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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: THEM

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Surely none of you thought I would skip talking about this game, did you?

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Vanderbilt
Pinkney must hate THEM as much as we do!
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The last time the Vanderbilt Commodores played football was a long time ago. It can be easy to forget what happened in a game that was over a month ago. When that game is a third straight and dominant win over an insufferable in-state rival, it is even easier to forget what happened in the 11 games before the most recent one. These memory issues are almost certainly exacerbated by whatever booze of choice helped you tolerate family for the holidays. Normal university activities are out of session, but this classroom has one last meeting before the Commodores get back on the field at 8 PM Central today.

Lessons We are Learning

This team has some interesting freshman WRs. CJ Bolar had a couple of very impactful games in the middle of the season. Then his production diminished before he had 6 catches for 93 yards against THEM to close the regular season. Fellow freshman Amir Abdur-Rahman got into the rotation midway through the season but never registered a stat until the Ole Miss game where he had 1 catch for 15 yards. Then Abdur-Rahman pulled in 2 catches for 41 yards including an incredible TD catch that was #5 on the SC Top 10 against the Vawls. The recency bias means some of us might even be forgetting the real gem of the freshman WRs. Cam Johnson only had 4 catches for 45 yards in 4 games before his injury, but the number of plays he was active on was increasing. Luckily, he saves a year of eligibility with the new redshirt rules. The roles of Bolar and Abdur-Rahman in the Texas Bowl are worth watching.

Since the season is almost completely behind us, it is hard to find topics with a similar level of ambiguity. However, the defense stepped up for the last two games. After being mostly good while having too many lapses for most of the season, Ole Miss’s explosive offense was held to 29 points while being blanked on their first OT drive when needing a TD to force a second OT. The trend was not totally broken though since the Rebel-Bear-Sharks accrued 578 yards but being held to 5 FGs would prove to be enough for the Commodores offense to match them in regulation and win in OT. The final game was domination though. The team from Knoxville has not had a very good offense this season, but they were embarrassed in Nashville. They would only muster 242 yards of offense and 13 points. Although, the minor lapses reared their head when 3 plays went for 135 yards. Ty Chandler opened the 2nd half with a 75-yard run then a few drives later back-to-back 43- and 17-yard passes to Jauan Jennings and Marquez Calloway accounted for 56% of the yardage and all of the points allowed. Baylor’s offense has a very suspect OL and is without their best WR, one Jalen Hurd. The Commodore defense needs to finish on another strong performance, unlike the last bowl appearance.

Lessons We Know Well

Kyle Shurmur is lethal when he gets going. His rivalry week performance of 367 yards on 31/35 passing with 3 TDs and no INTs was another special example of Shurmur’s talent. The first 15 throws were completed before Khari Blasingame had a slightly high screen pass go through his hands. Shurms has made a habit of taking apart Tennessee defenses, and his 3-1 record against them is truly historic for a Vanderbilt QB. The senior QB needs 118 passing yards, 6 completions, and 15 attempts to become Vanderbilt’s all-time leader in each category for a career along with already holding the passing TD mark at 63.

His best targets, Pinkney and Lipscomb both had decent days but neither had their best game. Lipscomb had 8 catches for 86 yards while Pinkney managed 40 yards on 4 catches with 1 TD. Kalija had an incredible one-handed grab while being interfered with though. Unfortunately for him, the very next play would be Abdur-Rahman’s insane TD grab, so Lipscomb’s play did not get as much attention as it deserved. Pinkney’s TD also had a hilarious celebration where he moved his arms in the shape of a “U” and a “T” rapid fire approximately 100 times. He might have been mocking the opposition somehow, and Derek Mason was not as approving of the taunt as most Vanderbilt fans are.

The offensive line did allow 3 sacks, which was a down performance, but Shurmur would not have had those insane numbers without consistently good pockets. All 3 sacks occurred in the first half, so it is possible the defense came out in some unexpected fronts or used new blitzes. In the running game, they did allow 6 other TFLs, but 2 of them came on jet sweep runs by Kalija Lipscomb. Those negative plays were not breakdowns by the OL. Baylor’s pass rush only generates 2.00 sacks per game (75th in FBS) and 5.5 TFLs per game (83rd) while the Vanderbilt offensive line allows 1.75 sacks per game (41st) and 5.58 TFLs per game (45th). It should be noted that Baylor’s numbers are probably inflated due to the high number of plays run in the typical Big XII game. Although, the opposite may be true for Vanderbilt.

Lessons for Further Study

So, this is a bit of a weird segment. There is only one game left. Bowl games are also hard to judge by their nature. The layoff between the regular season and a bowl mean the results can be drastically different. The stark difference along with this being the last game before a new season mean that team-oriented trends will be not be the focus. Instead, these questions will lead into either individual evaluations or focus on the program at-large. Some such topics have been left off if there is no reasonable way to get an answer from the game.

Has Mason learned from the Independence Bowl on how to prepare a team for a bowl game? This game will certainly have some extra emotions due to the connection to recently-deceased Vanderbilt player Turner Cockrell. Cockrell’s memory has been an important part of the pre-bowl festivities. Highly emotional situations are hard to prepare for adequately due to the extreme unpredictability. The easiest way to ride the high energy will be to start strongly, which did not happen in 2016.

What players can leave a final, lasting impression? A long list of seniors and draft-eligible juniors get to place their final mark on Vanderbilt football. Joejuan Williams, Jared Pinkney, Ke’Shawn Vaughn, and Kyle Shurmur are the obvious candidates, but plenty of others like Bruno Reagan, Ladarius Wiley, and Khari Blasingame can make their own final statement. Bowl games tend to have unlikely heroes. It would be very cool for someone playing their final game for Vanderbilt to have the defining moment, especially a guy who may not be playing on Sundays next season.

Will we get to see one of the younger QBs? Obviously, the dream scenario is to get a massive lead to allow Shurmur to take a final bow and pass the proverbial torch after securing all of the benchmarks within reach. The interesting possible twist is whether or not Deuce Wallace is eligible to play. Wallace has practiced with the team, but it is unclear if he can play in a game. The depth chart does not list Wallace. Otherwise, it would be very fun to see Allan Walters get some game action, which the new redshirt rules would allow without wasting his redshirt. Walters IS back on the depth chart behind Hasan after being left off the weekly depth charts for the last few regular season games. The coaches also appeared to be preparing him to go into the game against UT for the final drive but decided against it.

The last topic is a concerning one. Can Ke’Shawn Vaughn stay healthy? The electric running back has started a disturbing habit of not finishing games down the stretch. Those health questions may be dampening his draft stock significantly. Vaughn at his best is nearly impossible to contain. Your talent does not matter much if you are not able to use it. Vanderbilt could really use a full game out of him. He could also benefit from making it from start to finish in this one.