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Let’s Try That Again: Week 4 @ Notre Dame

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Revisiting that past can go some interesting ways...

Vanderbilt v Notre Dame
Shurmur chewed up more than his mouthpiece in this one!
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

After 3 straight road wins in the SEC to start the season, Virtual Vanderbilt stays on the road for its first game outside the SEC. It also happens to the be game that most closely matches reality. The location matches. The uniforms are the same colors. It does appear one week later on the schedule, and Notre Dame is not undefeated. Their stadium, and campus, was one of the coolest I have visited. And I thought for a few minutes at the end that we might be leaving with a win. Time for revenge.

Vanderbilt loses the toss and gets the ball first. ComestippleSacksoun suggested to go QB Sneak-QB Sneak-Hail Mary, but, due to the game making the quarterback automatically dive on sneak plays, it was negotiated down to QB draws. Well, somehow, my playbook does not have a QB draw, so I had to settle for QB blast, which is honestly better because it takes away the slight delay to fake the pass. Shurmur is alone in the backfield with Pinkney, Tennyson, and Bolar tight to the line on the right with Pierce and Lipscomb wide. The first run gets 5, so the Commodores hurry back to the line and get 9 more. Since Shurmur’s legs are working (and I assume the pattern assumed I would be facing 3rd and long after Shurmur ran twice), I am breaking the pattern. Sadly, our new dual-threat QB is stopped to lose 2 on new first down then goes back to it one more time but only earns back what was lost. Hail Mary coming on 3rd down, and nearly picked off but falls incomplete to force the punt. Shurmur nets 14 yards rushing on the drive.

The Fighting Irish start at their own 35. Ian Book is starting while the real-life Commodores had mostly faced Brandon Wimbush who was bad passing but effective running the ball in that game. Charles Wright gets his hand in to break up the first down pass. The ever-popular HB Screen makes an early appearance with Dexter Williams getting 4 yards. A handoff to Williams from the shotgun loses 2. The Notre Dame offense was less effective than our Shurmur insanity.

Why not try it again? The suggestion was to do it for the first half. We will see how long it is worth continuing. The first run gets 11 freaking yards! Then 6 more followed by 8! What is happening?! Oh, back to reality with a loss of 2 and gain of 1. The Hail Mary comes out again and should have been picked. Vanderbilt faces 4th down at the 45. Thome forces a fair catch at the 13.

Facing 5-wide, Haynie gets beat on a crossing route, and Chris Finke takes off for 33. Ona side note, Haynie is now listed as an impact player. He nearly picks off the pass on the next play. It hit both hands. Williams breaks a tackle in the backfield after taking an option pitch and barely gets a first down to the Vanderbilt 44 before losing 2 on first down. Finke then goes for 48 on a similar play to the first of the drive for a TD. Defending the slot is stupid hard in this game since you can’t pick the leverage of your nickel and dime DBs. Notre Dame leads 7-0 with 2:25 left in Q1.

With Shurmur at 38 yards on 9 carries, Coach Anchor O’Gold sticks with this wacky gameplan. Shurmur rewards his coach with 18 yards with a DB blitz off the far side and rolling coverage opening a huge lane! Kyle’s next 3 carries get 4, 2, and, sadly, 1. I skipped the Hail Mary because the Shurmur running has been much more effective. Thome booms this one down and out of bounds at the Notre Dame 18.

Book keeps to lose 4 with Griffin knifing int to tackle him. TE Alizé Mack catches 13 to make it 3rd and 1. Book tries to go speed option but runs into a blitzing Dime back Elijah Hamilton, who he sheds, only for Cameron Tidd to flatten him before he can pitch. On the punt return, Trey Ellis sheds one tackle and races for 23 yards to start Vanderbilt at the ND 49 as the 1st quarter ends.

One quarter was enough of the Shurmur’s Charge experience, even though it was often effective to start the drive. I immediately give the ball to a hungry Ke’Shawn Vaughn, but he loses 1. Shurmur goes back to the empty backfield and hits Pinkney up the seam for 23 yards. Tennyson catches an out for 4. Pressure forces a scramble and throwaway. 3rd and 6 from the Notre Dame 22. Vaughn sneaks out of the backfield and makes the catch to baaarely get the first down. Vaughn plows up middle for 4. A blitz blows up a draw to Vaughn for maybe half a yard. 3rd and 6 from the ND 12. Shurmur misses Bolar on an out. Guay makes the FG, so it is 7-3 ND with 4:54 left in the first half.

