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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Missouri

Some of you older folks might actually have forgotten what happened the last time Vanderbilt played football.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Vanderbilt
Shovel pass glory for TE Gavin Schoenwald.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt is coming off their open week. Normally, there is a special edition of Lessons for the open week that breaks my rule of keeping thoughts to the season at hand. With this being the first year for Clark Lea, it did not make much sense to do. The Commodores were the last SEC team to get their break from game action. They face 3 straight SEC opponents to finish the season starting with a night game hosting Kentucky, who fell out from #18 to out of the CFP Top 25 Rankings after a 45-42 loss to Tennessee. The Cats have dropped 3 straight against Georgia (30-13), Mississippi State (31-17), and Tennessee.

The Dores spurned their 2nd legitimate chance to win an SEC game in 3 games with a painful blowout loss to Mississippi State in the middle. The final score against Missourah was 37-28. Vanderbilt was only more than one score behind Missouri for a total of 11:07. Vanderbilt actually led for 8:42, so the game was competitive throughout. The Dores just could not string together enough consistent offense or find a second turnover to give their offense an extra possession.

Lessons We Know Well

These losses are really about the little things. Yes, Tom can point out the slim winning percentage chances. He is right. We have a lot of things that need to be better to turn “could have won” to “should have won” to “did win.” The defense had a chance to get the ball back to the offense down 2 when Missouri started a drive with 3:11 left in regulation. The first play was a 72-yard run. Missouri also hit a 52-yard FG in less-than-ideal conditions. The analytics may say they should not have been in the game, but the fact remains the players and coaches found a way to get right to the edge of a victory before falling short. Again. To be clear, this is not an indictment of any player or coach. They all collectively have more weight to pull, especially in critical moments.

The offense is struggling for any consistency. The yardage totals were not close with Vanderbilt at a 502 to 380 disadvantage, but only had 3 fewer first downs (23 to 20). The problem was having 4 3 and outs. Three other drives went 27, 26, and 15 yards each. Two of the TD drives came on the back of 69- and 70-yard runs by Mike Wright. The offense needs those plays, but they really need more drives like the 13-play 84-yard TD drive that gave Vanderbilt the lead early in the 2nd quarter and the 10-play 75-yard TD drive to cut Missourah’s lead to 2 with 3:11 to go. These were the only 2 drives of more than 7 plays. Only 4 drives total (the 2 long TD drives and 2 others) were 6 plays or more.

Mike Wright is explosive, but he is still very limited in the passing game. A third of his completions were behind the line of scrimmage and accounted for about 25% of his yardage. His vision continues to be suspect, though the times he failed to find a completely open target were less obvious against Missouri than in previous weeks. Wright did earn a 54.1 QBR, which is the best mark by a Vanderbilt starting QB this season. He definitely needs to be involved because of his explosiveness. If Seals is FULLY healthy, he probably still should be the starter. Wright must be utilized better than he was before Seals’s injury though.

This defense’s identity is about interceptions. The talent is not available to play consistent, steady defense. They have done it for stretches but eventually miss an assignment or get beat athletically. The way to mitigate some of that is to create major negative plays for the offense. Vanderbilt is last in FBS in sacks per game but is tied for 15th in passes intercepted. One thing that worked really well against Missouri was rushing 3 and dropping 8. Yes, it has bit us a few times, but the successful instances were aggressive stunts and loops to create chaos with just the three rushers. Specifically, the other 2 DL were slanting towards Daevion Davis while Davis looped from one end spot to the other. This worked a few times including creating Maxwell Worship’s interception to erase Missouri’s opportunity from a blocked punt.

Special teams are an adventure. The good news came from the kickoff coverage unit that punished Missouri’s two attempts to return the kicks. One drive started at the 22 while the other was at the 18. Early in the season, any return attempt was seemingly guaranteed at least the 25. Harrison Smith had a poor day though. He shanked the first punt for only 30 yards then had one blocked, though it looked like Amir Abdur-Rahman missed his block badly with Smith’s delivery slowed by a snap just a bit outside. Unlike his usual work, Smith struggled throughout with a 43-yard touchback, 24-yard punt (from his own 40), 40-yard rugby punt, and a 45-yard rugby punt. None of them were downed inside Missouri’s 20.

Lessons We Are Learning

Vanderbilt has something in Patrick Smith. Something good. The freshman RB should be the #1 the rest of the way, even as Rocko Griffin gets healthy. He carried the ball 17 times for 95 yards and had 4 catches for 20 yards. He had shown bursts in previous games, though he was limited against Mississippi State and South Carolina. The versatile back has 56 rushes for 241 yards and 13 catches for 75 yards on the season. He should have three more chances as the feature back to show the Florida and Missouri performances were not flukes. Success down the stretch would set up a battle for the lead spot in the rotation with Re’Mahn Davis next season.

The offensive line is gelling way too late. The unit is slightly above mid-pack at T-49th in tackles for loss allowed and T-60th in sacks allowed. It is an odd time to point those stats out after Missouri had a good day getting after Mike Wright, but I originally looked the statistics up to bemoan them. Reality turned out to be much better than expected. Missouri had twice as many TFLs (9) as Vanderbilt is allowing on average (4.56). Without digging into every game, I suspect a big part of the struggles are based on Wright’s struggles throwing the ball. He is the threat, so Vanderbilt is probably facing even more pressure, which is intended to stuff the run game or force him into quick decisions. If Seals is under center OR Wright can be any more effective passing the ball, the OL may look as okay as the statistics suggest.

Lessons for Further Study

Is there any positive momentum from a couple of close games with SC and Missouri coming out of the open week? The Dores will need something special with the competition ramping up significantly for the final 3 games versus Kentucky, at Ole Miss, and at Tennessee. Yes, a win is always the goal, but competing against a borderline Top 25 team, a Top 15 team, and the bitter rival would be good signs. Stealing a win would be huge though. Kentucky’s Will Levis threw 3 interceptions in the loss to Mississippi State. He threw one against Tennessee. He also had 6 in the first 5 games before going 3 games clean. Vanderbilt can give themselves a chance if they can force him into bad decisions.

Are the tackling issues back? This season, the tackling has seemed decent enough. Against Missouri, Michael Owusu had an infuriating play where he had Badie dead to rights at Missouri’s 39 but tried to hit stick him with just the shoulder and gave up a huge play down to Vanderbilt’s 18. He had another missed tackle on Missouri’s final drive that ultimately was inconsequential, but a good wrap up could have created a ball stripping opportunity. A couple of other missed tackles stuck in my memory, so hopefully the defense is back in form after the open week.

Can the Senior Night/Black Out combo bring some good mojo? I am hyped to see the new jerseys live. The images released so far have sometimes made the numerals and border of the Star V look more like a true yellow, but Mike Wright’s behind the scenes shots included one that made it look like a VERY reflective, metallic gold. Maybe these guys can rally around the seniors who suffered through the ugly end of the Mason era and the tough start to Lea’s tenure.