Vanderbilt football has now put their backs to the wall if they want to go to a bowl game. In a matter of one quarter, the Commodores went from looking at getting to 5-5 to falling to 4-6. The game swung the wrong way on a goal-line stand by the Yankee Tigers that was aided by some very vanilla play calling. A potential 35-26 lead then became a 33-28 deficit after Missourah’s ensuing drive went 99 yards for a TD. It was a bitterly painful and oh-so-Vanderbilt way to lose. Is there a chance to repeat 2016’s finish, or is this season sinking and hopefully taking Mason’s tenure with it?
Lessons We Are Learning
This game did not present much in the way of new information that gives an idea of a trend going forward. There were only two of them. The first is how Mason is adjusting his decisions around Ryley Guay’s very inconsistent season. The coach gave his kicker a chance early in the game to prove he had improved through the bye week, but a 39-yard hook shot that never got close to being between the uprights made it clear for Mason and Ludwig that most every situation was 4-down territory.
The second is probably something that should be well-known, but, again, the scope of these articles tries to stick with this season. For this topic, it especially makes sense because a coach’s decisions are often heavily based on personnel and faith in that personnel. Offensive Coordinator had a mostly fantastic game. He did have one strange decision on an early 3rd down after being gifted the ball back by the defense. On 3rd and 4, Ludwig got a little too wacky for his own good with a quick pitch to Blasingame headed to the short side of the field. The play from the shotgun was meant to catch the defense sleeping, but the opposition reacted well and got Blasingame down and forced that missed FG. From that moment, it was Ludwig at his finest – until the most vanilla 4 plays ever were run on the aforementioned super vanilla series. Four straight runs between the tackles failed to score. Individually, none of the calls were bad, but this offense has had success all season with PA, especially using rollouts, near the goal-line. Shurmur is not renowned for his athleticism for a reason, yet he does very well throwing on the move in these situations. The third down play was probably the worst, using a new formation involving OL Sean McMoore as a FB along with 2 more extra OL and blocking TE Cody Markel. This would have been a perfect time to run a PA pass to Markel or even a big man. Andy Ludwig showed yet again that even on a great day he tends to make a couple bad decisions in important situations. This criticism is coming from maybe the last person in Commodore Nation that does not want his head on a stake but does think Mason should find a new OC if the head coach survives.
Well, one other takeaway is that Ja’Veon Marlow did not play. The talented true freshman RB had used 3 of the 4 games he can play while still getting to redshirt this season, so it was somewhat expected that he would surpass the 4-game threshold. Now, Marlow may get to keep the extra season of eligibility. The question now shifts to what his usage will be over the next two games with a bowl berth on the line. A bowl game may actually be the best time to use Marlow’s last game since it would give coaches plenty of time to fully integrate him into the offense, but that bowl is far from guaranteed. A few extra explosive plays, which Marlow seems capable of producing through a jet sweep and straight handoff, might be able to turn either or both of the next two games. Marlow’s situation may be a minor storyline, but it is intriguing.
Lessons We Know Well
The four-man playmaking group on offense are all going to be lumped together because they all stepped up last week. Kyle Shurmur started very strong with a stat line of 7/7 for 69 yards and 2 TDs through two drives. He kept it up through the end of the first half, finishing the first half 14/17 for 142 yards and those same 2 TDs. The second half was not quite as good, but 24/35 for 249 yards and 3 TDs is far from disappointing. The performance would earn Shurmur a Total QBR of 80.0. The senior was particularly effective throwing to his favorite two targets, Lipscomb and Pinkney. The Thundering Herd of One hauled in 8 catches for 99 yards and a TD on 10 passes his way. His versatile TE pal was just as effective with his 7 targets, making 5 catches for 88 yards and a TD. The last, but maybe best, player to add his firepower to the group had a completely ridiculous day. Ke’Shawn Vaughn had the best day rushing against SEC (Wait, what? Clearly a typo by VUcommodores.com) opposition with 182 yards and a TD over 15 carries while also catching 2 passes for 14 yards and another TD. These 4 guys are all going to have to continue to fire on all cylinders to power the Commodores to two critical victories in the next two weeks.
The typically unsung heroes who let Shurmur, Vaughn, Lipscomb, and Pinkney make all the headlines also had a great day. Missouri only had 2 TFLs, both sacks. If they could have avoided giving up the second sack, it would have made the final drive more manageable, but it is hard to fault them too much when the play was so stellar most of the day. For an OL, the fact their play has so little to scrutinize is a great thing.
Lessons for Further Study
How dumb will the Mackey award voters look? Jared Pinkney was left off the semifinalists list for some unknown reason. Pinkney has won the weekly award from the group on two occasions. Somehow, even while being one of the most productive TEs in the country, it was not enough to make the 8-man semifinalist list. Big number 80 could have two huge games that really show off how egregious this snub is.
Can the defense turn a few stops into more consistent play? The two huge turnovers were great for them. They also had a few really nice stops. The issue was that if they did not totally shut down a drive then they did not stop Missourah. Every Tiger drive that did not go 3-and-out or end in a turnover resulted in at least a FG attempt. Ole Miss has a truly scary offense, so holding them to FG attempts and forcing turnovers will be very important. Finding a way to shut down some drives will obviously be key, too. They fell back into some bad habits with less-than-ideal but not quite terrible tackling. Hopefully, the bye week rust is gone because tackling opportunities cannot be wasted against the Rebels.
Where has CJ Bolar gone? After only having 1 catch for 8 yards against Arkansas, the previously emerging freshman was limited to 2 catches for 9 yards. Even worse, both of those passes should have been intentionally dropped. Bolar’s two catches were on the last drive and were both short gains that went down in bounds without gaining a first down. To match Ole Miss’s offense, Bolar will probably have to make a few big plays.
Will this team start getting results for their hard work? They fought hard in Columbia, but a few missed opportunities ruined a potential win. A few key miscues proved to be too much to overcome. The missed FG after the defense forced an INT kept it close early. Allowing a long drive for a FG to end the first half got the game within score. Being unable to score from 1st and goal from the 4 gave Missouri life instead of burying them as a TD would have. Chris Pierce dropped an easy pass that would have given the Commodores the ball on the 15 going in with about 4 minutes left in the game. Instead, that drive ended 3 plays later due to a turnover on downs. Of course, CJ Bolar was interfered with on 4th down but somehow the whistle was swallowed. The other bit of bad luck was that both of Missouri’s fumbles bounced right back to the man who dropped the ball.