This one is hard. We just lost to Ole Miss 31-6. The defense gave up approximately a thousand yards rushing. The real number was 431. The offense was worse than Dorrellian. Imagine watching that game live then taking almost 6 hours to re-watch and dissect it. You would assume that person is a coach or a paid reporter at least. No, just a fan who loves Vanderbilt football but hates where this season is going.
Maybe that should be addressed since it might not be clear. I am in no way okay with how this season has gone. I was accepting of the Georgia and LSU games to a point. They were painfully fine in the “Got totally demolished by a Top 10 team” sort of way. The part that probably gets lost in the shuffle, quite possibly due to my communication skills, is that pointing out near misses or reasons to possibly be optimistic going forward is not blind acceptance of what happened. When I pointed out that a big part of the Purdue game was penalties on 3rd down, it does not mean those penalties are acceptable. It means those penalties are not part of a larger problem (the average since that game has been 5 penalties per game which is half of the average for the first 2 games) and is something fixable. Or when the high snaps against Georgia were such an issue. No one said it was acceptable for a center to have such a miserable day on such a simple skill. It was merely discussed as fixable, and the number of poor snaps since then could be counted on one hand.
Also, keep in mind that the same miserable fan who re-watches all these games to write about them is also attending every game except the game in the Swamp. This fact is not mentioned as some sort of call to my authority and dedication to Vanderbilt football. Instead, it simply illuminates a very important point. The last thing I want to do is spend 11 Saturdays per year sitting out in the elements (because the schedule typically goes from scorching hot games at 11 AM or 3 PM to frigid night games) watching ugly, depressing football, especially knowing that the same game will be reviewed in detail while picking apart all of the awful, stupid things that happened while praying for a glimmer of hope for the remaining Saturdays to be less ugly and depressing. Those glimmers are typically not a defense of what happened. Instead, they are used as indicators that the current problems may be fixed going forward. With that said, what could be learned from a painful night in Oxford? The order is also being flipped to make more sense.
Lessons We Know Well
The Big 3 is amazing, but they are not enough to drag the rest of the team along. Lipscomb’s 7 catches on 13 targets for 69 yards (nice!) coupled with Vaughn’s 18 carries for 69 yards (also nice!) and 4 catches on 4 targets for 15 yards were again darkened by the cloud of an underutilized Jared Pinkney who had 1 catch for 7 yards but was at least targeted 7 times. Unfortunately, I only noticed 5 of the 7 targets, so the other 2 were likely horrendous misses. One of the targets noticed was also uncatchable. One throw was broken up by a great defensive play. One was dropped after thrown slightly behind and at calf height by Neal. Another was simply allowed to hit the turf instead of resulting in a loss of yards on a designed TE screen. The play before the PBU was a good throw and catch between Neal and Pinkney, but Pinkney is too sure-handed with too much athleticism for such a low completion percentage when going to him. Whoever is throwing the ball his way needs to give the big man a chance.
On that note, Riley Neal is heavily flawed as a QB. Without taking the time to watch tape of him at Ball State, it is undetermined whether these are new issues, exasperations of previous issues, or have just always been there but bailed out by level of competition. The one thing that Neal could fix and have a massive improvement would be his footwork. Two big components that Riley fails to consistently deliver on are his reaction to pressure (perceived or actual) and his movement on the throw. Neal consistently goes backwards when he feels pressure, which is a HUGE mistake. Moving away from the LOS makes it easier for edge rushers to keep moving upfield and eventually beat blockers who are trying to form “the pocket.” When Neal steps up and fires, he can put balls into tight windows and be very effective. Unfortunately, he only did so a handful of times which directly correlates to the second issue. Of the 30 pass attempts thrown by Neal, he only truly stepped into maybe 10 or 12. The best examples came on the final offensive drive before halftime where he was moving up in the pocket and firing the ball with confidence, resulting in 3 straight completions to move the ball into FG range. The frustrating part with Neal is that he CAN be highly effective, but his skittish nature in the pocket coupled with a bad habitual reaction to pressure has completely neutered his ability to be effective.
All that criticism is far from a defense of Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach Gerry Gdowski, who has been probably the worst part of this team. An idiotic game plan and clueless play calling have hampered this offense much more than below average QB play. As stated in the mailbag, Gdowski is responsible for formulating a game plan that works for our QB(s) AND directly for coaching those QBs, so he should have all the information he needs to build an offense that can play to the skillset of whichever QB is in the game while attacking weaknesses in most defenses. If the QB is not performing well enough, he is also directly responsible for making a change at the position AND coaching them during the week to improve upon deficiencies. Instead, he is asking an uncomfortable QB to use long dropbacks and completely abandoning a QB run game that has been effective when used. One specific instance that highlights the ineptitude all in a nifty bundle was a pair of third down plays. On two 3rd and long-ish (one was 7 and the other was 6), Gdowski called THE EXACT SAME PLAY. The first try resulted in a sack because the play call came in late, and the huddle broke with 8 seconds on play clock resulting in a rush to get the play off with no time to identify rushers and communicate blocks. The second time, on a play that involves a wheel route to the right and all the receivers on the right crossing the field to the left, Gdowski called for that play to be right form the right hashes, meaning the wheel was blanketed, and the crossing routes were to Neal’s back side. This time it resulted in an incomplete pass.
