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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Mississippi State

The explosive but stuttering offense from the week spun its wheels for all but one play.

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Vanderbilt
Taking the ball away from opposing offenses is becoming a real habit.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt was pulled apart on defense and suffocated on offense. The disappointing part is the Commodores had a couple of chances to build momentum early in the game but repeatedly shot themselves in the foot. Some of you may have noticed some angry Tweets, both about the game presentation and play on the field, during my re-watch Monday night. The loss brought out a rare level of frustration and anger. Why? Well…

Lessons We Know Well

Clark Lea needs to sort out the offensive coaching staff. Last season, I spent a ton of time defending play calling. The same was happening early this season at points as glimpses of intelligence led to success against Colorado State, Stanford, and Florida for a half each. The plan against South Carolina was pretty good throughout. The problem is how often it has looked like the person in charge of designing the plan and the person calling it were different. Because it is! It really culminated last week when, with Mike Wright at QB, the offense spent a ton of time in bunch formations tight to the line then asked Wright to make complicated reads. The best part was after Wright yielded to Jeremy Moussa for the last two drives, and the offense suddenly expanded and relied on quick, one-read passes that would have been a perfect complement to Wright’s athleticism. It was infuriating both live and on replay.

The margins are still killing Vanderbilt. Unfortunately, the margin that kept coming up again and again last Saturday was speed. It was not necessarily State being faster, but the Air Raid attacks so much of the field that the defense needs to react quickly AND have the closing speed to finish plays. Vanderbilt’s defenders typically reacted well. They were moving to the ball on time but were a half step or so slow. Unfortunately, that gap is not one they can address week to week.

Lessons We Are Learning

Mike Wright’s explosiveness still comes with serious limitations. His stat line was not pretty. The completion percentage was great thanks to completing 12 of 17 passes, but the yardage was a very pedestrian at 122. He also threw an interception and scored a 13.4 QBR. Yeah, that is very bad. I complained about the offensive scheme, but Wright did not help himself much either by missing some plays where options were open and should have been found but were not. The worst was a play action rollout to his right where Bresnahan was on a crosser and WIDE OPEN. That read is elementary, and Wright needs to make it. The second part of the dual threat was also limited with the 6 true carries netting 16 yards.

The defense is turning a spark into a real identity. In a game where they gave a up a ton of yards and points, the Commodores were still able to generate some pressure and create turnovers. The replay official took one interception away for unknown reasons. The other two takeaways were graciously allowed to stand. The first interception by Mahoney was, as I mentioned in last weeks edition, about the active defensive line getting their hands up to tip a pass. The other credited pick was Dashaun Jerkins running down an arm punt where Will Rodgers unloaded a deep ball well beyond his assumed target but not beyond the range of Jerkins. It was the third straight game with an interception for the safety. Mahoney also made a very athletic diving pick that was overturned to incomplete by the replay booth.

The second part of that identity is the pressure. The Christian James deflection that led to an interception is a good example. Vanderbilt also generated 3 sacks and 2 QB hurries. Unlike the offense, you can clearly identify what the defense is trying to do in most instances. Defensive Coordinator Jesse Minter has not always gone for high pressure, but pressure is the default with dropping into coverage used situationally or as a way to surprise opposing QBs. One perfect example of how that works was Daevion Davis’s sack came on a play where Rodgers had literally 6 seconds between snap and sack. The coverage held up and baffled him. Davis also had the defensive line’s other PBU.

Another factor that should be a massive relief to Commodore fans should be the tackling. There were not a lot of missed tackles, and the DBs were often tasked with making solo tackles. The Air Raid’s intention of attacking all areas of the field is tough to cover and forces DBs to make plays all alone unless they want to watch WRs run for days. Mahoney (8 solo on 10 total), Gabe Jeudy-Lally (7 of 10), and Maxwell Worship (4 of 4) were the most active defensive backs, and those percentages of solo tackles prove my point. Conversely, the team only made 44 solo tackles of 70 total. When 19 of those 44 came from 3 DBs, it shows how often gang tackling was employed closer to the line of scrimmage.

Special teams are going to be hit or miss. After being confused about some very bad moments after a strong start to the season, we need to accept that it is going to be feast or famine. Joseph Bulovas had his second 2/2 game after the 0/3 fiasco against Florida. These makes came from 27 then 41 yards. Harrison Smith had punts of 48, 50, and 50 all go unreturned. One was a beauty that checked up at the MSU 7. He also had two punts go for 30 and 37. Neither of them were cases of kicking to a short field. The good news is none of the 7 punts were returned. Cam Johnson also tacked on a 24-yard punt return while the kickoff returners took intelligent risks with the worst result being the Vanderbilt 22.

Lessons For Further Study

How will the weather effect the players and will the coaches overreact? Tomorrow, the high in Nashville is 57 °F. The chance of precipitation is right around 50% all day. This screams “conservative offense,” especially with an inexperienced QB who already struggles with accuracy. I would argue that means the plan should be to find big plays where you can. Get the other team spread out and see if you can take advantage of a slip or two. The wind will be about 10 MPH with light gusts up to 12 MPH, so deep balls should not be out of the question, especially since Pierce and Sheppard (AND MAYBE AMIR ABDUR-RAHMAN?!) all have the height advantage to win some jump ball battles.

The biggest question is simply whether Vanderbilt can find a way to win an SEC game. It will keep being the question until they do it. The talent issues are real. This is not bashing Clark Lea. As a fan, we all just want to see a win. We want to see the kids get a reward for their hard work. We want to see the coaches be rewarded for coming to Vanderbilt and embracing this rebuild. Build? The longer it goes, the more pressure will build. Projects like this are often waiting for a breakthrough. Who knows what happens with a little positive momentum?