Vanderbilt started the season strongly. Vanderbilt finally faced quality opposition. Vanderbilt lost. Stop me if you have heard that story before. Yes, it is how things typically go for our beloved Commodores. Then all the headlines are about Vanderbilt being exposed and going back to being a doormat in the SEC. The response has been very different this time though. Why? Well, the answer to that question is what can be learned from a little deeper dive into what happened in South Bend.
Lessons We Are Learning
The game starts in the trenches. Since offense is more exciting, especially when your defense is 3-4, the offensive line is up first. The big boys up front had mostly had their way in the first two games against outmatched MTSU and Nevada teams. Notre Dame’s defensive line is a highly touted unit that represented a massive leap in level of competition. The OL acquitted themselves well. It was concerning to see Shurmur sacked and forced to fumble to start the 2nd quarter, but it was the only time Shurmur was sacked. He faced some pressure at times, but it was a reasonable amount of pressure that any offensive line will give up against a very good defensive front. Even more impressively, Vanderbilt only had 3 other plays go for negative yardage. Two of those, one to Cam Johnson and one to Ke’Shawn Vaughn, were on jet sweeps. The other was a Vaughn run that got bottled up and caused the Illinois transfer to lose yardage while trying to turn nothing into a big play. Notre Dame had forced 14 negative plays in the first two games of the season, so the OL allowed half of what Notre Dame’s defense had averaged so far. Dealing with South Carolina’s creative defense under Will Muschamp will present its own challenges, but this game made me very comfortable with the offensive line play.
Switching sides of the ball, the defensive line is a bit harder to quantify. Their job in a 3-4 is, for the most part, to eat up blockers and free up space for LBers to do the damage. However, allowing 5.1 yards per carry over 48 attempts is not a good look. The tape has an alibi for the defensive line though. For the most part, the DL was creating movement up front and causing problems, but tackling problems reared their ugly head early. At the end of the 1st quarter, the in-game scoreboard showed that Notre Dame had approximately 180 total yards. The exact yardage was not committed directly to memory, but it was in that range. The Golden Domers finished with 380 yards. Vanderbilt’s opposition earned almost half of their yardage in the first quarter. The defensive line did not appear to play any differently throughout the game, but ball carriers were being tackled much more efficiently after some early decisions to just throw a shoulder instead of wrapping up for the tackle. These guys are held their own and played a key role in holding Notre Dame to 22 points.
Moving back to offense and to add some further praise to the offensive line, the rushing attack looked to be a real threat. The team rushing stats do not look great with 94 yards on 27 carries. Averaging 3.5 yards per carry is not very efficient. However, the base running plays will provide hope. Of those carries, 2 of them accounted for -18 yards due to a stuffed jet sweep by Cam Johnson and the sack of Kyle Shurmur. The normal running backs were all more effective than the team average suggests. Vaughn was the standout with 54 yards on 10 carries. Blasingame was physical on his way to 49 yards from 13 carries. Wakefield chipped in 9 yards on 2 carries. Those guys averaging 4.48 yards per carry can be very useful going forward. They are providing the threat necessary to make the play-action passing game very effective. Continued success on the ground will only make Shurmur better. A complete and balanced offense could make the Commodores really scary due to Shurmur’s ability to change the play at the line of scrimmage to challenge the defense’s looks.
Balance between run and pass could be powerful, but the passing attack could use more balance, too. We know about Lipscomb and now Pinkney (upgrade!). Behind them, things are a bit muddy. CJ Bolar was targeted 5 times and made 2 catches for 43 yards. The freshman turned a short throw into 30 yards with some eye-catching quickness after getting the ball in his hands. Chris Pierce was in a battle all day with DBs draping themselves over his large frame while Shurmur threw the ball his way 4 times, of which only 1 was caught, but it was a good gain of 20 yards. Another target on 4th and 8 turned into a first down via blatant pass interference that extended the drive that Pinkney would finish with a TD. Donaven Tennyson’s two targets may have earned him more time standing on the sidelines as he dropped a walk-in TD on the ND 2 on the drive following a fumble on the ND 1 that ended in a touchback to give Notre Dame the ball. Sam Dobbs converted both of his targets into 1 and 19 yards. Cam Johnson was targeted twice in the game, and they came on consecutive plays (the first of which was swatted at the line and credited as intended for CB JoeJuan Williams because….reasons?). Johnson did a good job getting on the ground and getting his hands under the one ball that did get to him. None of those numbers are all that troubling, but they do not nearly measure up to Lipscomb being targeted on 18 of Shurmur’s 43 throws. Just like being able to run the ball better will help the passing game, more guys being effective receivers will help Pinkney and Lipscomb get more space to do their thing.
The third phase of the game, special teams, is often forgotten until it does not do its job. Vanderbilt had a bit of that when Ryley Guay missed a 43-yard FG that would have made it 16-6 on the first drive coming out of halftime. The kickoff coverage also allowed a big return to midfield immediately following the Pinkney TD that cut the score to 22-17. That drive luckily ended in a missed Notre Dame FG, and it is possible that the short field helped the defense and gave the Irish less room to use for killing the clock. Meanwhile, Thome and the punt coverage did a fantastic job on all 4 punts, which occurred on the first four Commodore drives of the game. They were 45 (downed at ND 6), 51 (returned for 1 yard to ND 29), 46 (fair caught), and 42 (fair caught) yards. It was a fantastic day for Thome. Vanderbilt also got a 20-yard punt return from Trey Ellis that almost turned into more if not for a diving tackle that may have been the only thing that kept Ellis from making a house call. The mistakes need to be cleaned up, but special teams as a whole have turned into a positive for Vanderbilt instead of being a dangerous adventure.
