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Vanderbilt 30, UConn 28: Avoiding Disaster

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Hey, I’m not going to complain about a win this season.

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Five Factors

Five Factors Vanderbilt UConn
Five Factors Vanderbilt UConn
Plays 73 80
Total Yards 437 524
Yards Per Play 6 6.6
Rushing Attempts 32 35
Rushing Yards 112 200
Rushing YPP 3.5 5.7
Passing Attempts 41 45
Passing Yards 325 324
Passing YPP 7.9 7.2
Rushing Success Rate 37.50% 42.90%
Passing Success Rate 43.90% 37.80%
Success Rate 41.10% 40.00%
Avg. Field Position 23.2 30.7
PP40 5 3.5
Turnovers 2 2

If there was a good thing about losing to ETSU, it quickly ended any delusions about how competitive Vanderbilt would be in Clark Lea’s first season. That this team has now pulled out two wins over FBS teams is something of a miracle.

Granted, UConn might be the worst team in FBS (though they have fierce competition from UMass and New Mexico State for that title), but holy crap Vanderbilt looked pretty evenly matched with the Huskies on Saturday night. Like Colorado State, Vanderbilt benefited from some mistakes by the other side — UConn came up empty on two scoring chances, missing a 22-yard field goal and failing to convert a 4th and 1 at the Vanderbilt 17 — but unlike against Colorado State, Vanderbilt was committing mistakes of its own — that turnover on downs was immediately preceded by UConn taking over at the Vanderbilt 26 off a Ken Seals interception. UConn also got a gift in the first half when Max Worship fumbled away an interception, which the Huskies ultimately converted into a field goal.

That Vanderbilt didn’t have to play a perfect game to beat UConn is mildly encouraging; that Vanderbilt needed a last-second field goal to beat UConn is just the reality of the 2021 Vanderbilt football team. As far as the actual game itself, well, you know the drill. The defense still gives up too many big plays, but at least against UConn they were able to hold the success rate down to a tolerable level. Vanderbilt lost the field position battle, and I really don’t know what the idea behind not fair-catching kickoffs is, but it’s clearly not working (granted, some of the field position difference is explained by UConn’s one drive that started deep in Vanderbilt territory.)

As far as the coaching goes, well, I’ve been trying to be diplomatic about this, but I really don’t know how you’re drawing any conclusions about the coaching staff based on what they’re doing in their first year with a clearly busted team. Unlike Derek Mason, Clark Lea didn’t take over a program coming off back-to-back nine-win seasons; unlike James Franklin, Clark Lea didn’t have seven or eight guys who will play in the NFL greeting him in his first year. Instead, he took over a team that went winless last season and then lost the two best players from its defensive front seven to the NFL, and lost its starting running back and most promising defensive back to the transfer portal. (Yes, last year was an SEC-only schedule, to which I would respond by pointing out that the Robbie Caldwell team won an SEC game by two touchdowns.) Really the closest comparison to this is Bobby Johnson’s first year, when he took over after Woody Widenhofer’s defense lit itself on fire in 2001; but even then, Bobby inherited Jay Cutler.

That’s not to say that Clark Lea is going to work out or to defend anything the coaching staff is doing, but holy crap what were you expecting here? I view this much the same way I viewed Jerry Stackhouse’s first year, when he took over after Bryce Drew went 0-18 in the SEC. You’re just looking for any signs of life, and trying to make any broad conclusions about the new coach is a fool’s errand.

Passing Stats

Passing Comp Att Comp % Yds TD INT Sacks Yds Lost Net Yds Success Rate YPP
Passing Comp Att Comp % Yds TD INT Sacks Yds Lost Net Yds Success Rate YPP
Ken Seals 27 40 67.50% 333 2 1 1 8 325 43.90% 7.9

A week after getting pulled for Mike Wright against Georgia, Clark Lea stuck with Ken Seals for the entire game on Saturday and got rewarded with a strong performance. Yes, UConn, but if there’s a takeaway here it’s that Seals is just fine when the defensive line is an even match for the Vanderbilt offensive line. That probably won’t be the case again this season except maybe against Missouri.

