Losing 41-13 is not the way to improve morale after barely beating an FCS team. Oddly, Head Coach Derek Mason and starting QB Kyle Shurmur were fairly positive following the loss. Mason felt confident in his perspective post-game and saw where problems could be addressed. Shurmur saw enough positive play to think the offense can be successful going forward. Granted, this loss was not a blow out against a mediocre opponent. The Commodores went into Athens and lost going away to the #2 in the country due to a slow death march of a second half. After being in a 14-6 game with 2:28 left in the first half, Georgia drove 75 yards in 6 plays to make it 21-6 before the half then received the 2nd half kickoff and tacked on another 7. The 28-6 score put the game in a precarious position, and the Commodores never recovered. A primetime test, even with an ugly final score, at an elite opponent can teach the players, coaches, and fans a lot of things.
Lessons We Are Learning
The best place to start is the good stuff. CJ Bolar is quickly becoming a very valuable weapon. His last two performances have shown that Kyle Shurmur correctly trusts him to make plays. When Jared Pinkney got banged up in the first half, Bolar got targeted 4 times. Two of them were good catches and runs for 14 and 15 yards. The first one did end in a fumble Vandy recovered, so the freshman needs to be aware of ball security. The second was a Shurmur laser into tight coverage that Bolar absorbed some contact to hold onto firmly. As for the two incompletes his way, one was a great defensive play to break up a curl route while Shurmur misfired over Bolar’s head on the other.
One group that I am almost ready to say we know what they are is the offensive line. They are not the best OL in the conference, but they are solid at a minimum. They are 15th in the country in Sacks Allowed Per Game (1.00) and t-48th in TFLs Allowed Per game (5.50). They only allowed 4 TFLs against Georgia. The TFLs Allowed number is inflated a bit by the 8 that South Carolina managed aided by a particularly bad snap. Furthermore, Vanderbilt’s top 4 running backs have carried the ball 171 times and churned out 938 yards. Averaging almost 5.5 YPC is indicative of an effective offensive line. There were a few missed assignments on critical downs against Georgia though, so they still have work to do to improve. Bruno Reagan said the group is “unbelievably close” to breaking through and getting to where they want to be. Florida’s fearsome front will give them a hard task on Saturday, but another good performance could solidify their standing.
Speaking of the rushing attack, Mason has plans for change there. Ke’Shawn Vaughn is supposedly going to be the feature back moving forward. To an extent, he has already been since his 65 carries are 18 more than Blasingame’s 47 and 23 more than Wakefield’s 42. He still only had 9 carries against Georgia while Wakefield rushed 8 times with Blasingame having 6 chances to tote the rock. The disparity comes when you notice Vaughn had 79 yards (8.8 YPC) while Wakefield had 25 yards (3.1 YPC) and Blasingame had 20 yards (3.3 YPC). The problem is that Blasingame got 19 on 1 carry. Wakefield also did not have a carry of more than 7 yards. Vaughn was effective throughout with the threat of a big play. Taking away his 43 yarder, Vaughn still ran for 36 yards on 8 carries. An average of 4.5 YPC is pretty useful against a VERY good Georgia defense. It was also Vaughn’s 3rd game being over 8 YPC along with Nevada and TSU. Outings with averages of 5.4 and 4.1 against Notre Dame and MTSU, respectively, are not unimpressive either. His only lackluster performance was SC when he only went for 30 yards on 9 carries. It will be interesting to see what damage Vaughn can do against a somewhat susceptible Florida run defense allowing 172.5 YPG and 4.09 YPC. The other backs should still have roles, so it will be interesting to see how much the usage shifts.
Another player getting more focus in the offensive gameplan is CJ Bolar. He paced Commodore pass catchers in Athens in both receptions and yardage with 4 catches for 46 yards. The ball was spread around a lot with 9 receivers combining for 16 receptions. On the season, Bolar now trails Jared Pinkney for 2nd on the team in receptions by a mere 4 catches with 15 passes caught. All of those have come in the last 4 games, too. If you are curious, a second half of the season that matches the first half (15 catches for 179 yards) would out pace the freshman campaigns of both Jordan Matthews and Kalija Lipscomb just in case you want to get REALLY crazy with the hype machine. Of course, it is also fair to expect that the second half of his season is better than the first half, so I will let each of you to decide how much of THAT sunshine to pump straight into your veins.
After being generous to not be more definitive about the defensive problems, namely missed tackles due to strip attempts, my faith was somewhat repaid. Georgia still averaged an obscene 8.8 yards per play, but the tackling was noticeably better. Even after watching the game a second time when I knew Georgia was going to be ripping off big yards early and often, it did not feel like the defense was just being mauled. They were definitely outmatched and beaten consistently, but they seemed oddly competitive for a group that gave up 41 points and 560 yards of total offense. If the tackling can keep this improvement or get better still (a few bad examples still showed), a not-so-great Florida offense could be held strongly in check.
Special teams is getting split this week because one section deserves to graduate. The other main portion gave us a pleasant surprise. After misses of 27 (!) and 46 yards against TSU, Ryley Guay was on target from 25 and 42 yards. Guay needs to turn that outing into a bona fide turnaround because Vanderbilt will surely need key points in the kicking game down the stretch. Mason needs to be able to trust his kicker to tack on points when the offense stalls or is stymied.
