After the LSU game, my father and I both shared a similar sentiment. My father is also typically much more negative than me. For context, he believes like many of you that Mason is probably not the answer. That sentiment was essentially that the game was ugly and brutal, but the problems in the game were more about LSU’s insane wealth of talent and speed offensively than about Vanderbilt’s defense being bad. We had also managed to score 38 points (24 on offense) against LSU’s defense and not just garbage time points. Then I got online to see how the Game Thread and Recap went and ran into a very different tone. Interestingly, it seemed like the users in the stadium had generally taken a much more positive stance than the ones who watched on TV. Unfortunately, I subject myself to a second viewing on TV (well, my laptop this week), so maybe my mindset changed with what I learned.
Lessons We Are Learning
The defense might be bad. Yes, MIGHT. Three weeks ago, Georgia’s NFL Lite offensive line made the run defense look terrible. Then we suffocated Purdue’s running game but kept committing penalties that extended Boilermaker drives and led to big plays and points. Most recently Joey – what Mason keeps calling him, which is hilarious because it sounds so condescending – Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase activated their tandem powers and ripped our secondary to shreds. The rushing attack also made gains, but that happens when you have to keep dropping so many guys in coverage, unfortunately. If NIU’s offense moves the ball very effectively, we can firmly change this to something we know well and that the defense is truly terrible. The defense did manage to score 14 points of their own. LSU also scored on a blocked punt and thanks to an onside kick with a funny hop going the wrong way to the 1-yard line. If I wanted to really spin it, then the defense was only -38 on the day. Doing that would be silly because LSU also pulled Joe Burrow for their last 4 drives, which included 1 TD, the pick 6, and 2 punts. Burrow probably does not throw the interception and also scores at least one more TD, so the defense would have likely been -52 if not for his removal. It was a gross day for the defense. Again. It needs to stop. Saturday.
The offense is growing. It looked scared against Georgia. It looked uneven against Purdue. It looked to be stuttering, but with bright spots, against LSU. Yes, the 30.1% success rate is very bad. The national average is approximately 40%. On the other hand, the offense scored 24 points and racked up 374 yards with 168 of them on the ground. The team also averaged 5.4 yards per running play, so it is definitely something to build on going forward. LSU’s defense is probably not as good as Georgia’s, but it is also probably better than any defense we the rest of the year. An average of 24 points per game from the offense should be pretty profitable. Doing better than that could mean even a bad defense gets carried to success.
The team averaging 5.4 yards per carry shows that they were able to open some holes. LSU was credited with 3 sacks and 3 QB hurries. Those numbers are a little higher than you would like, but LSU also had 5 sacks against Texas. They have the talent and schemes to get after QBs. When pressure came, most of the time the Vanderbilt QBs had a lane to either step up and throw or escape. Neal made the poor decision to step up then retreat again, which led to one of the sacks. This group might finally be fully healthy after Devin Cochran dressed but did not play against LSU.
The offensive line gelling may be making offensive coordinator Gerry Gdowski more comfortable, too. One interesting trend is the number of receivers involved. Whether it is by design from Gdowski or Neal reading the field or a bit of both, Vanderbilt had 8 players catch a pass, which was 1 more than LSU had do the same just for comparison for spreading the ball around. Looking back, 10 players registered a catch against Purdue, and 9 Commodores caught the ball against Georgia. Using all of the options is a good way to keep teams off balance. At first, I thought the 1st down play calls had leaned too heavily on the run, but the drive tracking shows that of the 31 first down plays, Vanderbilt ran the ball 18 times. Running the ball 58% of the time, especially with a back like Vaughn to use, is about right. Gdowski also went back to some read option, with Neal getting 11, 4, and 4 yards. He also juked an LSU LB out of his pants, which was hilarious to see. Admittedly, Riley had made the wrong “give-keep” read, but the result was 4 yards and laughter at least. Continuing to do varied things with the offense will lead to much more success in theory, especially when not facing a defense like LSU or Georgia.
Neal also had an up-and-down day. As mentioned, he took a bad sack and also made at least one wrong read on an option. The stat line reads 15/31 for 206 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT. His RAW QBR was 34.3, but his Total QBR was 47.4. Basically, with competition considered as in the Total, he had an average day. There were some missed chances though. He let a few deep balls hang, one of which was intercepted, to allow DBs to make a play on the ball. One second viewing, it appeared that he was not “stepping into” his throws. His weight never seemed to transfer from back foot to front. Riley was probably a little gun-shy of the LSU pass rush, but he needs to step up and make the throw THEN worry about getting hit. Neal did do a MUCH better job moving in the pocket and throwing the ball away without getting called for intentional grounding. Riley should get a chance to play a more comfortable game with less pressure on him to keep us in a game we trail against NIU.