Williams starts Notre Dame’s drive by going off guard for nothing. Mack hauls in a pass for a meager 4. Finke gets open again, this time against Daley for 18. Dare explodes through the line to tackle Williams for a loss of 3 on first down. Miles Boykin has a 10-yard reception to get back to 3rd and 3 at Vanderbilt’s 42-yard line. Daley jumps the curl route perfectly…but it somehow flies right past him to the WR who has only green grass on his way to the TD. A mad PAT stretches Notre Dame’s lead to 14-3 with 3:18 left in the first half.

Wakefield runs a great return out to the Vanderbilt 42! The announcers point out the lack of usage for Vaughn. Whoops. I go to him and get nothing on power. A screen to the underused back only gets 1. Tennyson runs underneath for an easy catch as the Irish back off in zone then sprints to get 18 yards. The previous formation was 5-wide, and Coach O’Gold gets a little tricky by going hurry up and sending Tennyson into the backfield for a 4-yard carry. Notre Dame tries to cover Vaughn with a DE and gives up 12 yards. Lots of pressure comes, but Shurmur just gets it off to Pinkney on a corner against the safety for a 24-yard TD pass! Guay’s PAT makes it 14-10 ND with 1:21 left in Q2.

The Vandy defense needs a stop before half with Notre Dame getting the ball back after halftime. Chase Claypool drops a comeback while trying to drag a toe. They get the toe-tap on the next play as Claypool hauls in an out for 18. Haynie comes on a corner blitz and drills Book from the blindside…only to have Book spin out of the tackle and immediately throw a dart to Miles Boykin for 12. Coverage forces a throwaway. The Fighting Irish have 2nd and 10 with exactly one minute left in the half and the ball at their own 49. Finke gets 6, and ND calls TO. Book looks deep with 3 options going deep but gets it swatted by an onrushing DL. ND totally catches Coach O’Gold off guard with a fake punt, snapping it to the up back. Luckily, Coach had been looking for a punt block with so little time in the half, and the rushers slam right into the man with the ball.

Vandy starts at their own 49 with 50 seconds and all 3 timeouts. Another corner route by Pinkney is defended just well enough to be knocked away. On a flood concept, a deep out throw to Pierce is knocked away but lands in Pinkney’s hands just before he steps out of bounds! Wow! The 20-yard completion with 39 seconds left puts the ball at the ND 32. Shurmur is sacked on a heavy blitz. Tennyson gets a step on the DB covering him, but Shurmur leaves it just a bit short and sees the pass picked off at the ND 5 with no return. I really wish the QBs in this game would miss long sometimes. Bad throws are always short in those situations.

Book throws into a ton of traffic, but somehow Mack catches it and gets 18. Then a handoff to Williams gets 5 and the clock is allowed to run to halftime. If it was the real world, I would assume the coach had been scared by the near interception, but I have no idea what the game logic was thinking.

Book starts half keeping for 2 before doing the same to lose 3. The screen to Williams gets nothing. After the huge 3-and-out, Vanderbilt starts at their own 45 thanks to a 9-yard return by Ellis. Hit as he throws on PA, Shurmur cannot connect with the intended target. Vaughn gets 8 on an inside handoff. He rips off 20 on power to the short side on 3rd and 2! Lipscomb gets killed but holds on for 10 on a curl. A pitch to Ke’Shawn gets 2. The Notre Dame LB just gets a fingertip to the ball to knock it away as Vaughn runs an option route. Vanderbilt faces 3rd and 8 at the ND 14. Shurmur looks to Vaughn again, but he cannot hold on through contact. The short FG from Guay baaarely squeaks inside the upright. Notre Dame still leads 14-13 with 4:16 left in the 3rd quarter.

Williams loses 2 on an outside run on the 3rd TFL for Jordan Griffin. Book keeps for 4. Notre Dame earns a first down on a screen to Williams then 10 more on a WR screen to Finke. Book fires one into double coverage, intended for Boykin, along the sideline that falls incomplete. Book misfires badly and almost throws an interception when Joejuan Williams jams Boykin on a slant with Daley stepping down from his safety position. The throw misses everyone though. Book somehow fits one passed the earhole of Hamilton to Young for 19 then hits Mack for 4. Michael Young loses 4 when Stone Edwards busts into the backfield. Finke gets inside Haynie and just gets to the sticks. He racks up 3 more on a short out. Haynie gets his revenge by jumping a flat route at the Vanderbilt 13 and running the ball back to the Vanderbilt 39!

