Games like the one Vanderbilt played at Florida will reveal a lot about a person’s natural inclination towards either optimism or pessimism. If you want positives, the team had one more first down than Florida (19 to 18), had 200 yards of offense in the first half, created two turnovers, and moved the ball inside the Florida 40 5 times. The negatives are losing 42-0, gaining 88 yards of offense in the second half, 3 missed FGs (all 41 yards or under), and allowing 479 yards of offense. Between the two groups of statistics, there is a lot of wiggle room to go point-counterpoint.
One place that my optimism runs wild is that I firmly believe that second half goes much differently if Vanderbilt gets even 10 points in the first half. That supposition assumes the TD at the end of the half of is allowed to stand (as it should) and Bulovas had made 1 of his 2 FG attempts. College sports are the place where momentum seems to be most important, which is somewhat understandable due to the age group on the playing field. If the Commodores keep the game close through halftime, who knows what happens? At the very least, they get some reward for their good performance against a very good team. Instead, we are talking about a second consecutive SEC shutout.
Lessons We Know Well
It was almost prophetic that a statement about the infinitesimally small margin of error was placed here last week. Vanderbilt decided to test the theory against the #20 Gators and found out they could not overcome it to make the game even remotely competitive on the scoreboard. Along with the trio of missed makeable FGs, Ken Seals had two interceptions (both only partially his fault), Ben Cox committed a stupid personal foul when the ball should have been 2nd and 4 at the FLA 6 that stalled a drive for a FG attempt, and the defense was too prone to the big play. Each of those will be touched on further, but Vanderbilt could have competed in this game if not for things beyond the talent levels. Bulovas should make at least 2 of the 3 kicks based on his history. Cox should know better.
Lessons We Are Learning
The offensive line confounds me again. No, they were not particularly good against Florida. Seals was hurried 10 times, but I think the Ben Hill Griffin Stadium statistician is hurry happy because Vanderbilt was credited with 4 hurries. Seals and Mike Wright were also sacked a combined 3 times. Both of Seals’s interceptions were on hurried throws. On the first one, Seals was hit as he released the ball which likely made it come up short in the defender’s grasp. The second turnover was affected by Seals having to throw the ball early and not being on the same page with Will Sheppard on where the route was taking the receiver. Florida also had 3 other tackles for loss. However, it should be noted, Florida averages 3.33 sacks per game (20 on the season) to rank 12th in FBS. They also average right at 6 TFLs for the season, which was met against Vanderbilt because sacks count as TFLs. Being right around average against a very good defense is acceptable for this group. Hopefully, they can keep growing.
The special teams continued to struggle but in some new ways. The lone kickoff for the Commodores was returned only to the FLA 21, so that was a win over getting a touchback. The punt coverage was also good. However, Harrison Smith is clearly being asked to do too many tricky things. His first punt was a cool end-over-end line drive that hopped up in the air and made a return impossible with the good coverage. The second was a 6-yard shank. The third was a rugby punt that was returned for 24 of the 42 yards it traveled because no coverage could get there in time. Letting Smith punt normally yielded punts of 50 yards (fair caught) and 45 yards (fair caught and muffed). Joseph Bulovas also had a meltdown to miss 3 FGs inside 42 yards. He was previously 6/8 with the misses coming from 49 and 44 yards.
One guy I pointed out as a key pre-game had a massive impact on the game. De’Rickey Wright had 6 tackles and 2 QB Hurries. Of the 6 tackles, 3 were solo and 2 were for a loss. Wright is one of the few guys with both size and athleticism on this defense and fits perfectly into the hybrid LB/DB spot that makes Clark Lea’s defensive scheme click. He needs to stay healthy and active for this defense to grow down the stretch.
When it comes to impact performers, Vanderbilt has gotten better but not good enough from the most important one they have, Ken Seals. The sophomore QB was 22/43 for 192 yards with 2 interceptions. His QBR was still a poor 37.4, but that rating is his best except Colorado State. South Carolina is 35th in Team Passing Efficiency Defense, so it will not be easy to continue the somewhat improved play he has had against UConn and Florida. The good news he looked as comfortable and confident as he has all season against the Gators even as his jersey kept getting dirtier and dirtier. If he can accept that he is going to get hit and keep firing, Seals has the arm talent to be successful.
When it comes to who Seals is going to target, each game seems to have different players highlighted. It probably has to do with Joey Lynch identifying the best matchups to attack. After being nearly invisible against UConn, Cam Johnson led the team with 4 catches for 49 yards. Devin Boddie Jr had the same number of yards on one more reception. Chris Pierce caught 5 balls for 25 yards. Will Sheppard also had 4 receptions and gained 45 yards. Sheppard was the early target on 3 of the 4 3rd downs on the first 3 drives. Unfortunately, he appeared to give up on his route on the first one, let the second bounce off his chest, and failed to look for the ball on the third. Oh, and Ben Bresnahan had two grabs for 10 yards, including one play that could have gone for a lot more if a rusher did not force the ball to be floated instead of zipped to him in the flat.
Lessons for Further Study
Starting with the breakout player of the game, how big will Patrick Smith’s role be in the second half of the season? Rocko Griffin is dealing with an ankle injury after Re’Mahn Davis already had season-ending surgery. Smith, James Ziglor III, and Dylan Betts-Pauley are the only RBs left behind Griffin. Even if Griffin is healthy, Smith showed speed, agility, and elusiveness that Griffin does not have. Rocko is the more physical back, so they both certainly have big roles if healthy. The freshman back also had a couple of really nice blitz pickups where I noticed free blitzers from LB or safety spots get stoned by Smith.
How can the defense prevent big plays? A lot of the problem against Florida is speed against no speed. Florida gained 193 of their 479 yards on 4 plays. Giving up 40.3% of yards allowed on 6.5% of the snaps faced is back breaking. Tom let me down by not doing The Statistical, so I do not know what Florida’s success rate was, but the Gators went 3 and out twice and had two other times they gained less than 15 yards then punted. Both drives resulting in interceptions also went 1 and 2 plays. The problem was Florida also struck quickly with the big plays.
Can Vanderbilt play up the level of the first half against Florida again? I posed the question on Twitter at halftime about how much that effort would beat UConn by if it had showed up the week before. Of 63 responders, 28.6% said it would be a 20+ point win, 31.7% expected a 13-20 point advantage, and 25.4% thought it would be 7-13 points. Only 14.3% thought it would have been the same result. As I mentioned in the mailbag, we keep seeing flashes or even full halves of football that tempt us with what players, sides of the ball, or even the team can do. The team needs to find some level of consistency while avoiding critical errors to go from good moments to real success.
What new and exciting ways will the Chicken Curse tear us apart? Vanderbilt has not beaten South Carolina since Bobby Johnson was wearing the headset for the Commodores. There have been unbelievable no-calls on defensive pass interference, Johnny McCrary going full Oprah with the football, QB injuries (at least twice), and a myriad of other crazy ways to lose games. While Vegas has set the spread at +18.5 for Vanderbilt, this is probably one of the two SEC games left Vanderbilt has any legitimate hope of winning. It would not be a letdown if they played well and lost a close one, but, if the game is close, there will almost certainly be some ridiculous factor to the result.