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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: MTSU

Can I refrain from overreacting to a dominant Week 1 victory over a C-USA foe?

Middle Tennessee v Vanderbilt
How many of these 3 can be reliable options for Kyle Shurmur?
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

For the second straight season, Vanderbilt opened the football season with a commanding victory over the Blue Raiders from Murfreesboro. The 2018 version seemed like the negative of 2017 though. The game was 14-7 at halftime before cruising to a 35-7 win whereas last season saw a 21-0 halftime lead amble to the 28-6 road victory. The games were different in other ways that we will get to shortly. The 2017 season’s influence still has deterred me from being too demonstrative though, and more questions than answers remain.

A lot of the things to look for did get some answers. Even if they are not set in stone, there are takeaways. One data point is not a trend, especially against a G5 team. Nothing new as moved into the well-known category, but maybe something was learned.

Lessons We Are Learning

The defense is structurally much the same, but the way the pieces move has changed a fair bit. Tarver may just tend to go with certain calls while Mason spent most of his time on other parts of the play sheet. Or maybe Tarver has brought a new batch of calls with him. Either way, the “all gas, no brakes” mentality shows up in some interesting ways. I expected to see blitzes galore to fit that mantra. The new defensive coordinator manufactured pressure in a little different way than typical though. Instead of just adding bodies to the pass rush, Tarver elected to change the looks up front to make it hard to tell who was coming and who would drop into coverage. It will be interesting to see if Vanderbilt continues to employ mostly 4-man rushes, even using some 3-man rushes with a QB spy, with some 5-man rushes sprinkled in for extra pressure or if that was simply a plan employed against MTSU’s quick, mostly short and sideways passing attack.

For our passing attack, Jared Pinkney may finally be a key player in the game plan. Shurmur needs some new targets after the graduation of Trent Sherfield, CJ Duncan, and Caleb Scott. With Shurmur only throwing 17 passes, it is hard to find many guys with multiple targets. Lipscomb had at least 7 throws his way. Pinkney drew 5 throws his way though, catching 3 of them for 32 yards. One of them was a drop on 3rd and 3 of the second drive that should have been caught. The ball was ever so slightly behind him, but a QB needs his big, athletic TE to make that catch. The other incompletion his way was a slight overthrow by Shurmur in the endzone. Pinkney has had games like this or better before, so he needs to keep capitalizing on his chances to make sure Ludwig and Shurmur can rely on him. However, since this is the SEC, your passing attack is only half (or less) of the offense.

Ralph Webb may be gone, but the rushing attack may be better overall. The struggles on the ground were not on Webb for the most part, even if his running style may have changed for the worse in response to issues in run blocking. Middle Tennessee may not have the best run defense, but churning up 175 yards on 33 called running plays (5.3-yard average) is pretty good. To compare it to last season’s MTSU game, Vanderbilt only managed 80 yards on 32 called running plays (2.4-yard average). Maybe the Blue Raiders defense got worse at stopping the run, but I doubt they are half as stout or worse. The new 3-headed monster of Blasingame (9 for 52), Vaughn (9 for 37), and Wakefield (10 for 56) combined for an average of 5.2 yards. As it pertains to the offensive line, they struggled a bit on the first few drives with some blitzes. They imposed their will most of the night though. The backs often had good seams to get into the second level. The key is going to be continuing that against better defenses, but Nevada’s rank of 117th in S&P+’s run defense category should not provide much resistance. If they do, it might be time for concern even after this first promising outing for the rushing attack.

The third, and often overlooked until it sucks, phase of the game is special teams. The Cleveland Browns are not typically a place to find inspiration, but Shawn Mennenga and the specialists he coaches all performed very well. Parker Thome may not have had a booming average, but he had punts that made MTSU start at their own 7 and 14. The other two were 45 (fair caught at MTSU 30) and 36 (downed at MTSU 46). The last one looks rough, but it was a lower kick that inexplicably kicked backwards 5 yards instead of bouncing and rolling forward. It was, quite literally, and unlucky bounce. Ryley Guay did not attempt any field goals, but his kickoffs were all very good. All of them were touchbacks with all but one of them landing on the 2 or in the end zone. They were high kicks designed to tempt a returner to bring the ball out, even with the new fair catch touchbacks. The other one was fair caught on the 8, but our coverage team was already at the 25 in an attempt to further entice a return that would end short of the 25. Tommy Schiager deserves a mention, too, for having a good night snapping. Only one punt snap (the last one) was anywhere but perfect, and it did not trouble or slow Thome.

