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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Nevada

What happens when all the rules are broken?

NCAA Football: Nevada at Vanderbilt
Big play option at TE? Maybe!
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

First off, this article is going to break all the rules. My pants are on my body, and the drink minimum has not been met yet. My personal endeavor to watch the complete game over again has also failed. Basically, this will be the Nevada defense of Lessons in Vanderbilt Football articles…which is the MTSU defense of Anchor of Gold articles. Just like you can learn that I can operate a laptop on a usable level, we will try to glean something useful from the Nevada game.

Lessons We Are Learning

The defense shut down an explosive passing attack for the second straight week. Nevada did manage to pick up 250 yards passing but were suffocated when trying to run the ball, only gaining 54 yards. The Wolfpack did so on 42 passing attempts and 22 rushing attempts. All of that comes out to 3.86 yards per play which is not good at all. The 2.45 yards per run along with a growing deficit forced Nevada to throw the ball a lot, which was not much more successful at 4.6 yards per play. The interesting thing is that Vanderbilt has not allowed any second half points yet. Notre Dame will present a much stronger challenge, and they have shown a propensity for the big play. Tarver needs to make sure Wimbush has to stay in the pocket and win the game with his arm, instead of being able to get free to run and create pass plays when the called play breaks down. Wimbush showed a propensity for interceptions while tossing 3 against Ball State. Vanderbilt snagged two against Nevada and had a third opportunity bounce off Sheffield’s facemask. We will know a lot more about the defense after facing a P5 offensive line though, and we all know how the trench battle can turn a dominating defense into one that is easily exploited.

Another aspect of the team that is teasing to be instrumental in a successful season is Jared Pinkney. The big TE was targeted 5 times for the 2nd straight week and turned that into 4 catches for 98 yards with a big 53 yarder that was almost entirely yards after catch. With Shurmur throwing the ball 32 times this week instead of the 17 tosses against MTSU, other options saw opportunities to make plays. Five players including the mainstays of Lipscomb and Pinkney were targeted 3 times or more. Chris Pierced had five passes thrown his way and snagged 2 of them for 20 yards. Cam Johnson and Donaven Tennyson round out the group of five with 3 each. It is obvious that more useful options for Shurmur can only being a good thing. Notre Dame’s strong defense will test how good these options are though. Getting open against a team like MTSU or Nevada is much different than finding enough space against Notre Dame and other good to great defenses.

The rushing attack got some praise last week. They crushed Nevada’s 3-3-5 defense, but that defense is considered one of the, if not THE, worst run defenses in FBS. Meanwhile, their opposition in South Bend this weekend is one of the best rushing defenses in FBS. It will be a test to see if the backs can combine for another 197 yards on 35 carries. Vaughn took 11 carries 93 yards, including a 46-yard house call. Wakefield powered for 43 yards on 8 carries, which was negatively affected by some telegraphed runs near the goal line on the first. Blasingame had a light load with 6 carries for 28 yards. Josh Crawford even gritted out 33 yards on 10 carries when all six of the fans in Vanderbilt Stadium knew the Commodores were just trying to run the clock out. Vanderbilt needs its rushing attack to keep being successful to upset the Leprechauns, but success this week will look more like 3.5 or 4 yards per carry, just enough to keep moving the chains while making the play action passing attack a threat.

Possibly the biggest departure from life as a Vanderbilt fan has been special teams. Kickoffs are not being returned OR sent out of bounds. Punts are high and long with nice placement. Field goals have distance to be good from 55+ yards. Okay, the 49-yard attempt did hit off the upright, but it was nearly three-fourths of the way up the post on impact. Maybe it is the inner sunshine pumper coming out, but a kick from almost 50 yards hitting the upright is not a slight on the kicker’s accuracy. The ball was struck well and flew true but was just a little off target. Shawn Mennenga may have made the biggest improvement to his unit of any Vanderbilt coach this off-season.

Lessons We Know Well

While new coaches have improved their units, Vanderbilt’s offensive coach on the field Kyle Shurmur is cruising. His stats are fairly ho-hum, but ESPN’s QBR has him as the 30th best QB in the country while accounting for competition. The playbook has also seemed limited, as many Commodore fans have complained. It likely changes, and Kyle Shurmur has risen to the occasion when the playbook expands. The only concern is that he tries to do too much as he did against Missouri and Kentucky last season, when he threw seven of his ten interceptions on the season in just two games. Shurmur’s biggest asset is his brain, and, more than just throwing the ball all over the place, the quarterback needs to set his teammates up to succeed through his ability to recognize defenses and change the play at the line of scrimmage. This game will test his mental acumen as much as his physical abilities.

Thundering Herd of One Kalija Lipscomb caught 10 of the 11 passes thrown his way and got 85 yards. Unfortunately, the officials appeared to miss a pretty clear targeting that led to his fumble. The defender smashed into Lipscomb’s facemask using the crown of his helmet. It is somewhat understandable to lose control of the ball in that circumstance, and Kalija has no history of being fumble-prone. While Shurmur needs to be smart and steady, Lipscomb needs to be explosive. Vanderbilt will likely need 3 or 4 big plays to pull the upset. The top WR has a responsibility to account for one of those.

Lessons for Further Study

What does Andy Ludwig’s playsheet look like for this week? The offensive coordinator has a “mad scientist” reputation. His gameplans can also be maddeningly conservative. Fans may have wanted to see more than was shown against MTSU and Nevada, but those teams offered little threat and did not require a more complicated strategy. Notre Dame will require Ludwig to empty the chamber. The encouraging part is that we have seen how things can change week to week. Maybe one of those big plays for Lipscomb comes on a jet sweep instead of a pass.

What does Vanderbilt look like against real competition? This one question is really what matters. It has been nice to crush easy competition, but it is hard to measure a team when the gap in talent is so massive. This entire team gets tested against a top 10 team. Plain and simple, the Commodores need to prove that they are really as good as they have looked for two weeks. A win in South Bend would make Vanderbilt the favorite to finish 2nd in the East.

Oh, and what trouble will I get into in South Bend? My father, a friend of his, and myself are Anchoring Down for the weekend RV-style. A newly-bought flag pole setup will have the black and golf flying high. My mouth will be working like always. It should be a fun weekend at one of the most historic places in college football. It would be even better with a Vanderbilt victory.