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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Arkansas

The game was over a week ago, but the Sunshine Pump lives on past glories.

Vanderbilt v Arkansas
Jared Pinkney would not be denied, even if it meant face-planting his way into the end zone.
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Vanderbilt football finally got away from Top 15 opposition and took advantage of the weaker opponent to get a big SEC road win. Arkansas may not be very good (see: very bad) but putting up 45 points against any SEC team is a good day for the Commodores. The record entering the game was 3-5, so they could only slip up once in the final 4 games. The Razorbacks seemed to be the easiest opposition left, too. Losing would have almost certainly ended any bowl hopes. Instead, the Commodores may have flashed enough promise that December football may be in play. We get to put a bow on the pre-bye week game now before all focus shifts to a Big XII opponent. It is time to dive into what is changing or not with this team.

Lessons We Are Learning

The weirdest place to start is the chosen starting point. Ke’Shawn Vaughn will get his well-deserved spotlight later, but a piece that might be missed is what his excellence and position as the feature back does to the rest of the running backs. Khari Blasingame was the second choice against the Hogs and powered his way to 46 yards on 10 carries with 1 end zone trip while also hauling in 2 passes for 42 yards. Blasingame actually recorded his second straight game with 40+ yards receiving after catching 3 passes for 40 yards against Kentucky. Meanwhile, Jamauri Wakefield made good use of his 3 rushing attempts to get 22 yards with all but 2 of those coming on one play. True freshman Ja’Veon Marlow handled the ball twice and tacked on 22 yards. Getting 6 yards per carry out of the backups is really useful. Surprisingly, the Arkansas run defense is not terrible, ranking 57th in FBS after the game while allowing averages of 153.6 yards per game and 4.03 yards per carry. Vanderbilt beat that by averaging 5.1 yards per rush (with college stats including sacks and kneel downs) and amassing 250 yards on the ground. It may be that the guys behind Vaughn are so hungry to get whatever carries he does not that they are running harder, they could be more energetic with the decreased load, or maybe defenses are anticipating more passing attempts when Vaughn is out of the game since he is getting the ball so much while he is in the game. Whatever the full explanation is, Vaughn’s prowess may be having some great side effects.

On cog in the RB room that is worthy of a more in-depth look is Ja’Veon Marlow. Since Marlow has used 3 of the 4 games he can play without burning a redshirt, it seems unlikely that he will be redshirting. While keeping players for an extra year, especially when other players are doing well at a position, is nice, Marlow has shown flashes of serious potential. The snapshots are limited with only 5 official carries (another run was called back due to penalty, I believe). Marlow looks very athletic and has done a good job of finding creases when given the chance to get the ball though. His role could definitely expand with the benefit of the bye week, and the coaches seemingly deciding that he is more important now than a potential extra year might be down the road.

In less comforting news, the defense gave up 31 points. I could be intentionally and overly simplistic and point out that we gave up as many points as Alabama did to Arkansas. It is tempting, but there are more interesting talking points. First the last 7 of those 31 points came on a drive when the game was over, and the defense was in some sort of weird approximation of prevent since Vanderbilt was up 45-24 with less than a minute and a half to go in the game. As Tom pointed out in The Statistical, removing that last drive dropped Arkansas from 6.88 to 6.41 yards per play, 6.11 to 5.06 yards per passing play, and 43.0 to 41.8 percent success rate. The defense seemed to stutter all game though. They would be excellent for a drive or two then give up a few big plays that lead to points. Of Arkansas’s 12 drives, 5 consisted of 3 plays or fewer. It really is hard to know what to make of a defense that was so inconsistent when the Razorback offense has been steadily improving all season. Missouri, who finally looked dangerous again with Emmanuel Hall healthy at WR, could do a lot of damage against a wavering defense. Stepping up to stop the Yankee Tiger threat would go a long way in the stretch run.

Lessons We Know Well

Kyle Shurmur is just being his typically efficient self. The senior QB was under 25 passing attempts for the second straight game and right around the 200-yard mark, but he completed 68.4% of his throws. The first half was a little rough with Shurms going 5/9 for 68 yards, although both TDs were completed then. His second half was not much busier, but he went 8/10 for 124 yards. He made good throws when needed while mostly letting the ground game do its dominant thing. A few moments of confusion, whether due to late play calls or Shurmur losing focus on the play clock, were very frustrating with such an experienced signal caller. However, it takes a lot of maturity to play a smaller role for the betterment of the team. The coaches have said that Kyle can audible at the line, so it would be easy for him to change into more passing plays or not check down into running plays when the time is right. He is not going to inflate his draft stock with lots of handoffs, but Kyle did the right thing for Vanderbilt by not getting in the way of what was working so well. He may need to step up in Columbia though with Missouri possessing the 25th best run defense by yards per game (125.0) yet being 119th against the pass with teams firing away for 279.6 yards per game against them.

