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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Week 6 NIU

It was a win at least...

Northern Illinois v Vanderbilt
Mason was not happy with the play either, even if he was glad to get the first win of the year.
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Well, this is a weird and uncomfortable place to be. And I do not mean the fact that this article is going up on gameday. Being awkward late and out of place is nothing new for me or this series. The discomfort here is about the situation of the football team my coverage of it. After spending time talking about the positives in losses for 3 weeks, a win may be the most worrying result of the season. NIU is not a good team. They are probably better than their statistics show since they have now played Utah, Nebraska, and us, but Vanderbilt should still have won that game by much more than 6 points. A 14-0 start made it seem like the game would be a comfortable one, but the offense suddenly stalled, and the defense finally leaked enough to give up 3 scoring drives. Of course, a win is better than a loss in the results column. As someone who gets a lot of heat for talking about things like “process” during losses, the same is true in a clunky win. Learning from winning is a nice change though. These early kickoff games are not great anyway, so you have nothing better to do.

Lessons We Are Learning

Cam Johnson is really stepping up and showing out. He had 6 catches for 64 yards against NIU. In order, Johnson has had 2, 3, 2, and 6 receptions this season. He has been pretty efficient with those touches though, gaining 14, 31, 54, and 64 yards. His athleticism has been on display when he can get the ball in open space, such as the first offensive play against NIU that was a 4 yards toss turned into a 23-yard gain. He was also used on a trick play against Georgia that showed off his ability to throw the ball. It was unfortunately broken up by the DB, but it was a good play be the defender more so than a bad one by Johnson. The number of times each player is targeted is a touchy subject, so Johnson will need to keep maximizing his chances.

Speaking of guys making an impact, Devin Fitzsimmons might be the best coach on the staff. Some of you might say that is a low bar, but the special teams have been really good. Yes, there was the blocked punt last week, but it is the only blunder by them that has been detrimental. In the kicking game, Javan Rice added a 28-yard FG to go with Ryley Guay’s 4-4 perfection on the season. That improvement alone is praise-worthy. Meanwhile, Harrison Smith is 24th in the NCAA with 45.2 yards per punt. The yardage total is even better when you know that 10 of his 26 kicks have been down inside the 20. The coverage teams are doing their job, too. Opponents are only average 22.75 yards on kick returns, and attempts to return Harrison Smith’s punts are averaging 7.3 yards. Overall, they rank 22nd in SP+’s special teams rankings. I should point out that Justice Shelton-Mosley should NOT have tried to field that rolling punt against NIU, but two mistakes do not overshadow all the good from special teams. Good special teams can potentially turn some close games.

One player who had a big impact of his own but not in a good way was Cole Clemens. The point is not to bash Clemens though. He has not been noticeably bad this season. Though, I must admit that individual play on the offensive line is not something I notice much. When I do notice, it is mostly for the repeated major mistakes. Clemens probably just had a bad game and bounce back. If not, maybe Jonathan Stewart can slide down to RG from LT with Cochran back. The other option is moving Steen down from RT to RG and Stewart to RT. To highlight how much of the issues were down to Clemens against NIU, the Huskies had 4 times where the Huskies had big defensive plays to force negative yardage due to OL failures. They had 8 sacks or TFLs overall, but the other 4 were right at the line, including at least 2 screen passes that are not on the OL at all and Neal holding the ball too long once. So, on those 4 failures by the OL, Clemens gets blame for 3.5. I gave half to Stewart on the first sack of the game. Clemens whiffed or got bulldozed on all 4 plays. For the sack, he completely missed his block which forced Steen to step down to re-route the pass rusher. Stewart got beat (not nearly as badly), and Neal tried to step up to his right. It was the right move, but Steen having to move inside left a LB completely free to corral Neal. Even with the few struggles, these guys are not the limiting factor of this offense.

