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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Ole Miss

Hopefully, the outcome is much different at Mississippi State than it was hosting the University of Mississippi.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 31 Ole Miss at Vanderbilt
A clean pocket for Ken Seals typically means good things.
Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As of Saturday night, I did not want to write about this at all, much less re-watch it to do so. A change of heart resulted in a second viewing. In the spirit of being dominated by ritzy nouveau riche Ole Miss, I am pounding hard seltzers two at a time. My angriest gripe during and after the game was that the defense never adjusted. Mason said the defense adjusted after halftime to play more coverage instead of trying to pressure Ole Miss’s QBs. He actually told the truth. We will touch on why that was surprisingly accurate in a bit. Overall, watching the game again did not change my feelings in general much, though I did feel better that an attempt to adjust was made. What can be learned from being totally eviscerated on defense while posting an acceptable offensive showing?

Lessons We Know Well

Ken Seals is the driving force behind any Vanderbilt fan’s hope for the next 3 or 4 seasons. He set the Vanderbilt record for passing yards by a true freshman. He surpassed the mark by at least 88 yards since it was noted he had the record at 231 then finished with 319 yards. Seals was very good from the start. He completed his first 10 passes and finished 31 of 40 with 2 TDs and an interception. The interception was possibly caused by Tyrell Alexander having his jersey pulled coming out of break, but the throw looked a little too far and too inside, which let the safety make a play on the ball. It was really his only bad throw. This game could represent a big step forward since his previous passing totals were 150, 113, and 148. Almost as importantly, it was not a case of racking up garbage time yardage. He was at 15/18 for 158 yards and 2 TDs at halftime, so he stayed on essentially the same pace. His QBR was 73.2, which was also much higher than the previous trio of 54.7, 10.7, and 24.9. He averaged 7.98 yards per attempt. Mississippi State’s defense is significantly better than Ole Miss against the pass (65th in Team Passing Defense Efficiency as compared to 101), so it will be interesting if Seals can have another very good game to keep his progress rolling.

Lessons We Are Learning

The pass catching trio of Ben Bresnahan, Cam Johnson, and Amir Abdur-Rahman provide a very good starting point for OC Todd Fitch to scheme around. Abdur-Rahman played sparingly, and I am not sure if he got in at all during the first half. Whether that is injury-related or was a disciplinary measure is unknown. Without the primary deep threat, Cam Johnson was used early, often, and creatively. Johnson caught 4 screens on the first drive for 23 yards and finished the game with 14 catches for 97 yards. Bresnahan hauled in 6 passes for 72 yards and had the first Commodore TD on a 43-yard reception down the sideline. His alignment out wide likely made Ole Miss anticipate a screen to that side, but he released downfield for Seals to find for 6. These three players all being available and healthy give Todd Fitch the options to scheme up a passing attack (assuming non-terrible pass protection) that Seals can grow into as he matures further.

Vanderbilt is struggling to cover anybody downfield. Opponents are averaging 9.3 yards per attempt and 13.3 yards per completion. Too often, it appears players are not on the same page. Some of that is down to the injury and COVID replacements forced in the secondary. Most of it appears to be down to simply not executing. Randall Haynie and Allan George have failed to step up as expected. Based on previous seasons, it was fair to think they would both be reliable corners even if they were not true “lockdown” guys. Instead, both have been beaten too often. Meanwhile, the safety play was very disappointing last week. Dashaun Jerkins was easily caught out by a double move from Elijah Moore then got fooled by a few play action passes that got him moving the wrong way. Safeties being out of position lead to big plays, so they need to shore that up with an air raid attack, no matter how impotent, coming to town.

Offensive Coordinator Todd Fitch might be finding his way with the personnel at his disposal. With Amir Abdur-Rahman sidelined, the use of Cam Johnson was very smart. The first drive also did something that showed the night and day difference between Fitch and Gdowski. Obviously, one is a very good OC, and the other is a terrible OC. The main difference is in understanding play calling. On the first drive, Vanderbilt used mostly two concepts to drive down the field – quick hitting screens or hitches to Cam Johnson and inside runs to Keyon Henry-Brooks. It is the football equivalent of using a jab-hook punch combo. Alternating using those two concepts stresses the defense in opposite ways, so you are making them guess whether they need to pull bodies to the middle of the field for the run or have safeties and linebackers set a little wider to rally to the sidelines for the passes. Having a true freshman go 31/40 is a great indicator for how Fitch found ways to unbalance Ole Miss and find plays to attack their weaknesses. Seals was also only sacked once, which means there was a plan to help the OL.

