The general feeling on the outside looking in at Vanderbilt football is not good. The negativity by fans is completely understandable after narrowly escaping against TSU last Saturday to follow the disappointing loss to South Carolina. Before we get any further, a salient point that I have mentioned a few times needs to be reiterated. An ugly win against TSU and painful loss to SC does not erase what happened the first 3 weeks. The two most recent results do provide some concerning data though. So what was learned?
Lessons We Are Learning
Vanderbilt football is still incredibly bipolar. Maybe this should go in the well-known category, but the starts to the last two seasons have suckered not just optimists such as myself but also most even-keeled fans into a sense of confidence. The Het-O-Meter has gone from “dry” to “soaked” incredibly quickly. The blowout by Bama may not have torpedoed fan expectations as quickly as the last 2 games. The concern is warranted, but better teams than 2018 Vanderbilt have struggled against FCS teams that were worse than 2018 TSU. The rush of negativity probably will not be slowed unless the unexpected and improbably occurs in Athens (again). Beware the recency bias and do not forget what else has happened this season.
One reason to be positive is the combination of the offensive line and running backs actually being mostly effective. Much ado was made after the South Carolina game (where the RBs carried 26 times for 103 yards, which is a respectable 3.96 YPC) about Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s usage and a comment he made on Twitter. Vaughn had 9 carries for 30 yards against the Gamecocks but was given a chance to put up or shut up against TSU and responded with 146 yards on 17 carries with a long of 78 (still a 4.88 YPC on the other 16). It is TSU, but the runs LOOKED right. Gaps were attacked quickly instead of searching for home runs on every play, which has been Vaughn’s biggest issue so far. To be fair to the coaching staff, Jamauri Wakefield did gain 72 yards on 14 carries against SC, so it was not like they kept in an ineffective back while Vaughn was languishing on the sideline. Oddly, Wakefield did not have a single carry against TSU while still handling his kick return duties, so it is hard to know why he was not carrying the ball. Khari Blasingame struggled against SC having only 1 yard on 3 carries with a bounce back against TSU where he had 88 yards on 10 attempts. Blasingame was the least effective against Notre Dame in the sense of YPC, too, so maybe his role should be restricted to short yardage…but that may make his usage too predictable.
The offensive line in general has been solid. They allowed some really inopportune pressure against South Carolina, but the stats say Shurmur was only officially hurried 5 times with 2 of them resulting in sacks. Being put under pressure on 5 of 40 dropbacks is pretty good. The accuracy of those numbers can be questioned. Vanderbilt QBs only being sacked 5 times through 5 games is pretty cut-and-dry though. Kyle Shurmur is not the most mobile QB, so he is probably not eluding a ton of free rushers. Being T-15th in sacks allowed is pretty nice, but how the hell has BUFFALO allowed 0 sacks in 5 games?! Incredible stat leaders aside, the OL will find a massive test in Athens. They need to keep Shurmur upright and free to set and fire while also opening gaps in a fearsome front to keep the aforementioned rushing stats intact.
This next topic definitely belongs in the next category, but my homerism has me hoping that the new coaching mentality eventually melds with the reality of not giving up big plays so often. Even TSU gashed us at times, and it was not due to bad players or even bad playcalls. The mantra of forcing turnovers and causing big plays defensively has just caused too many missed tackles due to trying to strip the ball and too many open lanes for a dual threat QB to step through due to pass rushers going too far upfield. It is very fixable. Tarver needs to take a deep breath and have his players take a smarter approach. The offense is good enough that they do not need great field position every time to score some points. The best thing for the offense may actually just be a defense that can settle down and be consistently good even without a lot of turnovers. The approach has worked to an extent though as the 9 turnovers forced so far ranks the defense T-23rd in the country. The defense does not need to stop trying to force turnovers, just pick their spots better in order to put themselves into more favorable scenarios on 2nd and 3rd down.