Lessons We Know Well

Do I even have to put him here? Yes, Kyle Shurmur stays firmly entrenched as the leader of this offense. He was 10/17 for 170 yards with 2 TDs and no passes picked off or even close to being picked off. He did misfire a few times, but they were misses away from coverage that let Vanderbilt’s offense stay on the field for another down. His Total QBR (which is supposed to account for opposition) was 31st in the country at 77.8 while the RAW QBR (just how Shurmur played, ignoring opposition) was 39th at 83.2. For those that are unaware, QBR is ESPN’s attempt to have a statistic that accounts for everything a QB does. It theoretically accounts for pass rush, rushing threat, decision making, and other decisions while not knocking a QB for his teammates dropping passes. The score goes from 0-100 and is essentially meant as a percentile, so Shurmur’s play was better than 80 percent of games played by college QBs. I think that is pretty decent.

Shurmur’s best friend had a couple uncharacteristic drops, especially a deep route up the seam that hit off both hands before hitting the turf, but Kalija Lipscomb also made a gorgeous TD catch that ESPN had as their 9th best play of opening Saturday. Lipscomb was the primary target with 7 of the 17 throws coming his way. He finished the night with 60 yards on 4 catches while also carrying the ball twice for 19 yards on jet sweeps. His versatility will make him hard to defend since the jet sweep action, even when he is not given the ball, keeps CBs from being able to press him and can cause confusion as coverages have to flip to account for him.

Lessons For Further Study

Will the defense still look dominant against a SEC or Top 25 team? Nevada is neither of these things, even if they did put 72 points on the scoreboard against Portland State. It will be an interesting test though with their pass-heavy attack. We should control the line of scrimmage though and possess an athletic but young and inexperienced secondary who will be tasked with muzzling the Wolfpack.

Where is the next option for Shurmur to target? No one besides Pinkney and Lipscomb was thrown towards more than once. Donaven Tennyson had 1 reception deep down the left sideline for 49 yards. Chris Pierce made a nice catch in the front corner of the end zone for a 17-yard score to notch his first career reception. Ke’Shawn Vaughn actually made two catches, but Pierce was lined up improperly before making his grab a couple plays later. Vaughn’s one catch that stood was a 12 yarder that came on a quick swing route. CJ Bolar was also the intended receiver on a deep throw by Shurmur, but it was just a bit too far for Bolar.

What offense is Andy Ludwig hiding and preparing to unleash? We likely will not see the offensive coordinator pull out any tricks against Nevada since Ludwig is notoriously conservative against lesser competition, as evidenced by the first half against MTSU. A few hints at new wrinkles did show up last Saturday. The offense stayed mostly under center, not taking on nearly the amount of shotgun-based spread attack elements that I expected based on the Spring Showcase. One exciting option did appear a couple of times when Kyle Shurmur took shotgun snaps flanked by two RBs. The first time it was Blasingame and Vaughn before later having Wakefield and Vaughn beside him. The differing skillsets and plethora of ways to use them with both on the field at once in a flexible formation presents Ludwig with lots of options and can make life difficult for opposing defenses. The other, more familiar way Ludwig is keeping defenses on their toes is using a healthy diet of jet-sweep action. This pre-snap motion was paired with PA to really test DBs ability to keep their discipline. I feel pretty certain that everything Ludwig is showing now will only serve to setup some tricks down the line as defenses prepare for what has already been put on tape.

When it comes down to it, Vanderbilt’s first real test is still a week away. Nevada and MTSU are not on the same caliber as the SEC teams Vanderbilt has to face (except maybe one school to the east) or Notre Dame. Like last year, the key to these games is about finding deficiencies and correcting them before facing an opponent who will make the Commodores pay for those errors. Derek Mason needs to do a better job of that this season and then needs to keep pushing the right buttons with this team to overcome adversity, even if an elite team steamrolls us in the future.

Extra Credit

I had to watch the replay posted to WatchESPN due to forgetting to record the game. ESPN must have uploaded the raw footage because there was some very fun stuff during halftime like the commentators rehearsing the return from halftime, laughing at MTSU’s backwards pass, and one guy being really confused on who our #10 is on defense.