Lessons We Know Well
There is a new addition to this section, and he is the John Mackey Tight End of the Week award winner. Jared Pinkney has stepped into the role behind Lipscomb as the second option for Kyle Shurmur. He cashed in on his opportunities by catching all 5 passes his way and rumbling to 113 yards and a powerful TD that cut the ND lead to 5 points late in the game. Pinkney’s 241 yards receiving through 3 games is best in the nation for a TE by 58 yards. It is early in the season, but that margin is impressive. The big, athletic TE has turned his potential into results so far this season. He needs to keep producing, even if every game is not 100+ yards.
One of the two men who will benefit most from Pinkney solidifying himself as a reliable and dynamic target is Kyle Shurmur. The senior QB also earned an award this week as the Reese’s Senior Bowl named him as the Senior Offensive Player of the Week. Shurmur was 26/43 for 326 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT. The interception was really his only bad decision or throw all day when he tried to force a deep pass to Kalija Lipscomb in the endzone. It was on a 1st down play from the ND 36, so Kyle, as a senior QB, should make a better decision to live for another down. Will Muschamp will definitely try to disguise looks and muddy the fronts to make it more difficult on Shurmur, so the South Carolina game will be as much of a test of his mental acuity as his physical prowess.
The other man doing cartwheels (but nothing as cool as the legendary Adam Butler ice cream cartwheel) is Kalija Lipscomb. Every player wants the chance to get the ball into his hands. Lipscomb had the ball thrown his way 18 times, and he caught 11 of them. He did make a poor play on the first drive when he lost track of his positioning by a few feet and stepped out before the ball got to his hands. Otherwise, it was a pretty good day. He will likely have nightmares about the final pass that was in his hands and jarred loose when hitting the ground, but it was a tough catch. The fact that it was a shock Lipscomb did not make the play is a testament to how good he has been in his time at Vanderbilt.
Lessons for Further Study
How does the team react to the loss? The result was not anything like the blowout to Alabama last year, but this game was one players must feel they let get away from them. Mentally, refocusing to play a strong South Carolina team is paramount. These young men and their coaches need to take the loss as a challenge to clean up their mistakes, not an indictment of their abilities. Overrated or not, it is impressive to take any Top 25 team to the wire as the away team. This game also should not serve as some high-water mark where anyone thinks that just getting close is good enough.
When does Ludwig break out something special? I have been one of Ludwig’s strongest supporters since he got to Vanderbilt. My stance is not changing in that regard. It was just expected that more trickery might be seen in South Bend. A simple jet sweep was the biggest “trick” utilized, unless the play-action fake with jet sweep motion is actually considered to be a bigger “trick.” Those plays have been a staple of Vanderbilt’s offense for the last 2 seasons though. Anyone who watched any film would know to expect both the fake and the actual handoff. It makes it more encouraging that Vanderbilt was able to move the ball fairly well (420 yards total) without getting tricky.
Can the missed opportunities be ironed out? In some ways, this ties back to and is the biggest piece of mentally rebounding from the Notre Dame game. Donaven Tennyson has two huge mistakes he has to deal with while preparing for South Carolina. Zaire Jones dropped a gimme interception. Ryley Guay had the missed FG. Even Shurmur has to be frustrated by his interception thrown and putting a few passes late in the game into less-than-perfect locations. These details are critical for a team without much margin for error. They combined to get Vanderbilt beat in South Bend, and the same will happen against most any SEC team.
How good is Notre Dame? They are almost certainly overrated. The Commodores are not a Top 10 team, unfortunately. Kansas State showed us what can happen when success against an overrated opponent goes to the heads of players. Obviously, losing makes it less sensible to get too high on themselves, but they need to keep Mason’s “work day” mentality to beat South Carolina and most of the other SEC teams.
Overall, most of these things we are learning and know well serve to suggest Vanderbilt will be better this year than most people thought, including those within Commodore Nation. The same things were said after Kansas State last season, though. Maybe the Commodores did turn Notre Dame into their biggest game of the year and will be deflated by the loss then never rise back to that level of play again. The other viewpoint is that Vanderbilt did a lot of things to hurt their chances to steal a win or possibly even turn it into a commanding win.
Brian Kelly threw a fit about Vanderbilt defenders playing “bad football” by allegedly “chopping” Notre Dame TE Alize Mack. The problem is that Mack only took one impact like that during the game. I was specifically looking at him on many plays to not miss this egregiously dirty thing Vanderbilt did. The only play where anything resembling “chopping” was a counter running play where Mack served as the pulling blocker to seal the hole. The OLB dove into his mid-section and/or upper thighs to blow the play up at the line of scrimmage. Nothing about the hit is or should be illegal, nor is it at all dirty or new. The idea of “submarining” blockers to derail offensive plays has been around for many years and is a very common tactic. Upon further review, Brian Kelly is just a sad little man who is trying to save face after being lucky to escape with a win against Vanderbilt.