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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Ole Miss

I never thought it would be this close, but that just made the loss hurt.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Vanderbilt at Ole Miss
Rocko went running for daylight quite a few times thanks to the offensive line and his own vision.
Photo by Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Remember when this team lost 23-3 to ETSU? That was a wholly inexcusable loss to open the season. Last Saturday, Vanderbilt went on the road to the then #12 and now #9 Ole Miss Rebels and gave them more than anyone expected in a 31-17 Commodore loss. Before anyone says the two-word phrase with words starting with m and v, it was a loss, but it was one that showed growth and might suggest future success.

Lessons We Know Well

Drops and penalties kept this from getting REALLY interesting. On Vanderbilt’s third possession, Rocko Griffin ran around right end on 4th and 1 and ended up down around the Ole Miss 10. Chris Pierce committed an unnecessary hold, and Joseph Bulovas had to hit a 49-yard FG to get the Dores on the board. Amir Abdur-Rahman, seeing a second straight game of increased action, mistimed a jump and dropped a would-be TD to bring up a fourth down attempt that failed on Vanderbilt’s first drive of the second half. The score would have been 24-16, assuming a PAT. The last one was Cam Johnson with 1:21 left in the game on a somewhat difficult back shoulder throw, but Johnson got both hands on the ball and would expect himself to make the catch. The score would have been 31-24 with a chance to tie resting on recovering an onside kick. These are plays that can easily be made without changing who was trying to make the play. They have one last, and to most of the fans most important, chance to take full advantage of their chances.

Mike Wright is growing up before our eyes. To follow up his 83.6 QBR as the 2nd half QB against Kentucky, Wright went 22/44 for 253 yards with no passing TDs, and an interception for a 54.9 QBR. That marks the 3rd straight performance above a 50 in the QBR to go with a 60.8 against Missouri. Mike made a lot of very good throws in Oxford, and the only time he really struggled through the air was on some sideline shots to Chris Pierce. They were not on the same page 4 or 5 times, and I cannot tell whether the passes were early or misfired OR if Pierce was not getting his head around in time or struggling to locate the ball in the air. The completion percentage could have been a lot nicer with a couple completions on those throws along with the drops mentioned and two more glaring ones that did not stall drives out. His interception was a case of not making sure a throwaway went far enough out of bounds with the CB making a highlight reel snag and toe tap. Oh, and the speedy QB also had 13 carries for 61 yards along with repeatedly using his legs to extend plays like the 2-point conversion saved by an Ole Miss facemask after a bad snap.

The defensive scheming came up big again. Ole Miss was held under their season average in points (31 vs 35.9) and yards (470 vs 506.7). The key was the run defense holding the RebelBearSharks to 144 yards on the ground which is fantastic considering they average 224.7 rushing yards per game. Ole Miss did only run 65 plays, so they averaged 7.2 yards per play. Holding them to 1/8 on 3rd down and 0/1 on 4th down was how 7.2 yards per play was halted. When the Commodores could hold Ole Miss for a couple or fewer yards on consecutive plays, they were getting off the field. Vanderbilt is actually an above average (42nd) 3rd down defense for the season at 36.3%. The struggle has been getting to third down. The Volunteers offense will be another stiff test though.

The typical strength of the defense has been forcing turnovers. They had a couple chances on forced (and one unforced) fumbles but failed to scoop any of the 3 Rebel fumbles. Ethan Barr dropped one somewhat difficult interception off a receiver’s hand but made a leaping grab to give the Commodores a chance at life. The pick was hauled in at the Vanderbilt 1, and Wright would set the Dores off on a 7-play, 52-yard drive that stalled on downs. It would be nice to see one of these turnovers come early in the game but making them at critical moments is also a nice feature.

The offensive line may have had their best game all season. Ole Miss ended up with 2 sacks and 5 total TFLs, but they paved the way for plenty of production. The Vanderbilt rushing attack was able to churn out 222 yards on 46 carries for an average of 4.8 yards per carry. An average like that will take a lot of pressure off your QB’s arm and can do exactly what Vanderbilt did – keep the opposing offense off the field. Wright was pressured a few times, but Vanderbilt is also able to release more guys into routes and trust Wright to escape pressure, whereas Seals might require keeping a TE or RB in to block. Mike does help the blockers with his speed.

Lessons We Are Learning

The running back duo is taking turns impressing. Rocko Griffin topped the 100-yard mark against Stanford then again against Ole Miss. Patrick Smith has shown explosiveness against Florida, Missouri, and Kentucky with averages of 4.4, 5.6, and 4.7 yards per carry with 17, 17, and 18 rushing attempts in each game. Against Ole Miss, Smith had 35 yards on 8 carries before disappearing after his final carry late in the 2nd quarter. I could not locate him on the sideline. Either of them could have a big day tomorrow. Maybe both?

Allan George is doing his best to improve this defense. He has not joined the interception parade, but he has had some great pass breakups the last two games. The stat line says just 1 pass defended in this game, but some of the most important coverage is when you never have to defend a pass. The technique really showed up last week when George did an excellent job with leverage to force receivers into the sideline to leave them no room for catches. He also did tip 2 passes against the Cats when Levis tried to force the ball his way. I do not have the statistics available on how many passes were completed to the man he was covering, but I did not notice any in either game.

Speaking of important defenders, Anfernee Orji and Ethan Barr are really locking down the middle of the field. The linebacker duo may not be flashy or make a lot of highlight reel plays, yet they make tackle after tackle. Orji is tied for T-91st in the country in total tackles with 82 while Barr is T-135th with 76. Barr has also has 3 interceptions on the season.

Maybe this should go higher, but this team is clearly not done with the season. They have fought and clawed down the stretch. The execution has been poor at times. Mistakes have undeniably been made, both by coaches and players. The play on the field is improving though. Schemes are mostly making more sense. They would not have kept it competitive with Ole Miss if they were not SIGNIFICANTLY improved.

Lessons For Further Study

Point blank, can the Commodores go out on a high note? They have gotten close a few times. They have kept some games competitive. They have not finished the job. The last chance is the best chance to turn the fan base around with just one game. Beating the hated Tennessee Volunteers in Knoxville would send the Commodores into the offseason and onto the last stretch of the recruiting trail with some flair. This team is looking for anything to spark it. A win tomorrow would be an early Christmas present, especially since it would be the 6th win for Vanderbilt in the last 10 meetings. The last time Vanderbilt had a winning record over the last 10 meetings was 1931 when the Vols won, but the teams were 5-4-1 over the last decade. Let’s do the damn thing.