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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Bye Week Bonanza

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The Commodores need to get off to be a better start than writing this did.

Vanderbilt v Arkansas
Mason’s focus and management of the bye week could make or break the Commodores this week.
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

We all need a little early gameday reading. The game is early, and playing a Big XII school in the middle of conference play is a real drag. Unfortunately, my Friday turned into a real mess, so here we are. This bye week edition is a little a different though. There is not a game to review and learn from for this week. Instead, it is a good time to look at the season so far through a wider lens. In keeping with the intentions of this series, this analysis will be confined to the happenings of the 2018 Commodores. The typical sections will be ignored in favor of just going step-by-step through topics. The rules will then be further ignored in the interest of looking back at how Vanderbilt has performed post-bye week under Derek Mason.

The biggest storyline entering the season was quarterback Kyle Shurmur. The senior signal caller was on track to take his place as one of the, if not THE, best QBs in Vanderbilt history. While his final campaign has not been bad, it has had some struggles, namely consistency issues. Shurmur came out firing against MTSU and Nevada, looking like the NFL prospect most people expected. He raised his stock further by showing up and showing out in South Bend, where drops and fumbles by others robbed him of at least two TD passes. Shurmur did throw one interception in the game do to forcing a pass downfield when the better decision was a throw away to get to 2nd down in plus territory. Unfortunately, he had a rough game against South Carolina before having an effective game against TSU that was marred by two poor throws into the end zone that were picked off. Then a pair of disappointing but not bad games against Georgia and Florida put the season back on a simmer. Shurmur’s play in the last two games, Kentucky then Arkansas, has been efficient with limited throws. Against Kentucky, the weather made throwing the ball less than desirable while the running attack’s dominance over the Razorbacks made passing mostly unnecessary. This senior season has not been as disappointing as Ralph Webb’s, but it has not lived up to expectations. A blazing final 3 weeks, which we have seen from Shurmur before, would put a fantastic finish to his Vanderbilt career and might salvage some of the draft stock that has waned.

Shurmur’s underwhelming season has not been helped at some points by the receiving corps. The pass catchers have not been bad, but the passing attack has been a bit too reliant on Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney. A third very good option has sprung onto the scene in the form of a true freshman. If someone made that statement in the pre-season, most Vanderbilt fans would have assumed it was about Cameron Johnson. Cam was growing into a serious role before suffering a lower body. In his place, CJ Bolar has performed respectably. After not making a catch in the first two games, Bolar has accumulated 20 receptions, which is only 10 behind Pinkney for second on the team. Chris Pierce has been pretty disappointing with only 9 catches for 94 yards on the season. The expectations were for Pierce to be the second option across from Lipscomb, and he has not lived up to that at all so far. Other receivers like Donaven Tennyson, whose fumble and drop against Notre Dame mostly removed him from the gameplan, and Sam Dobbs, who has been hampered by injuries of late, also have had minimal roles. Pierce and the other underperformers, along with the running backs who have been good receiving options, will most likely need to find ways to be more useful in this final stretch.

The key to receivers having time to get open before Shurmur gets waylaid is the offensive line. The big guys have done well to this point in the season. Their protection has only allowed Vanderbilt QBs to be sacked on 5.47% of their dropbacks (46th in FBS) which has meant allowing 1.56 sacks per game (35th in FBS). Overall, the OL is only allowing teams to rack up 5.67 tackles for loss per game (54th in FBS). These numbers are not phenomenal. They are in the top half of college football though. To their benefit, they will be facing some defenses who could make their job easier. Missouri is 95th in sacks (1.67 per game) and 71st in TFLs (5.8). Ole Miss is 74th in sacks (2.00) and 13th in TFLs (7.8). THEY are 89th in sacks (1.78) and 85th in TFLS (5.3). As you can see, these teams are not the most threatening when it comes to breaking down an offensive line. Florida, Kentucky, and Arkansas were all better in both categories than each of the final 3 teams except for Ole Miss’s TFLS. The Rebels probably benefit from having their defense on the field for so many snaps due to a high scoring offense along with how bad their defense is generally, thus causing an overly aggressive approach that may get an extra negative stop or two per game but gives up a ton of big plays. The Vanderbilt offensive line needs to, and can, pave the way to a bowl game.

One less dependable part of the team has been the special teams. Well, not all of the special teams have been problematic, just the kicker. Parker Thome has showed off a booming leg that might be just a bit short on the ability to really pin teams deep with some good (maybe lucky) bounces. He has averaged 44.58 yards per punt over 38 attempts with 8 fair catches, 10 downed inside the 20, 11 flying 50+ yards, and the annoying 6 touchbacks. His kicking companion Ryley Guay has not been nearly as reliable. He has gone 4/6 between 20-29, 2/3 from 30-39, 2/5 at 40-49, and incredibly 1/1 beyond 50. Pure and simple, Guay has plenty of leg, but he has struggled to find his aim. The hope is that the bye week will let him refocus and get the kinks worked out. Field goals can be vital in games between teams scratching and clawing to finish their seasons on positive swings.

