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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Week 2 Georgia

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There goes an undefeated season...

NCAA Football: Georgia at Vanderbilt
Dashaun Jerkins will look to pick his play up where he left off against Georgia.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Your reservations in Atlanta for the first weekend in December are in jeopardy of needing to be cancelled. From a big picture standpoint, it is hard to glean too much from a loss, even one by 24 points, to a team expected to be in the top 3 or 4 teams in college football. Tom has pointed out that Georgia will make a lot of teams look listless on offense and like Swiss cheese on defense. The first 3 Bulldog drives were scary though as they looked to be on pace for a 59-0 type beatdown. Instead, even if you account for Georgia getting a little bit conservative, the defense bent but did not break from that point forward. The offense never got going, but some things came into play there, too.

Lessons We Are Learning

Gerry Gdowski’s offense certainly looked different than Ludwig’s offense. The shotgun was the primary set for the QB, and the goal was clearly to get the ball to the perimeter quickly. Problems arose in the form of bad snaps, missed throws, and an inability to find space. The first two issues will be addressed later. The third was a bit of a vicious cycle. Georgia was able to play tight coverage at the line of scrimmage because the Vanderbilt offense was not attacking them vertically. The vertical passing game was something Gdowski likely avoided due to the key injuries on the offensive line. Using 5- and 7-step dropbacks while missing the starting LT and LG against a front 7 like UGA’s is a recipe for Riley Neal-shaped imprints on the turf at Vanderbilt stadium. The new OC probably, and understandably, thought a few of the screens might break open or that it would be better to be conservative than to see Neal get blasted and/or forced into bad decisions that lead to turnovers. Some other quick routes like slants should have probably been utilized. All Vanderbilt fans will obviously be critiquing the offense now that they will be facing a much typical defense in Purdue, not the horror show UGA presents.

I predicted Vanderbilt would have a new fan favorite after the Georgia game. A redshirt freshman amassing 14 tackles (10 solo), a fumble recovery, and carrying the ball to convert a fake punt will do that for a player. Dashaun Jerkins was everywhere. He was not even expected to start until it was announced returning starter Frank Coppet was announced as an injury scratch. Jerkins will probably need to be all over the field again. A player like Rondale Moore requires an entire secondary that is communicating, hustling, and executing. Solo tackles in space become even more vital than timely pass breakups, which are still very important. It may be premature, but I really liked what I saw and am excited to see more.

The defense, schematically, looks much the same as last season. Much ado was made about nothing when the opening week depth chart listed a 4-3 defense. Your astute educator pointed out that Andre Mintze and Elijah McAllister were listed under the surprise DE position while undoubtedly being OLBs. Then the game started … and I could not have been more right. Vanderbilt lined up with 4 down linemen TWICE in the first half. The first time was on a 2nd and 1 with the Commodores defending from their own 7-yard line. After stuffing the run, they went right back to a 3-down front for 3rd down. The Bulldogs did convert, and that is special for a reason that will be revisited. Meanwhile, the 2-4-5 Nickel made an appearance for two snaps, too. We are not a 2-4-5 defense, and we are also not a 4-3 defense.

Speaking of the defense, it might be pretty good. Like Jerkins, it was just one game. Actually, it was only 2.5 quarters. The first 3 Georgia drives looked like the 2018 defense, or maybe even 2017. The Bulldogs amassed 244 yards on those 3 drives. They only had 235 yards the rest of the game. If this becomes a trend of bad starts then bowing up, the defense loses the benefit of the doubt. I can (yes, yes, of course the sunshine pumper can) give them a bit of a pass for three bad series to start the season against that monster OL, talented RBs, and cerebral QB. Vanderbilt was also credited with 4 QB hurries, the same number UGA had. Generating pressure on Purdue’s QB Sindelar could go a long way to being successful. Rondale Moore becomes much less of a threat if the quarterback does not have time to let routes develop. Forcing Brohm to use screens then having the DBs rally to the ball could keep Moore bottled up and ineffective.

