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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: MTSU

Class was in session as the ‘Dores schooled the Blue Raiders. What can we get out of it though?

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Middle Tennessee
Charles Wright is just reminding us all that hitting opposing QBs is almost as fun as hitting the books!
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt football got off to a very impressive and positive start. The 28-6 final score makes the game seem closer than it actually was. Even the most pessimistic Vandy fans had to be searching diligently to find anything to fuel their negativity. Unfortunately, unlike the Commodores, a certain writer was not in mid-season form and failed to record the game for a second viewing. You, the unlucky readers, will have to settle for only what was observed live and on highlight packages. Plenty of things are still out there to learn though. However, it was week 1, so do not expect anything too explosive. The hot takes will be left to others.

Lessons We Are Learning

Derek Mason has put down another marker in his attempt to prove himself as a quality head coach. Mason has now notched a win in a season opener. This was Vanderbilt’s first season opening win under Mason. It was also the first season opening win since 2011 along with the first season opening win against an FBS school since 2008 when Vanderbilt went to Oxford, Ohio, to beat the Miami RedHawks 34-13. Maybe we should start on the road against Group of 5 schools every year! (If anyone in the Vanderbilt administration is reading this, please do NOT do this. Please.) Besides getting over that opening loss streak, the defense kept an explosive MTSU offense to 166 yards passing and 74 yards rushing. The 5.4 yards per attempt passing is 2.4 YPA below Stockstill’s 2016 stats. The Commodores also held him 233 yards below what Stockstill passed for in last year’s game. Mason seemed not to put a foot wrong either as a HC or DC, but he did not face any real adversity in a comfortable win.

Speaking of that defense, it seemed to fare pretty well for having lost one of the best Vanderbilt defenders ever. We could argue Zach Cunningham’s specific place in the Top 10, Top 5, Top 3, or whatever other grouping, but the sheer number of plays he made, often seemingly single-handedly, was cause for concern since he moved on to the NFL. Oren Burks and Emmanuel Smith both registered 6 tackles according to Mason (official stats have 4 for Burks and 6 for Smith but defensive stats tend to vary wildly). Players at other positions also stepped up with Charles Wright and Dare Odeyingbo having frequent meetings with Stockstill. Wright is credited with 3 sacks with the elder Odeyingbo adding 2 more. Those 5 sacks compare well to the 19 sacks that Vanderbilt had for the entirety of the 2016 season. The defense looks more athletic top to bottom than I can remember it under Mason. Team speed can go a long way to getting more hats to the ball to minimize the loss of Cunningham’s individual efforts. Meanwhile, the other side of the ball had a bright spot, too.

Kyle Shurmur showed out for the 4th regular season game in a row. According to ESPN’s Total QBR, Shurmur had the best QB performance in FBS for week 1. Total QBR is supposed to account for everything about the play of the QB while isolating his play from those of the players around him which is probably why QBs with more yards have better passer ratings but lower QBRs. His Raw QBR, which does not account for the defense faced, was 98.5 out of 100. Considering the defense, Shurmur’s Total QBR was 96.4 out of 100. Either way, the man under center did not do much wrong. He should get another chance to fine-tune any mistakes against Alabama A&M before facing Kansas State and the grueling stretch that follows where he could really cement himself as a high caliber QB IF he can keep playing at a high level against better competition.

Lessons We Know Well

Oddly, this game did not really reinforce or challenge any set-in stone facets of Vanderbilt football. Webb struggled a bit on the ground, but no matter what factors hindered him against MTSU, no one expects him to stop being productive. Although, I guess we could add that Webb keeps adding tools to his belt every year. So, yeah, Ralph Webb is really freaking useful. Good enough? Then let’s move on to more debatable topics.

Lessons We Will Study Further

Has the offensive line regressed or was it mostly due to MTSU’s scheme to crash the box? The offensive line was a planned point of study for this game no matter how they performed. In light of watching the very dependable running game get essentially shut down, they were going to get put directly under the microscope. Without the full game footage to examine, no determination can be made. Against Alabama A&M, they need to really dominate to do anything to alleviate concerns, no matter how the Bulldogs approach the game.

How good is the depth on offense for this team? This question also went relatively unanswered as the depth was not called upon very often. The defensive line saw a decent amount of rotation through the 2-deep, but they were the only ones. Mason explained that he wanted everyone on defense to get settled into their new roles, specifically the two ILBs but extending to those around them who may have played a lot but not in this specific configuration of players.

What does the team do with a bright start? Before last weekend, the question was whether Mason and company could start well. They more than exceeded expectations with the first 3 offensive drives going for TDs before becoming ultra-conservative. If the play calling had stayed the course, the offense could have easily hung 40-plus points on the Blue Raiders. As it was, Vanderbilt showed off a few things to worry the opposition like Kyle Shurmur’s continued growth and Ralph Webb’s evolution as a receiver. In fact, Webb is the 5th leading receiver in the SEC with 104 yards. The defense’s ability to meet a tough task on opening weekend has already been noted. Anything except exceedingly impressive domination of Alabama A&M will be disappointing, but the real test will come September 16th when the Fighting Bill Snyders come to West End. This momentum needs to roll right through that game. If it does, this team could really be special.

Is Andy Ludwig going to repeat last season’s early season conservative scheming? Conservative play calling is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when paired with a high-quality defense. Without the full footage, I do not feel comfortable commenting on whether Ludwig was trying to attack the overloaded fronts with different run scheme or whether we really were just lining up and trying to power through 8-man fronts. The real concern is that, with an offense that only lost 1 real contributor offensive (and a contributor who had a specialized and replaceable role), Ludwig seems to have gone away from what worked to finish the season. Of course, it must be emphasized that the first 3 drives were absolutely beautiful. Those drives looked exactly like what Auburn, Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Missouri struggled to defend to varying degrees. The hope is that Ludwig is planning on breaking out the tricks and flash earlier than the 9th game of the season, so he wants to keep as many hidden as long as possible until they start rolling out on unsuspecting opponents in games that need a little extra spark. If that is the plan, it is totally understandable to just want to grind out the end of a game that is never in doubt and move on without showing your hand.