Bluntly, these games are getting old, and that statement is only about this season, not life as a Vanderbilt fan as a whole. This team has played Top 15 teams 3 times thus far. In all 3 games, there have been big reasons to be positive, yet all 3 were losses with some glaring issues. The loss at South Bend was heavily influenced by missed opportunities in plus territory for the offense. Georgia got out of hand, but more missed opportunities early ruined a chance to get an early lead then see how the game could be different. Florida had a massive blown lead. It was a crushing blow when Derek Mason was staring down a true signature win. In fact, it would have bested Franklin’s such accomplishment at Vanderbilt, which was a win over a UGA team that was ranked 15th in the AP Poll but would finish the season unranked after fluttering on the edge of the Top 25 for the rest of the season. Mason did not get that win though and is still searching for a really big win to stamp his Vanderbilt tenure. What can we learn from a blown 18-point first half lead?
Lessons We Are Learning
Breaking from my personal tradition, the bad stuff is coming up first. Our depth is still not where it needs to be to compete with the elite teams in the SEC. It may be viewed as a criticism of Mason (and the head coach is ultimately responsible for building depth through recruiting and development), but Vanderbilt has never had that type of depth. Modern college football has created a massive gulf in the haves and have nots. Unfortunately, Vanderbilt is on the “have nots” side of things. AoG has had a bit of discussion about the “cycle” of how college football teams, at least those without the insane recruiting of the Top 10 programs, go from young to old then restart the process to varying degrees. Vanderbilt’s depth chart shows a lot of guys with plenty of eligibility left, so maybe the quality depth is building before our eyes. The question is whether they can learn quickly enough on the job to be effective sooner rather than later, so this topic is a BOGO. You are welcome.
That “bad stuff” ended up having a possible glimmer of that terrifying feeling called hope. The run defense should stifle it, especially with Benny Snell on the horizon. Florida was able to get 274 yards on 49 carries from their RBs. Allowing 5.6 YPC is not a recipe for success. Doing that for the season would rank Florida 15th in the category nationally. Of course, those 3 backs have now averaged 6.1 YPC on the season, so we pulled their averages down. They were at 6.2 YPC going into the game. Wait, did I just turn this into a positive on accident? I was really ready to make the point that while the DL is getting better the run defense is not encouraging. Benny Snell is going to destroy our run defense though, right? He is averaging 5.5 YPC over 128 attempts to total 699 yards rushing on the season while fellow RB Asim Rose is at 237 yards after 36 tries for 6.6 YPC. So…maybe we hold Snell to like 5.2 YPC? Look, I am just confused by our defense being better than the average of what Florida has faced, especially since their OL was awful to start the year but has improved against better competition. By the way, at least 142 of those rushing yards happened in the 4th quarter when the aforementioned depth issues were starting to become a detriment. The point is our run defense is not very good (but maybe less bad than I thought originally?) and is facing one of the best RBs in college football. Maybe we can learn more about their growth.
Moving on from that mess, I need some solidarity. Kyle Shurmur looked to CJ Bolar for some similar comfort while Lipscomb got blanketed (although Mason pointed out he was open often enough that he should have gotten the ball more) and Pinkney got bracketed. The true freshman who had been breaking out broke down a bit. He had a few critical drops that stalled drives. The blown lead is certainly not his fault, but Bolar needs to get back on track. Lipscomb and Pinkney draw so much attention that Vanderbilt must have someone else take advantage. Bolar had done so for two weeks running. One rough game is not a death knell for a first-year player. CJ will hopefully take a deep breath, get back on the jugs machine, and come back strong against Kentucky.
Disturbingly, Shurmur himself has been rather shaky lately. His past two performances have been underwhelming and have me a little concerned, thus the hopefully short-lived demotion in certainty. He was 14/28 for 169 yards without a TD or INT for a 68.8 Total QBR at Georgia then 18/36 for 229 yards with 2 TD and a garbage time INT for a 68.7 Total QBR against Florida. Those Total QBR numbers say Shurmur has been good, but he can play even better. Bolar and others had drops against Florida, but there were also some bad reads and bad deliveries on important downs. They talked about it on the broadcast, including a comment from Ludwig, and the misses have to be fixed. Too many balls are missing high. Whatever the mechanical cause, Shurmur needs to iron it out post haste. He is too talented and too smart to allow some inconsistency in throwing motion to drag him and this team down. Obviously, moving the ball and scoring more points will give the team a better chance at scoring, but it will also help our defense not face 91 plays again.
