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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Mississippi State

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The only thing not turned over in this game was a new leaf for Derek Mason.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Mississippi State
QB1 Ken Seals should have learned some important lessons from Saturday evening and the film room.
Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt played its best game since the season opener. The offensive production may make it the best of the season. Unfortunately, turnovers took all the good and buried it to the funeral choir of cowbells. The giveaways squandered what was Vanderbilt’s most likely chance for a win to avoid going 0-10 in this SEC-play only season. We learned some things about Vanderbilt’s players.

Lessons We Know Well

Ken Seals’s talent was on display again. He was 31/46 for 336 yards (re-setting the Vanderbilt freshman passing record from last week) with 1 touchdowns but also had 3 interceptions and a fumble. His Total QBR still came out to 59.8. All 3 interceptions came on plays where Seals got too locked in on a receiver and never saw a lurking defender. The first came on the opening drive with Collin Duncan, the CB-playing younger brother of former Commodore CJ Duncan, moving outside-in on an out-breaking route. The true freshman then missed a LB on the goal line which meant he did not put enough air under a throw into the end zone intended for Chris Pierce. The third interception came on an inside screen for Pierce where a DE was slanting and recognized the screen to step out and make the play. It was a trio of mistakes you would expect from a true freshman, but it was unfortunate it came in a game where he played so well otherwise.

Seals posted his second straight game throwing for more than 300 yards. It had been since Kyle Shurmur did the same against Kentucky and Missouri to finish the 2017 season. Only 7 Commodore, including Seals, QBs (with 3 doing it twice) have had seasons with multiple 300-yard passing games. The more interesting stat may be that Ken’s current 67.1 completion percentage would rank 3rd all time behind Jim Looney’s 1953 (74.4%) and Austyn Carta-Samuels’s 2013 (68.7%) if he finishes the season that way. The current 3rd place is Kyle Shurmur’s 2018 (62.6%). The completion percentage number is especially impressive since there have not been any cupcakes to pad that stat against. Also, I missed it last week, but Seals’s 77.5 completion percentage against Ole Miss puts him at number 8 on best completion percentage in a game by a Commodore QB. Last but not least, Seals became the third freshman passer to top 1,000 yards in a season behind only John Gromos (1,483) and some guy named Jay Cutler (1,433). The Azle, Texas, product is at 1,066 yards with 5 games to play.

The very talented QB is benefiting from an increasingly impressive cast of pass catchers. After seemingly becoming Seals’s security blanket, Ben Bresnahan was not targeted in Starkville. Cam Johnson had a second straight 10+ reception game with 10 catches for 114 yards. Keyon Henry-Brooks added 11 catches for 97 yard out of the backfield. Oh, and Chris Pierce has decided to become a red zone beast. For the second straight week, he dominated a DB in the air for a TD. Those types of man-sized catches were what we have been told to expect since 2018 with Pierce, and he appears to finally be realizing his potential. He totaled 6 catches for 46 yards.

It may be a bit premature, but Keyon Henry-Brooks deserves his own mention as one of the reasons to keep watching this team. The pass catching out of the backfield was a massive boost. Averaging 5.8 yards per carry over 20 carries for a total of 115 yards was arguably more important. Behind a patchwork OL, Henry-Brooks is making quick, decisive cuts to find any creases then getting upfield immediately. The only problem for KHB is that Ja’Veon Marlow (suspension) and Jamauri Wakefield (injury) have been unavailable, so his only respite the last two weeks has come from freshman Rocko Griffin, who has struggled a bit.

