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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: LSU

Night class part deux

LSU v Vanderbilt
Marlow was very effective on the ground against LSU.
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

A 41-7 score line is what happens when a handful of coverage mix-ups by the defense are paired with missed opportunities by the offense. With the score 14-0, Randall Haynie picked off a pass and slipped down at the Vanderbilt 42. Eight plays later, due in large part to a 40-yard pass from Ken Seals to Cam Johnson, Seals would find TE Ben Bresnahan with a dart in the end zone. Vanderbilt trailed 14-7 5 minutes from halftime against the defending national champs. Then Elijah Hamilton, replacing the injured Jaylen Mahoney at Nickel back, would give Terrance Marshall Jr too much space to catch then ball AND fall over his own feet at the catch to allow a 51-yard response TD. Still, Louisiana native Donovan Kaufman would re-spark the Commodores with a 58-yard kickoff return.

Vanderbilt would use 9 straight runs to get to the LSU 4 before an incomplete pass brought up 4th down. Head Coach Derek Mason decided to settle for the FG attempt. It was certainly conservative, but the young offense needs to see points on the board. It should have been automatic, but Pierson Cooke pulled the kick inside the near upright from a tight angle. 21-10 would have looked a lot better at halftime. Vanderbilt actually had more rushing yards (103 to 87)

Vanderbilt’s defense would come out and force a 3-and-out to start the 2nd half. Then, on 3rd and 6th, Todd Fitch dialed up a wheel route to Ja’Veon Marlow. The safety covering him runs into another defender, and Seals lobs the ball perfectly into his path. Marlow drops it. A replay from behind shows that no one stood between Marlow and the end zone. Seven more points were just flushed down the toilet. Vanderbilt should be trailing 21-17, but the score is 21-7. LSU would score consecutive FGs then a TD to put the game out of reach.

After a surprisingly close game in College Station, the 34-point loss sent most folks right back to “0-10 here we come!” mode. The reason I went through those missed chances is that I felt like this game actually has some positives, even if the end result was painful. Sometimes the late-game events can sour a game that was not nearly all bad. I am still too hesitant to say anything is too obviously true, so what did we learn?

Lessons We Are Learning

Ken Seals is still the guy but very much also learning the differences in high school football and SEC football. He is polished in terms of the ability to make some really difficult throws, but he struggled to adjust to the problems in this game. He was not the only one, but it did serve as a reminder to take a deep breath. He had fantastic throws to Ben Bresnahan for a TD and Chris Pierce for what could have been a TD if the senior WR had gotten his foot down any sooner. Alternatively, his first interception was as freshman of a mistake as you can make. On 2nd and goal from the LSU 9, Vanderbilt’s signal caller threw late over the middle into double (could even be called triple coverage) from his back foot. Seals will mature and learn to give himself another down there instead of risking the turnover.

Some help to take the pressure off a freshman QB may be available in the way of Ja’Veon Marlow. After carrying the ball 16 times for 65 yards against Texas A&M, the running back rushed 17 times for 83 yards. He is clearly more effective than Jamauri Wakefield, so the decision to list Wakefield as the starter and have the OR designation only between Marlow and Keyon Henry-Brooks for the backup role. I like Wakefield well enough, but he has not shown the elusiveness and cutting ability Marlow has. The offensive line troubles make those traits paramount to success. In 31 carries this season, Wakefield has 89 yards. Marlow’s yards per carry of 4.9 is two yards higher than Wakefield. Again, this is not a bash party against Wakefield. Vanderbilt has a back averaging almost 5 yards per rush after playing Texas A&M and LSU beyond the cobbled together offensive line. Give Ja’Veon the damn ball!

Lessons for Further Study

Can some players who had injury struggles, recent or recurring, return to form? Frank Coppet did not look very good against LSU. He made some good plays, but some mistakes were definitely on the film study this week. Namely, he turned a should-be interception into LSU’s second TD. He has missed a LOT of time with ACL injuries. Rust is expected and understood. He needs to play better, especially with the news that Donovan Kaufman will be out after a positive COVID test, per Kaufman on Twitter. It was later deleted. Unfortunately, Coppet may be missing more time since he was not on the released depth chart, or it could be some weird ploy by Mason Other players known to be overcoming issues are WR1 Amir Abdur-Rahman, RB Keyon Henry-Brooks, CB Jaylen Mahoney, and backup OLB Michael Owusu. Obviously, Abdur-Rahman is the most important player to be at 100%. Henry-Brooks could provide a home run threat that turns some of Marlow and Wakefield’s 10 to 25-yard carries into points with his acceleration and speed. Mahoney is the starting nickel back and was sorely missed. Owusu is a big, rangy edge player that adds depth to an already-effective front 7.

Can the offensive line play more like against Texas A&M, or have all the sprint-out and screen tricks to help them been identified to the point the unit struggles as they did against LSU? Obviously, the Bayou Bengals always have elite front 7 play. They perennially have highly drafted pass rushers. Struggling against them does not mean the OL cannot handle a team like South Carolina or others on the schedule. The concern is that OC Todd Fitch has had to pull out all of the protective tricks in the first couple of weeks and providing defenses the “What to watch for” list. It is not his fault that there are so few ways to hide a struggling OL, and new offensive line coach Peter Rossomando has done an admiral job of getting the unit as prepared as they are.

On that note, what developments to the offense will we see from Todd Fitch? He seemed to be a bit too in love with the screen against LSU. They were routinely sniffed out and turned into scary moments. The sprint outs were also limited in effectiveness as pass rushers started recognizing them and slanting through the gaps created by the shifting offensive linemen. I do not envy his task of trying to build an offense with the OL limitations and an inexperienced (but good) QB. He seemed to do a better job against LSU of not running the ball quite so much on first down. I did not compile those stats.

The defense, like the offensive line, appeared to take a step back. Some of that could be due to the talent of LSU, but the mistakes from Coppet and Hamilton created most of LSU’s biggest plays. If Mahoney is back and healthy, it would be a big step forward. Whether Coppet gets back in the groove or is replaced by likely candidates Max Worship and/or Justin Harris, better play on the back end is possible because the mistakes made were bad enough to be out of the norm. The Game Penises are also theoretically less talented, though Shi Smith might want a word. However, one interesting note is that through two games, Vanderbilt is 24th in the country in 3rd down conversion percentage against. The Commodores have only allowed 8 conversions on 22 attempts. If they can make turnovers a common theme, even if not as common as against Texas A&M, those two factors could make this a very good “bend but don’t break’ unit. The red zone defense has shown some promise, too, only allowing 3 TDs from 6 opposing possessions inside the 20.

How many players are impacted by the COVID testing and tracing that will go along with Donovan Kaufman’s positive test? The timing is awful, not that there is ever a good time for anyone to have COVID. Vanderbilt has the two games viewed as the most winnable in the next two weeks. Being down a dynamic starting safety and kick returner is a big enough blow. The chances of 0-10 could go up drastically depending on the number and role of any other players effected.

By the way, if ever have something you want me to check when I re-watch the game, leave it in the comments or call it out in one of the recap threads. I would ask not to do it in the game thread simply because I am typically drinking during the games along with the generally hectic nature of the game threads making it easy to miss.