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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: UConn

At least they won...

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Vanderbilt
Sheppard had a few drops early in the game but made big plays down the stretch.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

An ugly, unnecessarily close win over awful team is better than any loss to an awful team. Vanderbilt sneaking by UConn qualifies as the former. The Huskies took the lead with 1:07 left in regulation, but Vanderbilt was able to get Joseph Bulovas into range to save the game. It was a victory that, as I said immediately post-game, brought little to no joy, just a wave of relief. The eventual difference between a presumed 2-10 finish and the narrowly avoided likelihood of 1-11 may never be known, but losing to UConn was certainly not going to help the rebuild.

As I said following the Stanford game, the three-game stretch of Georgia, Connecticut, and Florida was probably not going to be much of a learning experience unless this team was dramatically better or catastrophically worse than previously thought. The UGA game did not present anything to be excited about moving forward, but last Saturday was another testament to how far this program has to go.

Lessons We Know Well

Vanderbilt has almost zero margin for error. The Huskies are one of the very few FBS teams who are objectively worse than Vanderbilt. The Commodores had a few mistakes that allowed even UConn to nearly steal the game. This team needs to play perfect football to even think about winning another game. The problem is that bad teams rarely play perfectly, or they would not be a bad team. The biggest fixes to make immediately are on kickoffs, where not taking automatic touchbacks as the kicking OR receiving team has plagued the Dores, and punt coverage, where a lack of hangtime and lane integrity are allowing big returns. Drops from your best receivers coupled with inconsistent accuracy from your starting QB are also things to clean up, but those solutions are less obvious and readily fixable.

Lessons We Are Learning

If you were expecting Vanderbilt to road grade UConn, I have to question your mental state, but the offensive line was able to open holes and create some seams. The strangest part of watching Vanderbilt’s offensive line is that they tend to look the same whether they are playing Stanford or UConn. Georgia was the only game where there was a noticeable difference, but their front seven is ridiculous. The problem is playing up or down to the competition. Even in a down year, Stanford’s front is worlds better than UConn’s. It may be some scheme things where the coaching staff is trying to save some tricks for a theoretically winnable SEC game. The OL is in for another stiff test from Florida, who have registered 31 total TFLs with 17 coming via sacks.

Ken Seals was inconsistent, which has been his one consistent trait this season. When the offense works up tempo and lets him distribute the ball in the intermediate passing game, Seals has found a groove a few times. Then, that momentum can bleed into other ways to attack the defense. Conversely, when he hits a cold streak, the entire team feels it. A couple of times against UConn Seals missed a throw then a play or two later a receiver would drop a pass they should catch easily or not execute fully. It was concerning to see him go to the sidelines with a shell-shocked look after his interception. In his defense, the previous play had been a very catchable ball that Sheppard dropped for a surefire first down. Maybe trying to do too much to cover for other mistakes or deficiencies is making him overthink. Seals just needs to do his job and set the example for his teammates that doing too much is just as detrimental as not doing enough.

Will Sheppard is working to become a legitimate WR1. Sheppard had 8 catches for 119 yards and scored twice. On the season, the sophomore has 27 catches for 288 yards and the 2 TDs. He has not had quite the highlight reel catches Chris Pierce has. He is still a tall, athletic target with a good amount of elusiveness after the catch. Speaking of Pierce, he also eclipsed 100 yards receiving with 9 receptions for 103 yards. These two need to keep working to help Seals find his footing. If they keep clicking, it will create a lot of space away from them for Cam Johnson, Devin Boddie, and Ben Bresnahan.

Rocko Griffin is looking like a solid, reliable running back. He never quite got free against Connecticut, but 77 yards on 19 carries with only time being tackle for a loss is pretty good. Georgia was able to completely bottle him up by tossing offensive linemen out of the way on their way to group tackles in the backfield or at the line of scrimmage. Florida allows only 112.6 yards rushing per game. Rocko is probably going to be called on early and often to try and move the sticks or at least keep drives on schedule.

Meanwhile, a potential key to success is stuck on the sidelines because the offensive brain trust refuses to find creative ways to get him on the field. The only snap Wright played, to my knowledge, was the first Vanderbilt kickoff return when they faked a reverse to him. That idea is a good first step because he is more than just a running threat there. With all of the focus on Wright, he could take a handoff then throw a long lateral to a Cam Johnson or Devin Boddie in assumed acres of space. It would be risky, but putting it on film means teams have to think about it. Now, find some ways to get him on the field on offense with Seals or as a one or two play Wildcat option.

Outside of Joseph Bulovas, the special teams are killing the Commodores. Whether it is punt coverage not staying in their lines or picking up a punt still bouncing and rolling forward, that group especially needs some work. Harrison Smith has been called on to rugby punt a few times to compensate for their slowness in coverage. When it comes to receiving punts, nothing notably good or bad has happened. Unfortunately, the kickoff returns have been a nightmare of bad decisions to return kicks and miscues mid-return. Justin Lustig was viewed as one of the best hires Clark Lea made, but his unit is struggling mightily.

One positive improvement from the ETSU game seems to be the ability to respond to adversity. The Commodores folded when they got behind ETSU. They showed fight back against Colorado State. Stanford got away from them, but it never felt like they gave up or in to the difficulty of the comeback. Stanford just stopped them. The defensive miscues to let UConn back into the game then eventually the lead were not mentality issues. Defenders just were not making the right plays while in position. Then the offense answered the bell after the Huskies took the lead. Responding well to getting your clock cleaned is a low bar, but it is a starting point to the mental recovery of this program.

Lessons for Further Study

How will Ben Bresnahan be brought back into the offense? The athletic, reliable tight end appears close to fully healthy again. He made one catch against UConn for 30 yards. His snaps were a bit limited, so he may not be 100% yet. BresnaHANDS should add a valuable target over the middle, which is an area of the field the passing game has ignored too often.

Where has De’Rickey Wright gone? I meant to count his snaps, but they were minimal at best. Maybe the staff just dislikes players named Wright. Actually, Coach Lea pointed out in his presser that Wright was banged up and did not practice fully this week. Vanderbilt needs a player with his athleticism on the field. I even noticed the defense in more 3-down fronts than we have seen for most of this season to counter UConn’s spread offense. De’Rickey Wright is built to defend spread offenses. He will need to be available and contribute for Vanderbilt to have any chance of slowing Florida down.

Bluntly, how competitive can the Commodores be at Florida? Florida is probably going to be hunting a pound of flesh after losing to Kentucky. The Gators looked like the real deal in a 2-point loss to Alabama. Kentucky is good, but they are not Alabama good. Vanderbilt was able to hang with Stanford, who just beat #3 Oregon, for a half then struggled with UConn. Each game is a chance for the players to grow and improve while the coaches continue to evaluate and, hopefully, adapt game plans to be more successful each week than the last. This game will be another stiff test though.