Rushing Stats

Rushing Att Yds YPA TD Success Success Rate
Rushing Att Yds YPA TD Success Success Rate
Rocko Griffin 19 77 4.1 1 7 36.80%
Ken Seals 7 5 0.7 0 3 42.90%
Patrick Smith 6 30 5 0 2 33.30%

On the other hand, the run game didn’t do a ton against UConn. I think that should tell you everything you need to know. It didn’t matter because the passing game wound up being relatively effective, but buddy you should not be having any delusions about the talent level on this team at this point.

Receiving Stats

Receiving Targets Catches Yds TD Catch Rate Yds/Target Yds/Catch Success Success Rate
Receiving Targets Catches Yds TD Catch Rate Yds/Target Yds/Catch Success Success Rate
Will Sheppard 13 8 119 2 61.50% 9.2 14.9 6 46.20%
Chris Pierce 11 9 113 0 81.80% 10.3 12.6 7 63.60%
Devin Boddie 8 6 66 0 75.00% 8.3 11 3 37.50%
Rocko Griffin 2 2 10 0 100.00% 5 5 0 0.00%
Patrick Smith 2 1 5 0 50.00% 2.5 5 1 50.00%
Ben Bresnahan 1 1 30 0 100.00% 30 30 1 100.00%
Cam Johnson 1 0 0 0 0.00% 0 #DIV/0! 0 0.00%
Gavin Schoenwald 1 0 0 0 0.00% 0 #DIV/0! 0 0.00%

I’m still as mystified as you are about what’s happened to Cam Johnson, though when the top three receivers are playing like this, it seems like it’s probably fine. As for Amir Abdur-Rahman — who unlike Johnson has completely disappeared — in his case it seems like he simply got passed by Will Sheppard, who caught his first two touchdowns of his career on Saturday night.

Defense

  • As per usual, the team’s leading tacklers were Ethan Barr (9) and Dashaun Jerkins (8). Jaylen Mahoney also had a big game, with 7 tackles including 2 for loss and a sack. Anfernee Orji had three tackles for loss.
  • More notably, it seems like some true freshmen are getting a bit more involved on the defensive side, with Errington Truesdell, Marcus Bradley, CJ Taylor, and Devin Lee all registering tackles, and Tyson Russell with a pass breakup. I kind of expect that Lea is going to work freshmen into the rotation more as the season goes on.

Notes

  • The participation report lists true freshman Gage Pitchford as a starter on the offensive line, but then it also lists defensive lineman Devin Lee as a starter on the offensive line. I think this was actually Tyler Steen and Bradley Ashmore, but who knows.
  • True freshmen who played Saturday, along with the number of games they’ve played in: Marlen Sewell (2), Tyson Russell (1), Patrick Smith (4), James Ziglor III (4), CJ Taylor (1), Errington Truesdell (5), Michael Mincey (1), Devin Lee (2), Gage Pitchford (1), Quincy Skinner Jr. (4), Marcus Bradley (2). So, Errington Truesdell has already burned his redshirt, and three more players appeared in their fourth game. Redshirting Patrick Smith was never realistic (but especially after Re’Mahn Davis got hurt), and I don’t think there’s any intent to redshirt Ziglor or Skinner at this point either. It’s still worth watching what the coaching staff does here, though.
  • I’m of a mixed opinion about this, anyway. On the one hand, burning redshirts in a lost season is kind of stupid unless you absolutely have to play the guy (i.e. Smith), and maybe Truesdell will play more down the stretch than he’s been playing thus far. On the other hand, well, getting game experience for guys who could be key players down the road seems like it’s probably a good idea.

What’s Next

Vanderbilt heads to Florida on Saturday at 11 AM CT. Vanderbilt is a 39-point underdog. Plan accordingly.