Inconsistency might as well be Ryley Guay’s first, middle, and last name. The junior kicker missed a 25-yard chip shot that would have made the score 24-13 just after halftime. Leading by 11 instead of 8 could have forced some small changes to Florida’s offense. I am also firmly convinced that the miss had a ripple effect. The ensuing Florida drive included a successful fake punt and a slant pass being taken to the house from 38 yards out. Neither of those is on Guay for missing, but a make almost certainly would have altered the series of events afterwards. It still could have gone Florida’s way but missed chip shots cannot happen. Then, just when it seemed like Guay might be about to lose his job after somewhat securing it back against Georgia, he decided to bang home FGs from 43 and 53. Points cannot be left off the board in critical situations. The offense stalling and not getting a TD is bad enough, but the missed short FGs have to go away.
Lessons We Know Well
This offensive line is good. Florida had exactly 1 sack on Kyle Shurmur. They only had 3 or 4 real pressures, even though ESPN credits Florida with only 1 hurry. Our guys up front also did a good job being physical in the run game, but they were not rewarded much once Vaughn went down. Let me be clear, I am not touting our offensive line as dominant. They are not. We just know exactly what we are going to get from them week in and week out. Kentucky’s front seven has some very impactful players, but so have Florida and Georgia without any of them having much influence on the game. The Vanderbilt offensive line is the unit that has neutralized these threats to Shurmur and the running game. Bruno Reagan deserves special recognition for moving back inside to center after DellaRipa’s injury then having a key block on Vaughn’s 75-yard screen pass.
The beneficiary of the OL’s improvement from last season is a guy that I may be having a quick trigger with by putting him here, but Ke’Shawn Vaughn is a bad man. A 43-yard scamper from Vandy’s 2-yard line along with a 75-yard screen pass for 6 were huge plays in helping open the 21-3 lead. Vaughn’s injury is likely the biggest change in the game. Vaughn’s 6 other carries only netted 13 yards, but the threat to go deep changed how Florida could blitz and cover. Hopefully, Vaughn is not limited at all by the injury that ended his day against the Gators. The Red Mamba being at full power will help level Vanderbilt’s chances in this game. Playing without Ke’Shawn will turn the game into a very intimidating climb.
Vanderbilt’s two other key contributors on offense need to make earlier impacts. Lipscomb ended up with 4 catches for 64 yards along with a single carry for 15 yards. Pinkney had 3 catches for 25 yards with a TD. They need to be involved earlier though. Lipscomb had one catch and the carry before Florida made it a one-point game. Pinkney had his 1-yard TD catch and two incompletions, one of which was flagged for defensive pass interference. ESPN’s stats guy for the game was lazy tracking some of the intended receivers for incompletions, so maybe they each had another early target. It is important to spread the ball around, but the key players need to get early touches. Maybe the plays were there to be made, and Shurmur just went elsewhere. Whatever the case may be, Vanderbilt’s two best options in the passing attack need to get back to early season form.
Lessons for Further Study
Will Jordan Griffin add a 2nd great performance? The ILB spots have been shuffling and moving, some of that due to Colin Anderson’s injury, but also due to okay but not good enough play at the spot. Griffin decided to try to recreate some Zach Cunningham insanity by making 18 stops with 10 of them being all by himself. He did get trucked hard once, but it was the one blemish on his day that I noticed.
Will Khari Blasingame and Jamauri Wakefield find their groove when working as a tandem to backup Ke’Shawn Vaughn? They each had a couple of good plays when Vaughn went down but neither looked quite as sharp as when it had been a 3 headed monster approach. Their touches may be more limited if Vaughn stays healthy, so these two need to do more for themselves when chances do arise. They are now battling each other to be the first name called when Vaughn is dinged or needs a breather after a long play.
What adversity will the Commodores face this week? Two weeks ago, Georgia fans brought whistles that influenced at least one critical play. Last week, Todd Grantham and his merry band of thugs tried to injure Dare Odeyingbo. Re-watching the game only made me angrier about the event than before. First off, I noticed that on the Vanderbilt punt preceding the one where the near-brawl occurred Dare was also hit high by #41. On that occasion, the elder Odeyingbo was able to turn and get his forearm up enough to avoid the same violent contact to his head. The hit was also aimed at Dare’s head but with less force. Apparently, someone told Houston to finish the job or the player himself decided his first effort was not good enough. Also, I did not know it was possible to paint Grantham in a worse light, but he appears to yell, “F--- your players,” at Mason. Those words incite Mason’s usage of the same choice in expletive. In a personal anecdote, a lady sitting a few people down decided the announcement of ejections was the appropriate time to stand up and start hollering while doing the Gator Chomp…while wearing an Alabama Crimson Tide jacket. Apparently, Vanderbilt has done something to strongly wrong this lady if she is cheering for our injuries while being a Bama fan.
Will Vanderbilt finally get through the adversity to win against a Top 15 team? As previously mentioned, three of the four losses have come against Top 15 opposition. The Kentucky game will be the 3rd Top 15 matchup in a row and 3rd road test against such competition. Kentucky could be a massive win for Mason and Vanderbilt’s bowl chances. Fourth time is the charm, maybe?