Special teams are setting a frustrating trend. Parker Thome has been excellent while Ryley Guay is in danger of losing his job. Thome has launched 5 of his 16 punts for 50+ yards. Three have been downed inside the 20. South Carolina is where the bulk of his punts on the season occurred with 6 of the 16 happening that game. In order, they were a 43 yarder returned 5 yards to SC’s 25, a 57-yard touchback, a 36 yarder downed at SC’s 46, a 55 yarder for a touchback, a 57 yarder out of bounds at SC’s 27, and a 52 yarder downed at SC’s 33. He had the one mis-kick, but the rest were well-hit. The touchbacks were, if memory serves, gave the gunners a decent chance to down them short of the endzone but were not bad plays by the special teamers either. Thome’s one punt against TSU flew 37 yards and was brought back 3 to the TSU 26. Meanwhile, Guay missed from 46 and 27 (TWENTY-SEVEN!) against TSU after not attempting any kicks against SC. The season numbers on Guay are not promising either as he is 3/4 from 20-29, 1/1 from 30-39, and 0-3 from 40-49. The frustrating aspect is that Guay has plenty of leg. He can get the range from 55 easily, but it is not helpful if he cannot sort out the accuracy. Oddly, most of his kicks look good while flying through the air, having good end-over-end rotation, but are clearly not finding their way through the uprights often enough.
Lessons We Know Well
Offensively, this team goes as Kyle Shurmur goes. Unfortunately, Shurmur has had some rough patches in the last 3 games. He came out of the fog quickly against TSU, finishing 22 of 29 for 297 yards and 3 TDS but 2 INTs after starting 5 of 10 for 39 yards and 2 INTs. Shurms was unable to do so against South Carolina though. He went 18 of 38 for 180 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT, earning a QBR of 28.8. Kyle Shurmur is not a bottom quartile (or close to it) QB. He needs to get back to being the efficient “coach’s son” QB he can have success being. His best strength is not his arm talent but his understanding of the game. The arm is definitely good, but Shurmur has to avoid turnovers and identify pressure to help his OL if Vanderbilt has any chance to keep it close against Georgia.
Shurmur’s dynamic duo of targets combined for 112 yards (of his 130) on 13 catches (of 19 total completions) against South Carolina. Pinkney was quiet (2 catches for 28 yards but had an important TD early), but Lipscomb was the most influential Commodore with 9 catches for 174 yards and 2 TDS, including the game winner. These two both need to be constant threats and get open for Shurmur this week. Lipscomb will likely have to beat one of the best CBs in the country, Deandre Baker, but it is a challenge he likely embraces. Pinkney will probably see much more varied coverage and needs to use his different skills depending on the matchup. They may have a third member join to form a trio, but it is early days.
Lessons for Further Study
Was TSU CJ Bolar’s coming out party or just a big game against an overmatched opponent? The true freshman had 4 catches for 62 yards. He had a great 30-yard reception against Notre Dame. The 4 catches had also been split evenly between Notre Dame and South Carolina. Then Bolar hauled in 7 passes for 71 yards including some nice runs after the catch. A third major threat in the passing game could really bolster the attack. It makes sense that a true freshman might be coming into his own, as Cam Johnson was starting to before his injury, 5 games into his first season on campus. Another true freshman, Amir Abdur-Rahman, showed up on the field against TSU without registering any stats but showing some tenacity on a downfield block for which he was weakly called for an offsetting unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The coaches must see something they like because Abdur-Rahman is the 2nd name under Kalija Lipscomb at one WR spot while Bolar leads Chris Pearce on the other side.
Can Zach Cunningham impart any of his magic to the defense? The current Houston Texan had 19 tackles in the 2016 win at Georgia. That count feels low because he was involved in or around nearly every tackle that day, including single-handedly preserving the win on the legendary 4th-and-1 play. No one on this team can do that, or would surprise everyone on the planet if they do, so Vanderbilt’s defensive hopes ride on everyone doing their job really well with some big single efforts by different guys on different plays. It is a very tall order, but they mostly rose to the occasion after a slow start in South Bend.
What is the aftermath of this game? The game could easily get out of hand even with an excellent performance from the Commodores. Georgia is just that freaking good. Losing this game does nothing to the season’s expectations and possibilities because it was an expected loss before the season. Responding properly is the key, even if the miraculous happens and Vanderbilt wins. In that dream-world scenario, it will be vital that the team does not get too high before hosting Florida the next week.
Finally, what does it take for you to take a deep breath and re-center yourself? That answer will vary from person to person. The right answer is also not something I feel comfortable defining. Obviously, I would say a win should make everyone turn back to at least post-Notre Dame feelings. It is not about moral victories either. We are playing the presumed 2nd best team in the country. It does not make losing close a good thing, but it can still relieve some fears about how the rest of the season against lesser competition will go.