Just as importantly, the defense needs to find a groove. Nevada and MTSU did not have nearly the athletes to trouble the Commodores in weeks 1 and 2, and Notre Dame’s struggles at QB allowed Vanderbilt to mostly shut them down. Since then, the defense has had lots of struggles. Early tackling issues have mostly been solved, but some missed assignments and untimely calls have allowed for big plays. Missouri and Ole Miss have scary offenses, too, so they will be mighty tests. Tennessee has not shown much life offensively, and they have had bad luck with injuries to make matters worse for them. The bright spot so far has been the accumulation of 16 turnovers through 9 games. A slight improvement in yards and points allowed could really make a big difference.

A big difference in the start of the season and current procedure is the usage of Ke’Shawn Vaughn. After averaging 10.8 carries and 73.2 yards per game (yes, that IS a 6.75 yards per carry!) through the Georgia game, Vaughn was named as the starter and “bell cow” by Derek Mason. He answered with 7 carries for 56 yards along with a 75-yard TD reception on a screen against Florida. All of that was accomplished before Vaughn left the game in the 2nd quarter. He was well on his way to a massive day before injury shut him down for the rest of that game along with the Kentucky game, which he really could have affected since it finished as a one-score game. In his return and first full game as the primary back, Vaughn gashed Arkansas for 172 yards on 26 carries with 3 TDs. Cold weather is coming, and the rushing attack will be extra important. Vaughn is the leader of that group, but the others are not slackers either with Jamauri Wakefield and Khari Blasingame averaging 4.6 and 4.7 YPC, respectively. Those two really stepped up with limited carries last week, too, when Vaughn had his time to really carry the load, so that could be a sign of things to come for them.

With the major trends and topics for 2018 out of the way, what does the bye week typically mean for Derek Mason’s teams at Vanderbilt? Some coaches earn reputations for having teams that either play really well or really poorly following the “off week.” The way a coach handles the week without a game can do a lot to drive the response when they do have a game again. Unfortunately, Mason was 0-5 in games following the bye week entering year 5. Yes, for some reason, there were 2 bye weeks in 2014. The interesting part is the performance in these games. The 2014 team was obviously awful yet found a way to give a Missourah team that finished #14 a bit of a scare, only losing 24-14 in Columbia. The second swing at a team after a week off was the 51-0 drubbing at the hands of #4 Mississippi State in Starkville. Then the 2015 open date was followed by the greatest example of Vanderbilt’s impotence against the Gamecocks where Johnny McCrary impersonated Santa to give a win to a South Carolina team that had just lost head coach Steve Spurrier to resignation. The game itself was mostly well-played by the Commodores, but JMac’s turnover problems proved to be too much, and this was the final straw that saw Shurmur burn his redshirt to start the rest of 2015. (How nice would it be if Kyle had another year to give us?) Whatever happened during the 2016 bye week needs to be replicated. A 4-4 but rather lackluster team traveled down to face #11 Auburn who was looking like a real contender with an explosive offense and stifling defense. Of the first half plays run by Vanderbilt’s offense, Commodore fans might have recognized only a handful as Andy Ludwig dug deeply into the playbook with some major creativity. The talent disparity held serve though, even after Zach Cunningham gave the offense the ball down 7 after blocking a short FG in the final minutes with an amazing leap of the offensive line. Finally, the 2017 game in Columbia, South Carolina resulted in an exciting 34-27 loss with a final drive ending on downs to end the Commodores bid for OT or a win. Again, the offense stepped up but fell just short of doing enough to win.

What are the trends besides losing? Well, offensively, we can ignore 2014 since that was before Andy Ludwig arrived. The 2015 attempt was also hampered by the giveaway machine that was Johnny McCrary. Treating those two seasons as outliers, the two most attempts produced very promising offensive efforts. On the other side, it is hard to know what matters. Obviously, Tarver is in his first season as Defensive Coordinator. Derek Mason is still an important voice in defensive gameplanning. His Vanderbilt teams have mostly struggled defensively after a week off. It may well be common for that to happen since teams often try to rest and get healthy, so they would avoid a lot of contact which leads to a dip in tackling efficiency. Hopefully, after spending the early part of the season correcting tackling issues, the boys in gold (well, white jerseys but the pants are gold!) will avoid that pitfall.

Ultimately, the 2018 Commodores have offered glimpses and flashes of very good play. Recent games have shown different signs of improvement with some stuttering. The problem is putting all the good play together for 60 minutes without critical errors or injuries. Missouri will be the most difficult of the final three games. It is also the only one on the road, which is where most of the best play has come this season. A win in CoMo will put Vanderbilt in good position for a bowl while a loss will leave the margin of error at zero (no, APR bowls do NOT count as an accomplishment). Hopefully, we get to learn what it feels like to be back at .500 with two games left.