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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Week 4 Purdue

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Yes, we still need to talk about that game again.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Purdue
Lipscomb faces the big team from his home state. A big performance from him will be needed to make the game interesting.
Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

No one wanted to be here. Most, if not all, Vanderbilt fans saw Week 2 as the best chance to not start 0-3 with an opening game hosting Georgia then LSU coming to Nashville after our first open date. The team fell well short of the level of play needed to win in West Lafayette. The Commodores lost by 3 scores to a Purdue coming off a loss to Nevada. The team looked undisciplined at times, and we saw 2 QBs play. The defense gave up 42 points and over 500 yards.

If you want the doom-and-gloom and/or “Fire Mason!” take, you need to stop reading, copy that opening paragraph, and save it somewhere to throw in my face. Some will probably claim the Sunshine Pump is being re-manned. Anyone who says that has either failed to read this properly, or maybe I did a poor job of conveying the message. The latter is a distinct possibility. To, hopefully, clear both of those issues up, the TL;DR of this article is going to be “We did a few things REALLY badly, but these things are NOT problems that have repeated over and over again within a season under Mason.”

Feel better yet? The one-line version already has some weird qualifiers. It sounds like spin. Maybe there is some wishful thinking. My conjecture could prove to be very wrong. It would not be the first time, nor the last. Enough prefacing and CMAing. Class is in session.

Lessons We Are Learning

Riley Neal has limitations. He threw a TERRIBLE interception. Neal also had a boneheaded intentional grounding penalty with easy options to avoid the call without forcing a pass into coverage. In fact, the penalty came 2 plays before the interception, so if Neal had avoided the initial mistake then maybe he never throws the pick. A handful of throws ranging from routine to makeable also missed the mark. Then you look at the box score and see a line of 24/35 (68.6%) for 378 yards with 2 TDs and the lone pick while earning a Total QBR of 65.8. He also had thrown some dimes up the seam and a great back shoulder toss that was good for 15 or so until Chris Pierce told the DB to kick rocks with a stiff arm before making a house call. Weirdly, I felt way better about his play while watching the game again and looking for the negatives. They were obviously there but were less prevalent than I thought. Just like we are learning about Neal, maybe he is learning about the offense and can keep growing into it. LSU will not be an easy opponent to grow against though.

Deuce is … the same? His appearance started on the Vanderbilt drive after Neal’s interception. Neal was talking to the trainers before Wallace went onto the field. I could not see where on his body they were looking. Mason has not, to my knowledge, said it was an injury-related issue though, so if it was anything then it was incredibly minor and probably did not induce the change. The Deuce had an inauspicious start with his first pass being easily swatted at the line then the second going a little low on a screen to CJ Bolar. Bolar should still have made the catch and got about 4 or 5 yards. The third attempt would have been useful if Lipscomb was not grabbed, which was properly flagged. Nothing came from that drive with the next set of downs ending in a punt. Wallace looked good in the garbage time drive he got to end the game, driving down to the Purdue 8 before time expired. He finished 7/13 for 42 yards with a Total QBR of 52.5. The biggest takeaway from Deuce’s time in the game has to do with the plays called.

Speaking of playcalling, Gerry Gdowski has me confused. He loves WR screens as much or more than Franklin did. He also loves running the ball between the tackles like Ludwig. The problem is that he seems reticent to throw the ball downfield. My notes have 3 deep passes. One was a 49-yard shot to Kalija Lipscomb on Vandy’s third drive. The other was the Hail Mary to end the half. Another deep shot to Bolar or Lipscomb fell incomplete on a very similar play to the one Lipscomb caught. A few intermediate passes were successful, including one Pinkney hauled down and used about 10 yards of YAC to stretch to 26, just short of converting a 3rd and 27. That play will come up again later. Re-watching the game left the same feeling about the playcalling in that it hates downfield and hates the middle of the field. It could be that Pinkney is drawing so much attention between the hashes that teams are clouding that area to force longer throws towards the sidelines. Good play design should open some space for Jared or use the big TE to clear space for underneath crossing routes. The screens are a great way to get 3 or 4 yards consistently, but Gdowski needs to take advantage of the space they create downfield and just behind the LBs in the middle of the field. Oh, and what about the QB run? Use. All. Your. Tools. LSU’s athleticism and front will eat us alive if the calls do not evolve.

Brace yourself. This next statement is going to be bold. Some of you will mock it but read the entire thought first. The defense has shown some promise. Yes, I know they allowed 540 yards of offense. No, I was not hit in the head. Consider a few things. The defense, through poor discipline, negated one interception (a second occurred but was clearly due to high risk on the “free play”) and extended drives for at least 113 yards and 7 points. More importantly, those 7 points made the game 21 to 10. The game staying 14 to 10 could have changed a lot of things. Holding the Boilermakers to 34 yards on 17 carries is also pretty good, especially have Georgia gashed us up front. It suggests that against more typical OLs that our DL can at least plug gaps and contain the run. The other thing is that 2 deep passes should have been picked by Cam Watkins, but he misjudged them at the last moment and allowed very long receptions, one for a 50-yard TD and another was a 70 yarder that got Purdue to the 4, which they converted into a TD soon after. Cam Watkins is a pretty good DB. He will either pick those passes off or at least knock them down more often than not. Joe Burrow and this insanely revamped LSU defense may still rip us apart, but try not to overreact because they are apparently going to do that to everyone they play this year.

