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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: ETSU

The game kicks off 23.5 hours from now, so this is just practice staying up late for something that likely disappoints you.

NCAA Football: East Tennessee State at Vanderbilt
Smoke effect or a huge cloud of flatulence? You be the judge.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt started the Clark Lea error* with a whimper. Or maybe it was more like a wet fart. Whatever it was, The Admiral was nearly silent with only 3 points scored en route to Vanderbilt’s first loss to FCS/I-AA competition. Every Vanderbilt fan’s hope must be that the team learned more about themselves and what they need to do to succeed than the fans learned about how this season will go. I will refrain from saying there is anything set in stone or well understood about this team. Barely.

Lessons We Are Learning

The offensive line is somehow worse than last season. The regression seems impossible with everyone who started last season returning except for center Grant Miller. Also, this performance was against ETSU as opposed to an SEC-only slate in the fall of 2020. Their inability to open gaps in the rushing attack or allow either QB to set and fire from the pocket is frightening. Frankly, the only hope for this unit is that they have a new position coach and offensive scheme. The only prayer for anything near “not terrible” OL play is that a little time allows the unit to gel.

The defensive line looked passive. Live, I thought they were losing the battle worse than they did. The problem was not getting blown off the ball. They just looked like a 3-4 front where the DL was locking up with ETSU’s OL and setting a wall a yard deep in the backfield. The change of scheme means the defensive line has more responsibility to make plays instead of just occupying blockers. Especially in the 4-2-5 personnel, you do not have the bodies at LB to fill gaps. While I suppose that reality is less concerning than the initial “We are getting blown off the ball by an FCS school!” reaction, being unable to get off blocks against an FCS school is still a massive problem and bodes poorly for what will happen against SEC or other P5 teams.

The special teams look good at least. Yes, that is where the Sunshine Pump has sunk in terms of optimism. Joseph Bulovas nailed a 53-yard FG that ultimately prevented the Commodores from being shutout. He was not provided any more chances, even with Vanderbilt drives stalling at times that would have given him opportunities from 51 and 54 yards. Points on the board can build confidence. The 51 yarder was rejected for a punt while the offense tried to convert a 4th and 6 instead of the try from 54. Meanwhile, Harrison Smith was busy and effective. Smith’s first punt was a 51-yard bomb that bounced out at the ETSU 1. The next two were touchbacks unfortunately with the second being the first denied FG attempt. His next three punts were all fair caught. The first at the ETSU 24 after 43 yards. Then, he only got 34 yards but forced the Bucs to start at their own 11. The final kick of the night was launched 53 yards to the ETSU 30.

Lessons for Further Study

Can the coaches figure out the mess they have made at QB? I was (and still am) strongly in favor of using Wright. I hated how he was used. I mentioned the drive split in the mailbag. Mike Wright should not be getting full drives (unless you are making him the starter), and he DEFINITELY should not be getting the first drive out of halftime. That decision is nearly Mason/Dorrell level mismanagement. The first drive after halftime is supposed to be a scripted time to get your QB settled into his rhythm for the second half. Instead of helping Seals, who would play the true crunch-time drives, Lea (or Lynch or whoever is making the decisions on offense at this point) sent out Wright. The drive could have resulted in a TD if not for a questionable penalty when Tyler Steen was about 4 yards downfield on an RPO, which is just beyond the 3-yard buffer allowed and much stricter than that penalty is typically called. However, what if Seals had gotten the drive and had the chance to build some momentum? Seals in rhythm probably could have picked apart the ETSU defense, instead of feeling the need to force passes and literally gripping the ball too tight to the point it popped out of his hand for a scoop and score for ETSU.

After such a demoralizing result dashed the fan bases hope for a new regime, where are the players? Save me from the “If you are effected by one game, you are weak,” nonsense. It is not about thinking you are a loser or anything of that nature. The problems are more likely related to looking over your shoulder at the backup. Moves like going to Wright to start the second half could understandably make Seals think his spot as starter is tenuous. The snap counts show the substitution packages were minimally used. Does that change after a loss to ETSU?

Where is the attacking defense we heard about all fall camp? Clark Lea seems like a straight shooter from his interviews. He has been too candid for some. My gut reaction is that the coaches thought vanilla defense could contain ETSU, and it really did for most of the game. Outside of Jaylen Mahoney getting burned 3 or 4 times and a missed run fit or three, the defense did almost not poorly. ETSU’s offense really only scored 13 points. The other 10 came from a scoop and FG after an interception returned for a TD was called back for taunting. DC Jesse Minter should show us more of his tricks against an FBS opponent … if they exist.

Is anyone besides Will Sheppard going to step up this season? I am not out on Ken Seals. I think the ETSU is an aberration, but it remains to be seen how the QB situation unfolds and potentially hinders their play. Sheppard was targeted on 17 of the 42 Commodore passing attempts. Amir Abdur-Rahman was only used on special teams. Ben Bresnahan, out for tomorrow’s game, was only targeted twice. Cam Johnson and Chris Pierce did have 9 and 6 targets, respectively. The next man up could be Devin Boddie who had 33 yards while catching all 3 targets. More importantly, somebody on the defense needs to take the lead. Elijah McAllister was good while on the field but was limited a bit. Daevion Davis failed to make a mark. Dashaun Jerkins and Mahoney both squandered good chances for interceptions, with Mahoney probably able to score if he makes his grab.

To that point for the offense, is separation the real issue in the passing game or was it more about bad/hurried reads? I know it is a whole lot easier to analyze when an option is open A) after the fact and B) when not being chased by 250+ pound men trying to take your head off. Looking over my notes, there are a 4 times when the announcers mentioned separation, either in the moment or later in the game recalling a critical play, where an option was wide open. Without knowing the designed progressions, I cannot say whether Seals could/should have gotten to that option. Those were the times when guys were OPEN, too. If Seals is going to be the mid- or upper-tier SEC QB most of us thought he could be after last season, the definition of “open” needs to extend beyond targets with no one within 5 yards. For instance, the first third down of the game needs to be complete. On a rollout to his right, Sheppard had the defender on his inside hip and trailing. Seals needs to at least give his WR a chance by getting the ball high and outside instead of low and right at the numbers to nearly be picked off. The offensive line consistently collapsing certainly plays a part in rushed reads, but he needs to stand in and accept that he is going to take some shots to make plays.

*Not a typo this time but also in jest. Mostly.