The other guy with the same first name pronunciation but different spelling, Ryley Guay has continued his excellent start to the season. Guay is yet to miss on a FG after 4 attempts from 41, 26, 46, and 48 on the season. The ball is really flying well off his foot. He looks confident, and Mason’s confidence has to be growing. Unfortunately, he limped off against LSU, so his understudy Javan Rice, who was a highly touted kicking prospect 2 classes ago, might have to take over for this week. Rice did take the final kickoff for Vanderbilt, so he has been in a game before. If we need him to be the hero Saturday, there are bigger issues than whether or not he is ready for the spotlight to be on him.
The other kicking specialist Harrison Smith had another good day, too. Smith sits 29th in the country in total punting yardage at 44.7. He averaged 47.0 against LSU with one ball down. LSU only managed 1 yard on returns with 3 attempts, one of which was nullified by a penalty. Of course, the glaring issue was the one blocked punt that resulted in an LSU TD. That play is entirely on the protection team though, as they allowed a completely free runner. It was the first time someone has really gotten close to Smith all season, so hopefully that issue is not going to repeat more down the line.
Lessons We Know Well
A big part of the offense growing was Ke’Shawn Vaughn, as he should be. The day started fast with a 41-yard carry on the first offensive play. He was bottled up quite a few times but played at his elite level to bounce off tacklers and consistently find yards after contact. The final ground tally of 130 rushing yards on 20 carries and 2 TDs was complemented with 2 catches for 21 yards. After a decent (15 carries for 74 yards) against Georgia but a very pedestrian for Vaughn Purdue game (17 carries for 56 yards), he should build on this game. The Red Mamba may sink his fangs into the Wolfpack.
His Big 3 counterparts also had decent days. Lipscomb got his first TD along with 68 yards on 5 catches while Pinkney hauled in 4 passes for 47 yards. After struggling against UGA, both of them had productive days against Purdue and continued to be effective. Like Vaughn, I would expect these two to want statement games, and we know that both are VERY capable of doing just that tomorrow.
Lessons We Will Study Further
Have the supposed discipline issues been resolved? Vanderbilt had 3 penalties for 27 yards against LSU. They had committed 9 and 13 penalties in the two prior games. Considering how much trash talk was going against LSU, a few more flags flying would have been expected, but the Commodores stayed in control of their emotions. A dominant team like LSU often forces more holding, pass interference, and other penalties where a player is outmatched and commits a penalty to try and avoid disaster. Mason’s squad steered clear of those problems last week though.
Was Mason feeling aggressive or desperate with the onside kick attempt? I expected more debate on that decision. A successful recovery and TD drive to follow would have gotten the score to 38-24. Instead, the ball bounced the wrong way and resulted in LSU an easy 7 points to make it 45-17 and kill off a game that was never in doubt but could have gotten interesting. Fans have typically accused Derek Mason of being too conservative, and I really liked the gamble. You must take chances to win games where your team is outmatched. If it had been against NIU or UNLV while barely leading or even losing, it would be desperation. This attempt was simply an aggressive attempt to give your team a shot and tell them that you believe in them coming out of halftime.
Is the overly soft coverage on the outside going to end any time soon? It is really bizarre to me that Tarver, who had a reputation as an aggressive defensive coach, and Mason, who likes CBs who can play press coverage, are backing the DBs away from the line of scrimmage so often. They brought pressure a fair bit against LSU to try and disrupt Burrow, but giving the underneath routes meant the pass rush did not matter much. When their athletes are going to beat our athletes in space, the tactic to disrupt their routes and try to avoid space situations is typically best. Yes, you might get burned over the top, but that throw is hard to make than all the crossing routes coming open in front of the QB with no one in between him and his receiver.
Can the team push on to a successful season? The schedule from here out is about as manageable as an SEC schedule can be. With NIU, UNLV, and ETSU out of conference, there are 3 wins that should happen handily. Tennessee is a roaring dumpster fire on a sinking ship. South Carolina looks unsteady with the inexperienced Hilinski under center, though he did light up Bama’s defense before an injury slowed him against Missouri. Florida looks ridiculously overrated. Ole Miss does not look imposing, and Matt Luke is still their head coach. Kentucky has its own QB issues with starter Terry Wilson done for the year already and backup Sawyer Smith dealing with a shoulder injury, though Mark Stoops claims he will be good to go this weekend already. The wins, maybe more than 6, are out there if the offense can keep improving and the defense finds their feet against less threatening offenses. The next three games (NIU, Ole Miss, and UNLV) really need to be, and should be, wins to get some positive momentum rolling.