Special teams are going to be a strength of this team. Harrison Smith probably had 2 mishits, but they only resulted in 8 yards of Rondale Moore punt returns. He had an absolute beauty that stopped rolling dead at the 2-yard line to be downed. Smith got absolutely hosed on his next to last punt though. He launched one 56 yards in the air, but it did land about 2 or 3 feet out of bounds even with the 6-yard line. Somehow, the official, who was standing 5 feet from the ball when it landed, decided it had gone out of bounds at the 15. Those refs sucked. Oh, and Ryley Guay did another good thing by nailing his lone FG attempt, a 48-yard try forced by dumb penalties.

Lessons We Know Well

Ummm…can I talk about the Big 3 here? Vaughn had 17 carries for 56 yards with 1 TD along with 4 catches for 22 yards. He had a couple of 10-plus yard carries negated by penalties, but the Red Mamba needs to be utilized better. Contrary to the hilariously dumb thing the announcers said, Ke’Shawn makes a living hitting home runs while also being reliable every time he touches the ball. Lipscomb had 8 catches for 98 yards and 1 jet sweep carry for 16 yards. Pinkney snagged 3 passes for 61 yards, and two of those were huge plays on 3rd down. Those numbers pretty much answer my question. A contribution of 244 yards of total offense from this trio is a good foundation. Of course, they are capable of even better, but it is not like they were MIA. I would like to see Pinkney targeted a few more times and have Vaughn used more creatively.

Lessons for Further Study

Will discipline remain an issue? It has been a common refrain that Vanderbilt takes too many penalties under Derek Mason. The numbers say we have been bang average or better every year. Those same fans are also happy to point out when the “Eff Vandy” rules are routinely applied by officials. In terms of penalties per game and going from 2018 to 2014, Vanderbilt has ranked 45th (5.54), 53rd (5.75), 32nd (5.15), 64th (6.08), and 69th (6.08). For reference, Vandy was 34th (4.85) in 2013, 62nd (5.92) in 2012, and 80th (6.4) in 2011. Mason’s teams are certainly no more undisciplined than Franklin’s teams were. That narrative has been a longstanding one, too. Considering Vanderbilt has committed 11 penalties per game this season with 13 against Purdue, it seems highly unlikely that they will continue on that pace. They are almost double their typical penalty output.

More importantly, can the Commodores avoid committing penalties at the most critical times? Purdue had three free first downs given to them by Vanderbilt penalties. As I pointed out earlier, they then churned out 113 yards of offense and a TD from the gifts. Meanwhile, on offense Saige Young killed two drives singlehandedly. He had a holding and unsportsmanlike conduct on the same play to turn a big Vaughn carry into 2nd and 33. The run may have only been a few yards without the aid of the hold, but a veteran player must be smart enough to live with 2nd and 7 and not bury his team. Later in the game, Young false started after Pinkney’s 26-yard catch that turned 3rd and 27 into 4th and 1. Mason was going for it with the score 14-7 Purdue and 58 seconds left in the first half. Guay did hit the long FG, but 7 would have tied the game IF we could have converted and kept the drive going.

Beyond penalties, can we capitalize on positive opportunities? LSU will not present many of them, but we spurned a lot against Purdue. The same cannot happen if the Commodores have any designs of even keeping the game close. After pinning Purdue at their two with Harrison Smith’s great punt, Rondale Moore was thrown a quick hitter. Moore bobbled the ball, knocking it up in the air, with BJ Anderson lining him up. Anderson went for too big of a hit and was juked when Moore regained control and side-stepped. A better play could have really put Purdue in a bind there. Paulino-Bell read a short pass and had it hit both hands but was dropped instead of being taken for a pick 6, or even just the turnover. Kalija Lipscomb had a chance to go out of bounds with 8 seconds left in the first half but instead got tackled in bounds, forcing Mason to use the team’s last timeout. The extra timeout could have allowed a more diverse play call to setup the Hail Mary, which was eventually completed but was 3 yards short of the end zone. Cam Watkins had two very makeable plays to get interceptions but could not even knock them down, allowing a 50-yard yard TD and 70-yard reception to the 4 that was converted to a TD. Before you start saying, “Cool. That’s a lot of plays you want back,” (though my warning is probably too late) I want to point out that this was an 11-point game twice in 4th quarter. Vanderbilt didn’t need to make all these plays. They needed one or two along with one or two fewer penalties to have a really good shot at the game. Basically, anyone calling this a blowout is dead wrong, and it could have been even closer. It was not about Purdue being better but about when and how Vanderbilt did in a handful of situations.

Am I going to look really stupid? Look, LSU ran roughshod over Texas who may or may not be a top 15-ish team. Not even the most optimistic amongst us would have said this was a top 15 team (even if you separate coaching from the equation) for Vanderbilt. The same result as UGA likely tells us nothing about the team overall. Things will of course be learned about specific players or facets of the team. Of course, the obvious possibility is a truly embarrassing blowout like Bama in 2017 and/or another highly undisciplined game. Repeating the same dumb penalties that were committed against Purdue after a bye week will be a very bad look. Then I look dumb for bringing up history that suggests that game was an anomaly.