Jared Pinkney earned his second recognition as the John Mackey Tight End of the Week thanks to 93 yards on 5 catches with 2 TDs. He made a really athletic play on the second score that made me cringe with a crash landing in the end zone. The big athletic TE was fine though and went on to make a big play on a TE screen later in the game. His dynamic pass catching partner Kalija Lipscomb had a quieter day with 4 catches for 44 yards and no scores, but that means the tandem still snagged just under half of all Shurmur’s passes. Their numbers may have deflated with Vaughn and the running game going off, but it was not indicative of these two playing poorly. In fact, Pinkney showed his dedication to success by sprinting 30 yards downfield for the final block that let Vaughn go untouched on his 63-yard score. If Vanderbilt needs throw the ball more, these guys will be finding ways to get open.

Speaking of that Vaughn guy, he had an okay day. There were a couple of nice runs in Fayetteville. Nickle and diming to 172 yards rushing over 26 carries with a long of 63 (TD) and 2 other scores is acceptable. In reality, Vaughn just cut straight through the Razorback defense repeatedly. He averaged 4.36 yards per carry even without his biggest play. Arkansas was really loading up the box to stop him, but the offensive line and Vaughn just kept grinding out yards. His conditioning did seem to come into question since he was rested for most, if not all, of the second quarter, so hopefully the bye week let him get some conditioning in to be on the field for more plays in these last 3 games. The threat he offers changes how defenses must align themselves and can have a big impact on the passing game just by changing spacings.

His buddies on the offensive line kept up their very good play but did have a couple of breakdowns with Shurmur being sacked 3 times, which was just over the Razorback’s average of 2.56 per game. They did a great job giving Vaughn the space he needed, which is admittedly not too much, but the other backs did well, too. They also got to show their athleticism with a number of screen passes (at least 2 to Blasingame, 1 to Wakefield, and 1 to Pinkney). The big boys got downfield and turned each of those plays into 20+ yards. Missouri is 95th in sacks per game (1.67) and 71st in TFLs per game (5.8). Just like the other positive performers, their continued success is vital. They may be the most important though since even Vaughn cannot run without some holes and Shurmur needs time to throw.

Lessons for Further Study

What made Andy Ludwig open the playbook up against Arkansas? The offensive coordinator is one of the biggest lightning rods for Vanderbilt fans. His often too conservative style is the primary cause of criticism, but he has shown random flashes of brilliance throughout his tenure and another one occurred against the Piggies. My theory is that he is afraid to get creative until the offense can get into a rhythm where he feels comfortable that one bad play will not cause a complete stall out. Yes, I know the obvious argument is that a little creativity can spark an offense into rhythm. I am not defending that plan of attack, but I do think it is the one Ludwig uses. The times when the offense has gotten rolling over his tenure have been when the scoreboard gets lit up and fun plays come out of nowhere.

Can this team storm to a strong finish that results in a bowl game? We have seen it before in 2016, and the schedule then was the exact same as it is now. However, that season Missourah looked like terrible while Ole Miss looked dangerous offensively but vulnerable defensively with THEM looking towards the SEC Championship game. Now, the game in Columbia looks like the most difficult by far. Ole Miss is the same but even more threatening on offense and more pitiful on defense. The team we have beaten twice in a row may be finding its footing but is scrambling for bowl eligibility. Two years ago, the loss up north looked like the final blow since beating both Ole Miss and UT seemed nigh impossible. A close, competitive loss to the Tigers would still leave a glimmer of hope, but a win would really increase the odds. Yes, I know. “Nooooo?! Really? Winning a game when you need 2 wins out of 3 improves your odds?!” The hired Auburn man is trying his hand at predictive analysis.

What does the bye week mean? Derek Mason’s teams at Vanderbilt have tend to…oh, wait. There’s going to be a whole separate Lessons article about what Mason’s teams do after bye weeks along with taking a bit of a peak at the team from a wider lens instead of being down in the muck of just one season.