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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Kentucky

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What fresh hell is it that Kentucky is a Top 15 team?

Vanderbilt v Kentucky
The lone Commodore TD was a beautiful throw and catch. More please.
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Look, it is hard to find ways to say, “We lost a tough fight to a Top 15 team again,” every week. Each of the 4 losses have happened in different fashions, but 3 of them have been by 10 points or less. Except for the 28-point loss after fading in Athens, the losses have been by 5 (@Notre Dame), 10 (Florida), and 7 (@Kentucky). It is abundantly clear that the 2018 Vanderbilt Commodores are not a Top 15 team. Did we learn anything new from another tough loss to a really good team?

Lessons We Are Learning

We were all terrified of Benny Snell. His aggressive, powerful running style had the collective Vanderbilt fan base expecting to see #26 running all up down the field in Lexington. Then our defense actually did a decent job of bottling him up. Snell did have his second-best game in terms of total yardage at 169 yards, but he also had his most carries of the season with 32 and posted “only” his 4th best average yards per carry at 5.3. The thing is that two of the games where he averaged fewer yards per touch were games where Snell touched the ball 15 times or less. He has shown that his success really comes when he gets a chance to wear a defense down and keep pounding away until some wiggle room opens. Really, the only team to do a better job against Snell was South Carolina who held him to 99 yards on 28 carries, which is a 3.5-yard average. The bittersweet extra tidbit is that outside of the 74 yards churned out on 10 carries during the second TD drive that YPC average was only 4.3 In fact, even just taking away a 22-yard sprint during that drive lowers the average to 4.7. Benny Snell is just a freaking good running back, and the Commodore defense did an acceptable job against him. Coming a week after holding Florida’s backs under their average per carry numbers, there might be a glimmer of hope for the run defense down the stretch.

A big part of that was Jordan Griffin having his second straight monster game. The senior ILB had 18 total tackles again. Of those, 6 were solo. Griffin also had both of the fumble recoveries for the Commodores. He also knocked down 2 of Terry Wilson’s 9 pass attempts. He was all over the place and getting involved on nearly every play. The sudden surge to prominence for Griffin could be a major factor in the defense showing some improvement the last two weeks. Previously, he had been right around the 8 total tackles mark per week. Someone with more football smarts than I would have to do film study to see what caused the huge jump in production. Whatever it is, Vanderbilt needs it to continue.

CJ Bolar had a mini rebound after being plagued by drops against Florida. Bolar only had 2 catches, but they were a 29-yard TD to give Vandy a 7-0 lead and a 49-yard bomb that put the Commodores on the Kentucky 25 with the score tied at 7. He could have created a third big play on the drive following Kentucky’s go-ahead TD, but the refs decided to ignore the Wildcat defender holding CJ down by his collar to prevent the freshman from getting up for a deep pass down the left sideline. Since i[t was a 3rd down play, the penalty would have been almost as nice as the big yardage. With Shurmur likely able to air the ball out in Fayetteville since the winds should not be whipping at 40 MPH, Bolar could have a big game against a struggling Hog secondary.

Even in the winds, Shurmur also bounced back after a few lackluster games. He did not have a great game but going 15 of 23 for 216 yards in those conditions is fairly efficient. Unfortunately, those handful of misfires would prove to be too much to overcome. Of note, Pinkney was missed in the end zone on the play prior to the missed FG while Pinkney and Lipscomb both had 3rd down throws miss towards coverage that allowed the defender to break up the pass attempt. It was a step back towards the Shurmur that we know and love. As mentioned with Bolar, Arkansas pass defense is suspect. They allow 8.2 yards per pass attempt. Pretty weather Saturday will be a chance to show that he is back to his old self and ready to lead a strong finish to the season for the Commodores.

