facets, but it boils down to beating a Top 25 team coached by a Hall of Fame coach after doing exactly what is supposed to happen to lesser teams. No glaring mistakes have been made while decisions like going for it on 4th and 1 from Vanderbilt’s 40 on the way to an opening TD along with halftime adjustments to stop the QB power rushing scheme are indicative of his improvements. Views of Mason on the sideline show a coach confident in himself and his team, too. His press appearances are enthusiastic, seemingly genuine, and very comfortable, which is another testament to his growth. How good Mason can be is yet to be seen but going head to head with one of the best college football coaches of all time should be a good challenge.
The most obvious beneficiary of Mason’s growth is the Vanderbilt defense. He has been recognized as a great defensive mind for years but becoming a head coach presented a new challenge to his ability to be hands-on with a defense. In the third year as both head coach and defensive coordinator, Vanderbilt has allowed only 2 scoring drives and 13 points through 3 games. Incredibly, teams are only passing for 95.8 yards per game against Vandy due to only getting 3.58 yards per attempt. An improved pass rush is helping by applying pressure and racking up 10 sacks through 3 games, which is T-13th in all of FBS. Between yardage allowed per attempt, sacks, and other factors, Vanderbilt has the 3rd best defensive passing efficiency in the country. Meanwhile, teams are only managing 103 yards per game on the ground through 3.32 yards per carry. Granted, Kansas State had good success to the tune of 201 yards on 35 carries, but they were still held to 76 yards through the air. Yardage numbers like that will keep teams from scoring a lot of points and shorten games in a way that will keep the score close. The one concern comes back to a standard kryptonite for Vanderbilt – the dual threat QB. Unfortunately, Jalen Hurts brings that threat in spades, and the Alabama receivers like Calvin Ridley will test the limits of our coverage. The first step will be to maintain containment on Hurts and make him play as a pure pocket passer while finding coverages that will balance pressure and run support with not getting beat downfield. Mason has earned the expectation that he will find those schemes, so it will be down to the players to “bring it to life,” as Mason likes to say.
Lessons We Will Study Further
How will the team handle the toughest possible test in college football? With each step forward, or possibly backwards, it is always important to learn how the latest result effects a team. The Fighting Bill Snyders were a pretty standard examination. The Alabama Crimson Tide are like the final exam. Actually, for Vanderbilt football, this game is basically like taking the final exam for a course 4 weeks into it. Thankfully, even an F on September 23rd will not necessarily ruin our grade for the season. The key is not allowing the performance, no matter how bad, taint the rest of the season. Of course, acing the exam would make the rest of the season look incredibly simple but could cause some faltering due to overconfidence. The team seems to have a good mental base, but they are still 18-22 year olds.
Is the apocalypse coming? There are some theories about September 23, 2017 being tied to the end of the world. The veracity of these claims is…questionable, to put it very lightly. However, a win over Alabama may mean these claims deserve a longer look since that would surely be a sign of the apocalypse. We could all go into that next chapter, whatever it brings, happily. It seems strange that any deity would care about a football game, but we have all seen what happens with Jobu, Loki, and others. Something about Vanderbilt draws them to us, so maybe whichever one does or does not exist will smile upon Vanderbilt this Saturday. This change in fortune would be a learning experience for every Vanderbilt fan.