The defense is highly susceptible to big plays. Vanderbilt is dead last in yards per play with offenses gaining 7.58 yards each time they snap the ball. The infuriating part is that play to play the defense is not nearly so bad. The data does not exist, but if the median yards allowed per play was available, this defense probably would be near average or at least in the top two-thirds (probably around 70). Considering the potent offenses faced (and yes, count Ole Miss because they also torched Bama with the switch to Plumlee, too), something in that range would be acceptable though not great. The problem is that plays of 84, 78, and 54 yards against Ole Miss turned a potentially decent performance in a terrible one that let 21 points go on the board from waaaay downtown. That means 42% of Ole Miss’s yardage came on THREE FREAKING PLAYS (4.8% of plays run). NIU had 30% of their offense on 3 plays, though they more consistently had chunk plays in the 20-yard range but did literally nothing else. LSU had 38.5% of their offense on 3 plays. Purdue was less about chunk plays, and they only had 28.5% of their offense on 3 plays. Georgia just ground us down and did not gain more than 21% of their offense on any three plays, all less than 40 yards. Clearly, it is a problem. Part of it is probably on the safeties, where Frank Coppet and Tae Daley have both struggled with injuries, especially Coppet. Dashaun Jerkins has made several great plays, but RS FR like he and Brendon Harris are still susceptible to mistakes which can lead to these big plays. IF they can button down this TINY percentage of plays, the defense could take a huge step forward. Unfortunately, it might not matter if the offense does not get going.
The lone aspect of this team that works well is special teams. Guay hit from both FG attempts (22 and 46 yards) to stay perfect on the season. Smith had 10 (TEN!) punts for 459 yards and now ranks 1st in total punting yardage and 20th in punting average. These guys are doing their jobs almost flawlessly. Smith and the punt coverage combined to allow only 6 yards of return yardage. Justice Shelton-Mosley did have some issues with a muff on both a kickoff and a punt.
Lessons We Are Learning
The offensive line is STILL getting WAY too much blame in pass protection. I must admit that my evaluation of their blocking on running plays is nonexistent. Vaughn has mostly been able to do his thing, so it has been good enough most likely. Also, Gdowski’s predictable play calling is making their job in all facets much more difficult since teams over figured out a lot of tendencies (even having TV cameras catch Ole Miss calling out the LITERAL PLAY WE WERE RUNNING). I am not an OL guru, but the general number that I have always heard for pass protection is 3 seconds as the dividing line between bad and adequate pass protection. Using the game clock and common sense about half seconds and such, the offensive line only allowed 3 pressures in less than 3 seconds. Two of those resulted in sacks, and Neal actually made a nice spin to avoid the other. The biggest problem is Neal’s habit of moving backwards, which makes it much easier for edge rushers. Tackles are coached to force rushers wide and deep to leave room for the QB to step up in the pocket. They are doing that and consistently giving Neal room to step and fire to no avail. Furthermore, with Gdowski and Neal combining (not sure where blame falls) to get the team out of the huddle late a few times, there is no time to communicate protections. Please, watch the offensive line more and do not just judge them based on how the QB responds.
A pass rush might be developing. After not registering a sack until the 2nd quarter of the 3rd game, Vanderbilt has 8 sacks in those 3 games. Allan George, Kenney Hebert, Jaylen Mahoney, and Brandon Maddux have each registered one sack while Andre Mintze and Elijah McAllister both have 2. The defense was also much more aggressive against Ole Miss. It should be noted that two of the three sacks happened with only 3 or 4 pass rushers. More pressure and penetration could help with the big-play woes.
Lessons for Further Study
What can Deuce Wallace do with a chance to play meaningful snaps? Wallace has not played enough to get a good understanding for what he can do. A few things he has shown that are encouraging (and why I think he should start) are that he seems way more comfortable standing and stepping up in the pocket to make throws. There is enough talent around the QB that just giving them chances to make plays should improve the offense. Wallace also MUST be used in a QB run game. He is a willing runner. Use it. Please. If the QB competition was so close in practice and Neal is not getting it done in the game, Deuce deserves a chance to see how he performs in a game. If Deuce fails and Neal cannot get us out of a one or two score hole against UNLV, it all needs to be burned down anyway.
Can this team stop missing opportunities? Please? I know it seems silly to say that about a 31-6 game where the offense was so impotent. There were moments in that game that could have turned the tide. For instance, Vaughn carried the ball to the Ole Miss 9 then was tackled out of bounds. He understandably was not a fan at how the play finished, but he got flagged for saying something to the official. The team was unable to score a TD from 1st and goal from the 24. It would have been 10-7, and Vandy did get another FG before half. It very well could have been 10-10 at halftime. Then the defense had their major missteps. The 78-yard TD could have been tackled in the backfield by Hebert, but he failed to choose correctly between QB and RB then Brendon Harris (RS FR Safety) took a poor angle and managed to impede Dimitri Moore when Harris missed the tackle. Lashawn Paulino-Bell also had Plumlee dead to rights for a safety but let him slip free. Then the next play went 84 yards for a TD where Daevion Davis had a chance to slow the RB in the hole while both Harris and Jerkins got pulled in on the fake keep by Plumlee. The details must be cleaned up pronto if this team wants to claw this season back towards respectable, and the margin of error is zero.