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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Kentucky

The second half was better but not nearly enough to overcome the first half.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 13 Kentucky at Vanderbilt
Mike Wright got the offense to finish a couple of drives to make the score a little more respectable.
Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Vanderbilt played a game of two halves against Kentucky. The first half was lost 31-3 while the second half was won 14-6. Granted, Kentucky had a very comfortable lead and did not need to score more points, but it was nice to see the Wildcat offense held out of the end zone for the second half. A lot of the things changed in the second half, so that will be a big focus while trying to tie back what happened in that game to the rest of the season so far.

Lessons We Know Well

In a game where the Commodores were stifled offensively and brushed aside defensively for an entire half, it can be hard to talk about those damned margins. However, much like the Florida game, some critical mistakes created the opportunity for a blowout. Penalties were a major factor in the offense sputtering for the first half. Three of the six offensive possessions would be ended on a set of downs where a false start set them back. There were four false starts, and all came in the first half. One of them was overcome by a long Patrick Smith carry. Zero false starts in the second half helped keep the offense on track.

Those penalties obviously play into the offense’s inability to gain yards or score consistently when you face obvious passing downs and have to make lower percentage attempts to get more yards. There is no denying that Mike Wright played very well, but the penalties complicated half the first half drives. In the first half, Vanderbilt gained 105 yards with 39 on the ground (ignoring losses on sacks) and 87 through the air. The 21-yard difference is accounted for by the 3 times Seals was sacked. It averages out to 3.5 yards per play. In the second half, the Mike Wright-led offense gained 161 yards with 81 from rushing and 83 from passing. There were 3 yards in sacks, too. It should be noted 25 of the 83 yards passing in this half were from Cam Johnson. The yards per play average then was 5.6 yards. The yards per play would rank 129th and T-61st in FBS.

I will stop dodging the large, freaky fast QB in the room now. I danced around it a bit with the last point. Bluntly, Wright is the type of explosive athlete at QB that Vanderbilt has never had. He must have read some of my criticism last week about his ability to make throws because he rifled some passes into places I would not have expected. The efficiency of being 7/11 is impressive. Only having 58 yards in a half while trailing is a problem. Watching the game back reinforced my originally shaky assertion to start Wright. Ken Seals hurt his lower body (appeared to be a hip but hard to tell for sure), not re-injuring his hand. Seals with less mobility behind this OL is malpractice. Do you know what else is malpractice? Calling a freaking wheel route to your shortest WR on 4th and 3 with the last hope for the game in the balance. Whoever called that play (presumably Lynch) should have lost their duties on the spot. And I thought the play calling had been solid at worst in the game to that point.

The defense mustered zero turnovers. WR Chris Pierce had the only interception when he picked off the pre-halftime Hail Mary attempt. Going into the game, interceptions were the only way Vanderbilt was winning. Instead, the Commodores got a worthless one (though I think Pierce might have been able to do a lot more with the return than he showed) while Kentucky’s interception was returned for a TD. That play was super weird, and there are three Dores who all appeared to do their jobs halfway while doing things to actively make everyone else’s life harder. One good sign from the defense was a strong second half where they allowed only 135 yards in the second half after a 278-yard first half for the Cats. The biggest improvement was cutting Kentucky from 8.7 to 5.2 yards per carry. Ole Miss will not go 4 of 8 passing for 21 yards in a half, no matter how big the score is though.

Special teams play for Vanderbilt is equivalent to the Hugh Fisher experience. It is probably going to be electric or like being electrocuted. Bulovas nailed a 48-yard FG on the 2nd drive to keep it close at 7-3. Harrison Smith had his usual struggles with an 18-yard shank and a rugby kick that bounced 19-yards beyond the LOS before managing to roll for another 24 yards (43 yards total) with only a 3-yard return. Sandwiched around the 18 yarder were a 43-yard punt to Kentucky’s 15 with no return and a 49-yard bomb returned 25 yards but with a personal foul that made the big return possible. Oh, and we had a missed opportunity after the Vanderbilt TD to make it 34-17 with 7:33 to play. Kentucky expected an onside kick and moved everyone except the returner up yet still left him offset. Instead of chipping it down into the huge open space left on the other side of the field for a scramble play, Cooke chipped it to him and did get a miscue that started Kentucky at their own 13.

Even though they had a rough day, I am going to move them up because it is becoming more and more clear where the limitations are. The offensive line, which I pointed out had been doing better until the Missouri game had a rough day at a glance, did fairly well considering the opposition. It is a limited unit that is being protected but can mostly hold up when they stay on schedule. They allowed 4 sacks (3 of Seals and 1 of Wright) but only had 2 other TFLs allowed. One of the Seals sacks came on 2nd and 12 after a false start. The one involving Wright was a desperation 3rd down attempt by Wright to go against the grain after originally rolling left near the goal line. He should have thrown it away at the very least. Kentucky has a pretty good defense, too. Part of protecting them though is having a QB who can move. Seals, when fully healthy, can present enough risk to keep a read option to help, but Wright’s wheels really apply stress to edge players, and his passing was accurate against Kentucky which will help, too.

Lessons We Are Learning

Speaking of improving passing, Mike Wright was accurate but lacked the explosiveness we have typically seen from him. He was 7/11 for 58 yards with 2 TDs and no interceptions. ESPN graded him out to a 82.5 QBR which is outstanding. His rushing was only 7 carries for 20 yards, too. Even if you double it out to playing both halves, he was looking at a 14/22 day with 116 yards and 14 carries for 40 yards. That is pretty limited. I guess whoever graded the game saw a lot of magic. He did make some excellent throws that were accurate and zipped into tight areas. Kentucky also was more than content to just run the ball and run clock, so Wright had limited time. He should probably get the full game against Ole Miss and potentially THEM.

The bottom line for judging a coach in a bad season is about whether the team keeps fighting. When the coach loses the team, he should lose his job. Amir Abdur-Rahman should be the first guy ready to tell Lea to shove it after how limited his snaps have been this season. Instead, he has constantly been the most energetic guy on kickoff coverage and return teams. He got his chance to show out to the tune of 7 catches for 75 yards. It is the bare minimum, but bare minimum has been what we have to accept from this season. The hope is that buy in means the other aspects of the team build over the season and offseason.

The defense might be wearing down. The tackling was suspect for the second straight week. Kentucky was able to manball their way through tacklers too often. Struggling in this area could lead to Ole Miss needing a scoreboard that goes to 3 digits. They also failed to grab an interception since the only pick caught by a Vanderbilt player was Chris Pierce in a Hail Mary defense special package. The defense does not get to claim him.

Lessons for Further Study

Did Clark Lea go too far with his plan to tear down into the foundation and rebuild completely? Abdur-Rahman not playing for his practice habits while routinely featuring in many practice videos from the football team. I understand wanting to set a standard and build for the future, but AAR showed how effective he can be in this offense. I know the WR room is deep, but he should have been the field more. I wonder if there are other similar stories on the roster.

Sticking with the theme of Lea and breaking my scope rules, what is this 10-year plan? What is the goal at the end of those 10 years? Is that an SEC title? SEC East title? Bowl game? I have no reason to doubt Lea’s ambition. They just brought up the “10-year plan” a ton.

Is there a big upset buried somewhere in this team? The Dores have two road games against rivals. The Ole Miss rivalry is different and, at least in football, less angry and tied together by the Chucky Mullins tragedy. The final game is more of a blood feud. Either way, both opponents are around Kentucky’s caliber but with more explosive offenses. At the very least, the offense needs to score points against some susceptible defenses. Give the fans something to be positive about moving into the offseason. A win would be glorious, especially in Knoxville.