Lessons for Further Study

What happened to the defensive line? They looked stout against Texas A&M and were mostly decent against LSU and South Carolina. They generated very little pressure and were too easily moved on inside runs against Ole Miss. I cannot know for sure, but it appeared they were more worried about containing Corral than sacking him. The rush lanes were straight lines meant to prevent escape lanes from opening and seemed to be through the Ole Miss OL. The plan appeared to be not to rush upfield and try to get sacks at the risk of opening a crease for Corral to scramble. It was an odd choice to me, but it is also likely that stunts would not have been effective against the quick-fire passes Kiffin likes to employ, which brings me to my next point.

Why the hell did we wait until halftime to adjust? The pass rush was completely nonexistent in the first half while bringing mostly 5. If you are already not getting pressure, the change should have been made after a couple of drives, not at halftime. The coverage on the back end was mostly better in the second half with the extra body or two. Matt Corral was 22/25 for 318 yards in the first half. He and John Rhys Plumlee ended the game a combined 32/37 for 449 yards. Kiffin did take his foot off the gas, but Vanderbilt was doing a somewhat better, though still very lacking, job of making Ole Miss earn their yardage. As I said more than once, failure to adjust is indefensible. Failure to find the right defense against Lane Kiffin can be understandable. They did hang 48 on Alabama. The combination of Derek Mason and Ted Roof being so slow to react does not make any sense to me. I wonder how the defensive meetings go and how much free reign Roof.

Does Keyon Henry-Brooks get back on track? Ja’Veon Marlow is still out due to suspension. Jamauri Wakefield’s status is uncertain, and Rocko Griffin appears to be the backup. Henry-Brooks has normally averaged much more than 2.9 yards per carry. He did show up for 89 receiving yards on 5 catches, but he fumbled after running a route up the seam and getting behind the defense. KHB flashed his normal explosiveness but looked a bit off, which was odd considering how often and well Seals was throwing the ball. A QB playing like that tends to open running lanes. He will need to find some creases with his quickness and cutting ability to keep drives going. Seals is very good, but the OL may need the help more. Pass blitzes and run blitzes are typically fit differently. The OL needs to avoid having pass rushers going full tilt every down to get to the QB instead of staying gap sound to stuff the run, which slows the pass rush.

Is Harrison Smith back? Has Jared Wheatley gotten his one bad punt out of his system? Tom remarked about how “Vandy” it was for our backup punter to be very good after Wheatley’s first punt that went 31 yards and was downed at the Ole Miss 7. Then he had one of the worst shanks that I have ever seen on a punt that traveled four yards past the line of scrimmage. His other three punts were for 55, 33, and 43 yards. They were downed or fair caught at the Ole Miss 12, 9, and 12, so the distances are not especially important. He responded very well after the mistake. Special teams and field position could be very important in what is expected to be a low-scoring affair in Starkville.

Speaking of special teams, what happens with FG attempts? Wes Farley handled the PATs and looked to be making good contact, though he appeared to lack power. I would guess 45 is probably his longest range, so a longer FG may mean a return of Pierson Cooke. Points potentially being at a premium might put Farley in a high-pressure spot for his first true FG. Just like Vanderbilt, I am ignoring the existence of the other scholarship kicker.

Where is this team mentally? I thought I saw a team that looked defeated at the end of the Ole Miss game when watching live. On the replay, it was certainly subdued when down 30+, but they showed enough fight to get the only two stops not related to time on Ole Miss’s last two drives. Yes, the Rebel Bear Landsharks went to backup QB John Rhys Plumlee, but Plumlee torched Vanderbilt last season. He is still a capable QB, especially in the read option that tends to rip our defense apart. Mason has lost the fan base, but it remains to be seen if the players are out, too.