Lessons We Know Well

Vanderbilt still has the Big 3, so there IS that. Lipscomb was a big part of the game plan and was targeted 7 times but only made 3 catches. Neal missed him badly a few times. These were not passes that Lipscomb should have hauled in and only one of them got to his hands. It was badly behind him on a route headed for the sidelines. Pinkney was used on a couple of designed short passes and managed 11 yards on 2 catches from 3 targets. Meanwhile, Vaughn did pretty well with his 15 carries, gritting out 74 yards. For him, 4.9 yards per carry is pedestrian, but doing it against the best defense we face is a good sign if that can be his low-water mark. Ke’Shawn was also targeted 5 times in the passing game, snagging 3 of them for 24 yards. Expect the powerful trio to do much better against Purdue, especially if Neal can find his stride.

Lessons For Further Study

What does Neal look like in his second game against a defense made of mortals, not the Monstars? His halftime stat line was 11/13 for 75-ish yards. He finished 14/25 for 85 yards. He also carried the ball a few times. The stats say 10 carries for -2 yards, but, as I often decry, the NCAA counts sacks as rushing yards. Neal was sacked twice for a combined 22 yards. So, the actual rushing attempts were 8 times for 20 yards. A few of them were doomed from the start by high snaps that ruined the mesh points. Neal had carries of 10, 5, and 4 (negated by a penalty) yards on one drive. He is definitely not as athletic as Deuce, but if he is the better QB, he can still run this offense just fine. Riley Neal will never be a game-breaker carrying the football, but he can absolutely take advantage of over-aggressive defenses slanting for Ke’Shawn to generate useful rushing yards.

How effective will the OL be, especially if Devin Cochran and/or Saige Young are able to play? For as much criticism as the unit received, the stats seem to disagree. They were only credited with 4 QB hurries and only had 2 sacks. Furthermore, Vanderbilt’s only designed running play stopped behind the line was the fumble due to a high snap ruining the timing on the mesh point between Neal and Vaughn. Speaking of which, the bad snaps must be fixed because they killed any hopes for short timing routes since Neal could not be expected to be in rhythm while jumping to catch high snaps or grabbing them off his shoelaces. The good news is that former Vanderbilt center Bruno Reagan things the problem is very fixable, even in just a week.

What is the RB situation like behind Vaughn with Wakefield out for the foreseeable future? Ja’Veon Marlow is back on the depth chart after being absent last week. The reports were that he was dealing with some injuries himself. If those are no longer an issue, he should be a suitable replacement based on incredibly limited time in his 4 games last year which allowed him to redshirt. The usage of walk-on Mitchell Pryor when Wallace was on the field for the last drive suggests Keyon Brooks is likely headed to a redshirt and was someone the coaches did not want to use, especially in such a limited role. I doubt Purdue is one of the 4 games they want to use him in this season, but Marlow’s status may force their hand as going to Pryor in a competitive game will be highly unlikely.

Can Guay stay consistent? He made both kicks last week and scored the only Vanderbilt points. The first one, from 26 yards, was heavily tipped but still found its way through the uprights. The second was not too far from being tipped but was a beautiful make from 46 yards. The right side of the protection unit needs to sort things out to ensure other teams cannot exploit them. Guay needs to be able to execute and stick with whatever mechanical or mental changes special teams coach Devin Fitzsimmons has implemented. Poor protection making him nervous about blocked kicks will be a surefire way to see FGs miss their target as he rushes them.

Is Harrison Smith all power, or can he sync up the accuracy? That Rondale Moore guy that I have mentioned a few times is a dangerous punt returner. Georgia’s return men had some chances and had a couple of decent returns. Smith had great distance with an average of 47.1. Three of the seven punts traveled more than 50 yards. The focus this week should be on finding a little more hang time and angling punts to a sideline to give Moore fewer options in space.

Last but not least, where is this team mentally? They need to respond demonstratively. A good showing in West Lafayette will go a long way to showing where this season is going. The good news is that the score did not get wildly out of hand against Georgia. Twenty-four points is still a big loss, but it is not annihilation. Mason should be able to rally the troops and go storming into Indiana. We left there with a loss last season. A win is much more on the table than it was then, so tune in to the Big Ten Network to see the team in Black and Gold win. Errr … wait, the team in white jersey’s and gold helmets. Yeah…