Lessons We Know Well
Shurmur was uncharacteristically positive in his post-game media availability. The senior quarterback tends to be in a foul mood during these appearances. His demeanor is not rude, but it shows the extent of his competitive drive. Bucking that trend was surprising, especially on a night where Shurmur only went 14 of 28 for 169 yards to earn a RAW QBR of 43.9 (Georgia’s stout defense raised the Total QBR to 69.6). The signal caller was also visibly agitated on the sidelines, whether with himself or others was never clear. Whatever the cause of the change in mood, Shurmur needs to avoid having a 3rd straight lackluster SEC outing. The Georgia and South Carolina games have been okay at best. Vanderbilt needs more from its quarterback in league play to get to a bowl game.
Since they were both quiet against Georgia, Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney have to share space. Lipscomb had 2 catches for 16 yards while Pinkney had 1 catch for 12 yards. The dangerous tight end did have an injury scare in the first half but returned to play much of the second half. Pinkney actually tied with Bolar for number of times targeted at 6. I do not have a chance by chance breakdown of those passes thrown his way, but no drops really stood out. On the outside, Deandre Baker did a very good job locking down Lipscomb. Like Shurmur, Kalija will need to find ways to overcome the issues he faces in the coming weeks to help Vanderbilt achieve its goal of a bowl game. He cannot go so quiet for an entire game again.
Parker Thome stakes his claim to our confidence by having another good game. Of his 6 punts, 3 travelled 50 yards or more. The other three ended as a touchback, down at the UGA 22, and downed at the UGA 10. Thome’s leg could become very important against Florida where the game could turn into a defensive struggle. Field position can become vital very quickly. Hopefully, he can be the key to avoiding any more 12-yard punts that have sunk us against Florida.
Lessons for Further Study
How does Bolar’s ascent change how defenses cover Pinkney and Lipscomb? A defense can only double and shade coverage to so many places at a time without leaving massive gaps elsewhere. CJ Bolar continuing his growth will demand better coverage, so teams may not be able to shift so much towards Vanderbilt’s best two pass catchers. Then, it will be down to Shurmur finding Jared and Kalija to capitalize. Or, maybe, the rise of a 3rd threat creates even MORE space for the other receivers on the field. Could someone else step up to add more firepower to the offense?
Where did all of these penalties come from in Athens? There were four illegal formation penalties with two of them on consecutive plays! Overall, the Commodores gave up 69 yards due to 9 penalties. Thus far this season, the team had avoided making those mistakes. Maybe the hostile environment mixed with some youth being thrust into more prominent roles, but it needs to be cleaned up. Penalties, especially pre-snap ones on offense, will kill drives. Points are already at a premium, so the Commodores cannot afford to make them harder to come by.
How many defensive linemen are we using? Down Charles Wright due to injury, Tarver and Mason tried to add a little power on the defensive front by going with 4 down linemen somewhat consistently on 1st downs. A few times Vanderbilt even shifted into 5-man fronts, but most of those included an OLB simply putting his hand down in the dirt. Still, the creativity to offer different looks and challenge other teams to adapt can be an advantage. With Feleipe Franks fairly limited as a passer, it would be unsurprising to see this strategy used again this week. An important thing to remember is that putting something like this on tape can simply add to the offense’s confusion. Franks is still very much a developing QB. Even if Vandy is in their base 3-4, simply having OLBs put their hand in the dirt will add to the information Franks has to process pre-snap. The extra time to recognize the front and possible pressure can lead to breakdowns in recognizing coverage.
Where do the Commodores go from here? The record stands at 3-3 like most optimistic projections had them. The most optimistic of these may have included a win over South Carolina. Unfortunately, it appears Kentucky is way better than anticipated while Florida may have some bite. Arkansas managed to score 31 points against Bama’s backups after already being down 3 or more scores, so it is hard to know how useful that information is. Tennessee seemed to have a close game against Georgia yet only posted 209 yards of offense in a game that was likely just Georgia being bored and looking ahead to homecoming revenge against Vanderbilt. Missouri cannot decide whether they want to be decent or not. Meanwhile, Ole Miss has accepted that they will give up 1 million points per game while scoring 2 million. The important thing to note is that college football is freaking weird and nobody really knows what is in store these next seven (including an open date) weeks. Derek Mason’s squad needs to win at least 3 of them for this season to measure as any sort of success.
Oh, and will any more Vanderbilt opponents decide to bring (and mostly be allowed to use) whistles to try and throw off our players knowing whether a play is being called dead or not? The tactic was effective on at least one Vanderbilt play from their own 5-yard line where Ke’Shawn Vaughn was handed the ball while most of the offensive line was not sure if the play was over or not. Vaughn had actually broken his stance to look around before realizing the ball had actually been snapped. Derek Mason was justifiably irate while the officials merely told the PA announcer to inform the crowd not to do it anymore…but doing nothing when this request was ignored. Wooooooo!
Each week, we get closer to the end of the season. It means the picture of who this team is keeps solidifying bit by bit. However, college football has this weird way of waiting until we think we know what is happening then slapping us in the face like a sea lion with an octopus slaps a kayaker. The unpredictability is one of the best parts of college football, but it will also surely make some of these assertions look foolish. Embrace the chaos and try not to panic if things look dire.