Neal himself is bordering on getting listed as well-known for being painfully average and inconsistent. He was 21/28 for 189 yards, but his RAW QBR was 45.6. The Total QBR was a very shaky 37.3. Even worse, Neal is 103rd on the season in Total QBR at 41.9. Those numbers are obviously well below average, but some of it has to do with how QBR is done and the offensive scheme because QBR basically rolls its eyes at screens. It means the number of plays where Neal is being scored is very low and often in unfavorable situations. A few things are showing up consistently though. His pocket presence seems very questionable. His tendency is to flush backwards with pressure. An experienced QB should know how problematic that is and be stepping up or at least laterally to get the ball thrown away. He also fails to step into deep throws on the rare chances he has to go downfield. Another example of poor understanding of the pocket came on the second sack when, on a PA pass with a 7-step drop, he hit the back of his drop and set his feet. The depth and timing of that drop make it imperative that the ball is out as soon as the back foot plants or that the QB starts climbing the pocket. The last concern is his timing. He almost got picked off twice, one of which would have been a pick 6, by being late on short, timing throws. Also, he was agonizingly late on the rollout pass to Vaughn near the end of the game with the lateness of the throw leading Vaughn too far to the boundary to stay in bounds when a pass thrown with the right timing means Vaughn is racing a LB to the corner for a chance to take the ball to the house. He needs to do better, but Neal needs help from the box.

Gerry Gdowski’s scheme is a joke. The only thing keeping this from being one section below is the reaction to last week. Mason made comments post-game about fixing the ball distribution. Kalija Lipscomb made a similar statement. Jared Pinkney’s very visible frustration last Saturday is completely understandable. A potential 1st or 2nd round NFL draft pick was targeted twice a week ago. The other problem is that only one other play seemed designed for him, which was the first sack of the game. He was used way too often in blocking-only roles. If it was a case of trying to get him open but teams doubling or bracketing him then fine. Instead, Pinkney is being taken out of the game by his own OC. The play calling has been disgustingly predictable and uninspired. The flea flicker was cute, but the other 53 plays were largely predictable. The ball was thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage 9 times. The ball only went more than 5 yards downfield in the air 8 times. Of those 8, 6 went 10+ yards and none went over 20 yards in the air. That means 11 more throws were between the LOS and 5 yards downfield. We have way too many weapons to stretch the field (like that Bolar guy who has been invisible) even if Cam Johnson and Kalija Lipscomb are running quick, explosive routes underneath. Instead, Gdowski is running an inordinate number of screens. After the fiasco against NIU, Gdowski had better figure out a few more plays to call, or it might be time to see if someone else on the staff can call plays. Seriously.

The defense should probably be glad the offense is so bad, or they would get more scrutiny. They started really well Saturday with NIU’s first drive going for -7 yards. The Huskies punted on all 6 of their first half possessions and only netted 136 yards (penalties included to avoid counting it up by play). The real problem was big plays in the 2nd half. The Huskies got 44 yards on a pass play to start the 2nd half then did nothing to settle for a FG. Their next drive consisted of a 10-yard run, not much, a 23-yard pass, a 7-yard pass interference call, and a 38-yard TD on 9 plays. The next drive went 3 plays and netted 0 yards. The third and final scoring drive was an 18-yard pass, 2 incompletes, a false start, a 28-yard pass, a 33-yard pass, and a 1-yard TD run. Of the 388 yards allowed (280 passing and 108 rushing), 210 game on those 3 scoring drives. Oh, and Caleb Peart inexplicably let an NIU player out of his grasp thinking the pass had fallen incomplete to allow a 38-yard TD. The stats look bad, but there may be a reason for big plays allowed that we should study further.

Lessons We Know Well

Outside of Pinkney, the Big 3 had a good showing. Vaughn seems to be finding a groove after the LSU and NIU games, having added 138 yards on 17 carries. Lipscomb’s 94 yards on 7 catches was also plenty with how deep the WR corps is behind him. Pinkney is not to blame for his 1 catch for 1 yard day. I really do not have much to say about these guys. They are doing what they are supposed to do. The only thing is that Pinkney has had a couple of holding calls that negated big plays, but with how much he is blocking on the edge, it is not surprising. Maybe he should get to run a few more routes instead of having to block the whole game.

Expect there to be more here next week unless the team looks totally different.