Lessons We Are Learning

Offensive Coordinator Todd Fitch is figuring out ways to get the most out of what he has, but there have still been some very confusing decisions. The first two 4th down attempts were very confusing. The first was a pitch to the short side of the field with Seals taking one hard step to try and draw defenders in before pitching out to Henry-Brooks. KHB was hit short but willed his way through first and second contact to barely convert. The second was a shovel pass to Keyon that went nowhere in a huge cluster of bodies. The third try was risky but less problematic. Cam Johnson came across the formation on jet motion then was targeted quickly by Seals with blockers to help for a high-speed screen. It was high-risk, high-reward but not a questionable call like the first two. His only other gaffs were running up the middle twice from the 2-yard line preceding Seals’s 2nd interception and possibly taking the ball out of his QB’s hand on drive #2 in response to the opening drive interception. Vanderbilt generated 6 plays of 20+ yards. Only 39 such plays happened in 2019. Sixteen chunk plays have been made thus far, but the offense has seemingly grown game-by-game.

I have one quick note on a play calling tendency from the last game. One concept that showed up again and again leading to KHB having a great day catching the ball was motioning the back out from the backfield then hitting him on the swing pass. Presumably, assistants in the box were watching for the adjustment. Mississippi State never appeared to adjust. Kentucky’s coaches have surely scouted that play and will have their players prepared for it, so Fitch probably has a twist on it either to the backside or down field. It will be interesting to see if it comes out in Lexington or if that concept was specifically used against the Bulldogs.

The defense was very concerning on the first three drives where they allowed 95 yards on 16 plays for 5.9 yards per play. The issue was schematic and revolved around DBs in zone coverage setting about 3 yards too deep. After adjusting and being more aggressive, Mike Leach’s air raid was limited to only 109 more yards on the final 41 plays for 2.7 yards per play. The defensive line was very disruptive as the game advanced. Dayo Odeyingbo, Michael Owusu, and Andre Mintze all recorded a sack. Even while mostly rushing 3 or 4, the Commodore defense stifled any attempt to run the ball. The final stats say they held MSU to -22 yards rushing, but Will Rogers lost 31 yards on 3 sacks. Still, the intentional rushing attempts gained only 14 yards on 7 carries. Kentucky will present a much different threat, so hopefully the brain trust of Derek Mason and Ted Roof can re-calibrate and provide a similarly effective, without a 3-drive delay, plan to stop another pitiful offense. This defense has the ability to be effective but keeps faltering due to scheme or individual errors.

Lessons for Further Study

Can the good tackling stay? Please? I do not have the number of missed tackles. I did not track it, but during the 3rd quarter I started noticing some very good open-field tackles. Looking at the tackling stats, the leaders were interesting. The leaders were Brendon Harris and Jaylen Mahoney at 10 total tackles with Harris having 5 solo tackles to Mahoney’s 4. Anfernee Orji (9 total and 3 solo) and Allan George (8 total and 4 solo) kept the trend of DBs getting ball carriers down going. Against most teams, it would be concerning, but the air raid is going to complete a lot of short passes that lead to DBs being the first to the ball. The lack of yardage for MSU shows they did their jobs quickly. It should be noted that freshman LB was the 5th leading tackler with 6 tackles, of which only 1 was solo.

How scary can special teams get? I predicted the game against Kentucky will come down to missed FGs. Pierson Cooke was 1/2 with the make from 41 and the miss from 50 off the upright. Wes Farley handled the PATs. The first attempt was a screwball that scared me, but the second was true. He will apparently handle short yardage field goals. HC Derek Mason said the split “is the 28-yard line,” but Cooke attempted a 41-yarder. I am not sure if the line moved back a bit for Farley or if Mason meant the yard line where the ball is held for the kick. Or maybe snapped from the 28. Who knows? I just hope the kickers can do more good than harm. Missing from 50+ is not especially bad, but Vanderbilt may need a long make. They might also need a short one which is almost scarier at this point.

How much of last week’s “progress” was due to Mississippi State being terrible? The turnovers were the only thing that turned a Commodore sinking of the Pirate into the Bulldogs sneaking away victorious. If that same Vanderbilt team shows up in Lexington, it seems like there is a good chance for a win. However, it could all be smoke and mirrors due to how bad MSU has been. The matchups will be interesting with Vanderbilt’s surging passing attack taking on a very tenacious Wildcat pass defense. Meanwhile, a floundering Kentucky offense takes on a mercurial Vanderbilt defense.