Lessons We Know Well

One thing that I worry about is being too demonstrative too soon. I had held off on getting too assertive about the offensive line until after Florida. They did not disappoint against a very good Kentucky defensive front. You may be tempted to look at the box score and mention allowing 4 sacks, but it is important to consider how those plays unfolded. On the first one, Bruno Reagan gives Kyle a snap that is slightly to the QBs left and right at his ankle. Kyle recovers fairly smoothly, but the damage is done because the route combinations along with Shurmur’s reaction indicate the play was supposed to be a quick hitter to the offense’s right, which the snap placement killed. With a pass rusher like Josh Allen, the busted play meant he was going to take Shurmur down. Yes, the bad snap is on Reagan, but it is not an issue for the entire OL nor has it been a major issue this season, although it did show up a few times against UK. The second sack was granted via an intentional grounding penalty Shurmur earned for not throwing the ball close enough to Khari Blasingame’s feet after the Wildcats sniffed out a screen and ruined the play. The OL did not do anything wrong here. A jumped screen is dead in the water every time, no matter what the big boys up front do. The other two came on the last drive when everyone in the stadium knew Shurmur would be trying to pass the Commodores into overtime. On both of them, the offensive line gave the QB time to hit the back of his drop and scan downfield. The problem was that the situation demanded that Kyle try to hold the ball and make a play, which ended in two sacks with the last one being a strip sack to seal the game. Some complaints were aired when Cole Cubelic reported during the game that OL Coach Norcross said the team was not giving Josh Allen special attention. It worked until we got to an entire drive where UK knew we would be throwing. Meanwhile, in the running game, 4 RBs combined for 99 yards on 26 carries. The average of 3.8 YPC did top Kentucky’s average yards per carry allowed of 3.4, and it was done without our best RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn.

With Vaughn out, more pressure fell on Lipscomb and Pinkney. They both did alright, but they needed to do more to get a win. Although, I’m not sure how much more each of them could have done. The only drop by either of them came on Vanderbilt’s last drive when Pinkney missed an opportunity on the 1st play before catching a pass on the next play for 21 yards. Kentucky was simply keying on them, and Shurmur missed a couple of throws to extend or end drives. Pinkney finished with 3 catches for 44 yards while Lipscomb snagged 5 passes for 28 yards. The trend of Lipscomb running routes well short of the sticks on 3rd down is concerning. Kalija used to be utilized in a fashion that gave him opportunities to attack those critical downs, but he appears to be more of the decoy or check down and hope for the best option. The play design may be done in such a way as to exploit a defense if they key too heavily on Lipscomb and allow other receivers to get open, but sometimes you just have to go to the guy you know can make big plays.

Lessons for Further Study

Were the fumbles due to the cold or are guys trying so hard to make a play they are getting loose with the ball? Wakefield put the ball on the ground twice with one being lost while Bruno Reagan fell on the other for an extra 4 yards. The really concerning part is that the fumble Reagan recovered was on the very first play from scrimmage in the game. One thing with Wakefield is that he appears to run rather upright, and that style obviously exposes the ball a little bit while also not allowing him to cut quite as quickly as he could or be as strong at contact as possible. At the least, he needs to hold onto the ball more like he has all year. Josh Crawford and Shurmur also both put the turf once with Crawford’s being retained while Shurmur’s sealed the Kentucky victory.

During which two games of the next four does Ja’Veon Marlow get to play? The freshman RB has used 2 of his 4 games to keep the redshirt. In those games, he only has 3 carries but has gained 24 yards. Two of the carries were jet sweeps, but he also took a traditional handoff for 6 yards against Kentucky. He looked quick and fairly powerful. My guess would be that Marlow does not play against Arkansas or Missouri, barring an injury to another RB, but he could get 10 carries against Ole Miss and Tennessee. Whichever 2 games he plays, I do expect him to get that number of carries between the two.

How does this team finish? They have battled hard against some very good opposition for the middle part of this schedule (yes, with the exception of that frustrating game against TSU) but can now face some teams that are much more beatable. They need to win 3 of 4 if they want to get Mason to his second bowl game. It is not an easy task but is a doable one IF the team can keep digging and fighting. We saw it happen in 2016 to get to the first bowl game. They have battled hard each week. The Commodores now have a chance to turn battling into winning just by virtue of turning down the level of competition, but the intensity has to stay very high because these teams are still SEC teams. There is a broader question about comparing Mason’s tenure at Vanderbilt to Kentuck under Stoops, but it falls beyond my stated normal scope of viewing each season as a separate entity.