Lessons We Will Study Further

I am going to get killed for this, but what is wrong with Dayo Odeyingbo? The incredibly athletic DL has 10 total tackles with 5 coming solo. There are a few QB hurries that are not tallied up over the course of the season. More concerning is that he has picked up some really bad penalties. The hands to the face this week was pathetically soft (more on that in a bit), but he has had some other personal fouls that were deserved. He also probably should have been flagged on Elijah McAllister’s sack because he dove in on them well late. Odeyingbo is one of the most talented defenders on this team. These are likely frustration penalties because he is drawing double teams. His seemingly low production is not the problem, but he MUST avoid penalties and boneheaded plays. Dayo has a ton to offer (and his mother is one of the best Vandy follows on Twitter). He just needs to avoid the negative plays.

What is the status of our secondary? A lot of guys are playing dinged up. DC Williams did not start, presumably due to injury since he was not even the nickel or dime corner and did not enter immediately when injuries mounted. Williams only came into the game for a few plays in the 3rd or 4th quarter once Watkins, Coppet, and others were hobbled in-game. These injuries probably played into NIU getting going in the second half, especially big plays. QB Ross Bowers was 17/32 for 280 yards, so the problem was not allowing a lot of completions but giving up big plays. Getting some of the nicked-up players back playing or playing closer to 100% could really serve to limit those big plays.

Can the defensive line replicate that performance? They did exactly what they are supposed to do in the typical 3-4 defense. NIU’s offensive line was occupied by the big boys up front and pushed backwards on most plays. NIU’s OL is much smaller than an SEC OL though. Hopefully, they can replicate that push to help the run defense and disrupt passing downs. Beyond just the push, they generated a TFL and a sack. Brandon Maddox had the sack with Daevion Davis getting the TFL. The line tallied 6 other stops, 3 of them solo.

How is Keyon Brooks going to be utilized going forward? He had the 61-yard TD carry on the first drive then touched the ball two more times. He was stuffed at the line on a carry and caught a pass for 5 yards. One note on the TD play was that the intentionally unblocked defensive end respected Neal’s ability to keep the ball which opened just enough of a crease on the option look to turn it into a foot race that Brooks won. If the offense can sustain drives, I feel good about his ability to spill Vaughn to keep the Mamba fresh.

Extra Credit

I was asked to look something this week. I like having things to investigate while watching the game. Otherwise, I worry about only looking at the things I personally noticed from my seat in the stadium, including all the away games this year except Florida. It is much too easy to get caught up in the emotions of the game or miss details that only show up on replays or from different angles. Here, I can go over those things. It will also serve as a place for rants about things that are not really within the scope of “learning.”

First, the question was asked if NIU was getting away with holding, especially at tackle? Honestly, holding did not seem to be an issue. I thought the officials did a very good job in the game, especially on the two massive hits by Vanderbilt players. Both hits were completely clean while still being violent. The only issue was the MAC’s apparent directive to call anything where a defensive player’s hand(s) even wave in front of an offensive lineman’s face as illegal hands to the face. Three of those four penalties called on Vandy would have gone uncalled by SEC officials. The fourth probably would have been allowed, too, but it was somewhat understandable as Dimitri Moore’s hand at least got up into the face of the lineman while hand-fighting and a finger ended up hooked on the facemask.

Then, for the rant, I want to take on a narrative that popped up after the game. NIU tried to run a double pass that resulted in a fumble and a big loss of yardage. Analyst DJ Shockley pulled out the telestration tools to show how “lucky” Vanderbilt was on the play. He and others pointed out a wide open NIU RB who would have surely scored if the first pass was not fumbled due to pressure applied by Vanderbilt. The problem is that narrative is complete garbage. BJ Anderson has the WR going deep covered as they leave the screen, and Kenny Hebert is backpedaling with the releasing RB until the ball hits the turf then he attacks. That is the right play. Typically, the coaching on a ball that is fumbled or put out of sequence on these double passes and similar plays is for whoever scoops it up to just tuck it and get what they can out of the play. Hebert knows (or reacted properly without knowing) that the WR on that side is not going to try and scoop a fumble AND get his head up to find a target downfield. The funny part is Shockley trying to write up the telestration and waiting until the ball is on the turf to point out that Hebert did not keep running with RB.