Vaughn loses 3 on a pitch for a poor start to an important drive. He does get it back on a counter. Shurmur comes to the line on 3rd and 10 looking for a screen to Lipscomb, but the coverage is tight. The veteran QB audibles to Four Verts due to the press and is rewarded when Lipscomb beats his man and makes the catch before being tracked down at the Notre Dame 27 for a gain of 33. The next pass is thrown over some cheerleaders when no one gets open. Back to the ground, Vaughn ekes out 4 going off-guard. Shurmur adds 9 on a slant to Kalija. Unfortunately, a play that I thought was supposed to be a handoff never leaves Kyle’s hand and leaves him scrambling just to get back to the line of scrimmage, which he does. The 3rd quarter ends with Vanderbilt trailing by 1 but at the ND 14. Vaughn starts the 4th quarter by running for 3, leaving a critical 3rd and 7 upcoming. Shurmur goes to a reliable receiver and route combination by hitting Pinkney on another corner! Touchdown! Up 5, Coach O’Gold rightly wants to go for 2. A LB, who had shown blitz and backed off, somehow gets to Shurmur before he can hand the ball off to Vaughn from under center. Well then. The Commodores do lead 19-14 with 6:31 remaining.

How will Notre Dame answer while on the ropes at home? Book keeps for 3. Finke wins again, this time running a corner against Jordan Griffin with late safety help. Dexter Williams carries twice in a row for 7 and 3, which means first down at the Vanderbilt 41. Young takes an out for 13. And another for 4. Back to the ground, Williams goes 8 yards for a first down to the 16. Mack cannot hang on through contact on a slant. On 3rd and 2, Book keeps and loses a yard, but Josh Smith grabbed his facemask. Because of course he did! Kevin Austin Jr gets open on the next play for the 3-yard TD. The Fighting Irish are up 1 and going for 2. Book hands off to Williams who is tackled short, but this time Wright is called for the facemask! Finke makes the catch on the do over. Notre Dame leads 22-19 with 4:33 to play.

The Commodores need more points, and Wakefield gets the ball out to the 30 on the kick return. Vaughn starts the Commodores with 17 on a stretch! He pounds inside for 4. Shurmur is sacked after a blitz gets home on misdiagnosed coverage. The 3rd and 14 pass is knocked down. The distance is too much. Thome launches another boomer down and out of bounds at the 15.

Vandy changes things up a bit with zone coverage. Coverage does not matter much when the front 4 flattens Book as he tries to throw on a HB screen. This game loves screens, and ND goes with another for 6. Book drops back and throws one short left where Mack and Williams run into each other, but after the ball hits off Williams, Mack catches it and runs for 11. This feels much too real. Finke then drops one! Griffin eats up another HB screen in the backfield to make it 3rd and 11. Finke somehow makes the sideline catch against the zone to convert. Catches of 7 and 11 for Fink and Austin get ND a first down with under 2 minutes to go. Williams carries for a loss of 1 and forces the second Commodore timeout with 1:10 remaining. A loss of 1 brings up 3rd and 11 with 1:05 left. A 2-yard carry by Williams means Vandy will get the ball back but without much time. Surprisingly, ND comes out to try a 53-yard FG. It misses, so Vanderbilt will have the ball at their own 36 with 20 seconds to go!

On the first play, Shurmur just barely misses a chance to get Pinkney a big gain that would have been near FG range. Lipscomb catches and gets out of bounds at midfield. A forced pass is almost picked. Pierce just cannot quite win the jump ball battle that would have gotten into FG range. The last play starts with 3 seconds on the clock, and I get tricky with a HB screen. Vaughn gets 21 and a diving tackle from behind saves the game for the Fighting Irish! The gamble had nearly paid off.

The team stats show Vanderbilt with 16 first downs, 108 yards rushing on 30 carries, and 14/28 passing for 207 yards while going 7/13 on 3rd down and 0/1 on 2PT conversions. The tough part is having 1 TD and 2 FGs from the 3 red zone trips. The Commodores only committed 3 penalties for 8 yards, but the two facemasks gave ND second chances at points that were converted. On the other side, Notre Dame had 18 first downs, 14 yards rushing on 20 carries, and 31/42 passing for 396 yards with the conversion stats being 9/14 on 3rd down, 0/1 on 4th down, 1/2 on 2PT conversions, and only going 1 TD from 2 trips inside the Commodore 20. Each team threw 1 interception.

