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Florida 37, Vanderbilt 27: Vanderbilt refused to press its advantage

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After building a 21-3 lead, Vanderbilt decided that was enough. And it failed.

NCAA Football: Florida at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Five Factors

Five Factors Vanderbilt Florida
Five Factors Vanderbilt Florida
Plays 58 91
Total Yards 336 614
Yards Per Play 5.8 6.7
Rushing Attempts 21 59
Rushing Yards 119 346
Rushing YPP 5.7 5.9
Passing Attempts 37 32
Passing Yards 217 268
Passing YPP 5.9 8.4
Rushing Success Rate 38.10% 62.71%
Passing Success Rate 32.43% 46.88%
Success Rate 34.48% 57.14%
Avg. Field Position 31.1 24.9
PP40 4.5 4.1
Turnovers 1 3

(Aside: I realize that Florida’s yardage after I went through the play-by-play and added everything up doesn’t match the box score. I don’t know why, either, but deal with it.)

Sometimes, a game has a clear turning point. In the Vanderbilt Commodores’ game against the Florida Gators on Saturday, at first glance the turning point in the game would appear to be when Ke’Shawn Vaughn went to the locker room (and would not return), but the score was 14-3 in Vanderbilt’s favor at that point. Vanderbilt would cash in a Florida turnover to expand the lead to 21-3. Here is what the Five Factors box score looked like at that point:

Five Factors (21-3)

Five Factors Vanderbilt Florida
Five Factors Vanderbilt Florida
Plays 22 34
Total Yards 195 156
Yards Per Play 8.9 4.6
Rushing Attempts 13 20
Rushing Yards 91 95
Rushing YPP 7 4.8
Passing Attempts 9 14
Passing Yards 104 61
Passing YPP 11.6 4.4
Rushing Success Rate 38.46% 60.00%
Passing Success Rate 44.44% 42.86%
Success Rate 40.91% 52.94%
Avg. Field Position 24.4 36.8
PP40 7 1
Turnovers 0 2

Let’s talk about the game up to that point. The obvious thing that jumps out is that Florida had three scoring chances to that point and had three points on the scoreboard — thanks to two turnovers (one, an interception at the 2-yard line; the other, a fumble that hilariously bounced about 40 yards downfield before Vanderbilt recovered, setting up the Commodores’ third score of the game.) Florida’s success rate and yards per play were notable: the Gators were running successful plays, but to that point they hadn’t broken for any big plays. Florida’s longest single play, at that point in the game, went for 16 yards. Vanderbilt had a sizable advantage in yards per play — but that was almost entirely due to two plays (a 43-yard run by Vaughn and a 75-yard screen pass for a touchdown, also to Vaughn.) Take those away, and the Commodores were averaging a pedestrian 3.9 yards per play.

With all that said — the score was 21-3. It was 21-3 not because Vanderbilt was a better team than Florida (or even playing better than Florida), but because Vanderbilt got a couple of big plays and Florida was, repeatedly, shooting itself in the foot with turnovers and penalties. It was reasonable to think that Florida would start to turn things around at some point; what that meant was that Vanderbilt needed to press its advantage and try to score even more points. That was, obviously, going to be harder without Vaughn in the game, but not impossible.

Instead, we got this:

Five Factors (Rest of Game)

Five Factors Vanderbilt Florida
Five Factors Vanderbilt Florida
Plays 36 57
Total Yards 141 458
Yards Per Play 3.9 8
Rushing Attempts 8 39
Rushing Yards 28 251
Rushing YPP 3.5 6.4
Passing Attempts 28 18
Passing Yards 113 207
Passing YPP 4 11.5
Rushing Success Rate 37.50% 64.10%
Passing Success Rate 28.57% 50.00%
Success Rate 30.56% 59.65%
Avg. Field Position 35.9 19
PP40 2 5.7
Turnovers 1 1

Gross. For one thing, Vanderbilt completely abandoned the run game, which is an... interesting tactical decision, because the passing game wasn’t doing a whole lot.

But also, three second-half trips inside the 40 ended with six points. (Meanwhile, Florida did start finding the end zone on its drives.) Vanderbilt started its first drive of the second half with great field position and a 21-13 lead; they elected to attempt a field goal on 4th and 2 at the 7. (This is a questionable tactical decision even if you have a reliable kicker. With a kicker who’s been... shaky, well, this ended with zero points.) On its next drive — with the score now 21-20 after a Florida touchdown, helped along by Dan Mullen calling a fake punt on 4th and 3 at his own 37 — Vanderbilt elected to punt on 4th and 4 at the Florida 42. (As if to add insult to injury, Vanderbilt elected to kick a field goal with 3:55 left and a 10-point deficit — and then not attempt an onside kick after.)

Obviously, we don’t know what would have happened had the Commodores tried to convert 4th and 2 at the 7, or 4th and 4 at the 42. They might have wound up with no points on either drive. But in a game that wound up being decided by ten points, we have Vanderbilt, on two separate drives, choosing the route that guaranteed they would score three points at most — instead of taking the route that might have netted fourteen.

There are plenty of valid criticisms to be made of Vanderbilt’s coaching staff, but the tendency to play uber-conservative most of the time (unless their backs really are against the wall) is the easiest criticism to make, and never was it more on display than on Saturday. Remember: Tresselball only worked because Ohio State has a talent advantage at most positions on the field.