Individually, Shurmur went 14/28 for 207 yards passing with 2 TD, 1 interception, and 2 sacks. He also rushed 16 times for 43 yards. Vaughn carried the ball 13 times for 61 yards. Tennyson had a single carry for 4 yards. Vaughn had another good day receiving with 4 receptions for 40 yards. Pinkney was the most important target with 4 catches for 78 yards and 2 TDs. Lipscomb had a better day with 4 receptions for 67 yards. Tennyson caught 2 passes for 22 yards. Defensively, Griffin stood out with 7 tackles, all solo, and 5 of them for loss. Cameron Tidd did well on the defensive line with 3 TFLs. Haynie had the lone interception and 3 solo tackles. Special teams were good, too, with Guay making both attempted FGs while Thome had 4 punts travel 151 yards for a net of 143. Three of those punts were downed inside the 20.

In the end, a few factors led to the close loss. Just like in real life, some red zone opportunities were missed while a couple miscues (penalties this time) gave Notre Dame too many chances. Notre Dame also used lots of blitzing paired with blitzes that overwhelmed the offensive line before receivers could get open. Then some in-game tendencies reared their ugly head. The game is not perfect. It is also nearly 7 years old. It still plays as well, or better, than Madden which is still being produced. However, slot receivers are even more dangerous than in real life with the aforementioned inability to make leverage decisions along with defensive alignments doing weird things against formations that put extra receivers on one side of the field, making man coverage fall apart. Zone coverages get eaten alive because areas of the field get overloaded. I am trying to avoid using those exploits (see Shurmur’s rushing stats versus my reluctance to use that so far) because it would make things too easy.

The Commodores are now 3-1 (3-0). They FINALLY get to play a home game against #9 Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are 4-0 with wins over Oklahoma State, an FCS team, #11 Auburn, and Troy. All those games were played in Starkville. They have a good offense and a great defense. Offensively, they rank #55 (27.3) in PPG, #48 (380.8) in total offense, #67 (169.3) in rush offense, #40 (211.5) in pass offense. Defensively, they are #8 (251.5) in total defense, #55 (143.8) in rush defense, and #6 (107.8) in pass defense. They are #16 in turnover differential (+4).

If you’re wondering, Vanderbilt is #58 (27.0) in points per game, #104 (312.8) in total offense, #126 (77.5) in rush offense, #24 (235.3) in passing offense, #86 (355.8) in total defense, #1 (63.3) in run defense, #125 (292.5) in pass defense, and #1 (+7) in turnover margin. The rushing attack is really struggling to get going. The blame for that can go a few different places. Some of it is playcalling with Shurmur being the focal point of the offense. The offense mostly working while running through Shurmur has meant the game plan has stayed with him. The other problem is that I am struggling to find the way to use Vaughn because I am thinking of how real-life Ke’Shawn plays while trying to deal with his in-game attributes. I left them untouched from the Operation Sports project. Whoever did Vanderbilt over there thought Vaughn only deserved an 85 in speed. If you have noticed from the play-by-play, pitch plays have been very unsuccessful since he only has good, not great, speed which is a negative departure from reality.

With Vanderbilt’s struggles to run the ball meeting a defense much worse at defending the run, how should the early offense look? It could conceivably swing hard to Vaughn to avoid that scary pass defense. I tend to ascribe to the adage that you do what you do well and make smaller tweaks to attack opposition weaknesses, not changing the whole game plan. Or should I just attack that statistically stellar pass defense and find out how good they really are to open the game?

Have I gone too far away from the James Franklin-era offense? I have thrown very few WR screens after the poll about opening up the passing game. Do you guys want me to tweak back slightly and make sure to incorporate those staples, along with maybe a wildcat or two? Or is the offense, judging as you can from the play-by-play, right?

Oh, and how about that Kyle Shurmur rushing attack? Do you see why I have avoided using it because it somehow freaking works? Or do you lunatics want me to keep using it in a much more reasonable volume? Or, hell, do you want that lunacy again?!

Poll

How does the offense open the game?

This poll is closed

  • 69%
    Get Vaughn going!
    (9 votes)
  • 7%
    Don’t change what is working
    (1 vote)
  • 23%
    Exert Shurmur-led dominance
    (3 votes)
13 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Has the offense strayed from the James Franklin inspiration?

This poll is closed

  • 41%
    Incorporate more WR screens
    (5 votes)
  • 8%
    Incorporate more wildcat
    (1 vote)
  • 33%
    Get back to using both
    (4 votes)
  • 16%
    We like it! We love it! We want some more of it!
    (2 votes)
12 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Do we use a little "rogue" game plan with Shurmur carrying the ball?

This poll is closed

  • 46%
    Too unrealistic to use
    (6 votes)
  • 38%
    Maybe 2 or 3 times per game.
    (5 votes)
  • 15%
    More dual-threat Shurmur!
    (2 votes)
13 votes total Vote Now