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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Colorado State

The later this goes up the better we do, right?

NCAA Football: East Tennessee State at Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt comes back home with a win and looking to redeem themselves in front of the home crowd.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Clark Lea got his first win as Vanderbilt’s head coach. The Commodores won in a way they historically have not by coming back from down 14-0 near the end of the 2nd quarter then surviving a late, tying TD by Colorado State with a game-winning FG with only 19 seconds left to play. Vanderbilt fans know both situations normally spell disaster. The game typically ends up out of hand, or the late tie deflates the team on the way to a loss. Colorado State is not a quality opponent, and they did a lot of things to put the game in Vanderbilt’s hands. Whether they are worse than ETSU is up for debate, especially factoring in road game versus home game. Either way, there were things to learn.

Lessons We Know Well

The offensive line needs to be protected. This position group has a long way to go. They may be able to grow as the season progresses, but play caller Joey Lynch will need to work around them until that point. He managed to do so in the second half. The key was the short passing game that made bringing a pass rush useless. An offensive play caller can dictate to a defense in that way. If the other team knows they cannot get to the passer, they will typically stop bringing extra bodies and attempt to use coverage to force the QB to hold the ball. Doing so can also make it easier, especially in zone schemes, to open some running lanes. It remains to be seen if Vanderbilt can make similar concepts successful against better opposition. If they cannot, we will see more football like the first half and most of ETSU.

Lessons We Are Learning

Special teams are going to be a strength this season. For a team that needs to find every advantage it can, special teams are critical. They showed up in Fort Collins. Joseph Bulovas hit the 38-yard FG to win the game with only 19 seconds left in regulation, which earned him Co-Special Teamer of the Week from the SEC. Harrison Smith’s cannon leg took full advantage of the thin air to launch punts high and far. Steady special teams could matter if some of the later points come to fruition.

Ken Seals can find a rhythm in this offense. We saw him do it last year, but it never happened against ETSU and looked like it never would through 28 minutes against the Rams. Seals was 10/17 in the first half for 92 yards and a TD. He carried the ball 5 times for -14 yards with 3 of them being sacks. The last drive of the half really buoyed those stats when Seals went 4/7 for 48 yards and the score. He looked very uncomfortable dropping back and was missing badly on outside throws. In the second half, the sophomore passer would go 17/25 for 146 yards and another TD. He was not sacked and carried the ball 4 times for 14 yards. The biggest difference was simply settling down a bit and being willing to take a hit to make a play while trusting his teammates to make plays for him. Instead of missing high and wide, Seals was confident enough, especially in Chris Pierce and Will Sheppard, to put the ball up for them to go snag. Ken really got rolling when Lynch went to the short, quick passing game, too. Then, he opened up downfield. The swagger and confidence need to bleed over into the Stanford game for a good start.

A big part of Seals feeling good about throwing some jump balls was Chris Pierce Mossing a CB then making a spectacular tight rope, leaping catch. Will Sheppard had a couple chances to climb the ladder, but he was interfered with twice along with being called for theoretically pushing off. Height, like speed, can be very difficult to combat. As a defender, even knowing the ball is coming your way is not very helpful when the man you are covering can get to it well before you can. Better corners could make it more difficult, but trusting Pierce and Sheppard to win some aerial battles could create some big plays for an offense starving for them.

Re’Mahn Davis is offering a reliable option in the running game. Davis does not have the same explosiveness as Ke’Shawn Vaughn, but he has exhibited the same suddenness to the hole that made Vaughn so dangerous with his speed. The most impressive stat for Davis from CSU might be 0, as in 0 negative rushes. Vanderbilt’s feature back carried the ball 17 times for 77 yards without being tackled behind the line of scrimmage once. With the shaky offensive line, it speaks to Davis’s ability to find any crease and get back to at least the LOS. The running game was at its best in zone concepts where Davis was finding and hitting holes as they opened, not depending on our OL to clear the path through a specific hole.

Lessons for Further Study

How much of the improvement from Week 1 to Week 2 was due to playing a potentially worse opponent? Improvement is easy to find when the measuring stick gets shorter. However, the offense took the form we had been told to expect and seems to best fit the personnel. The defense maintained their assignments and did their jobs. None of that was consistently present in Week 1, though the defense was not particularly bad against ETSU. It may seem minimal, yet those are the keys to getting the most out of whatever talent is on this team. Starting there then building from this foundation is about the best we can hope for from Team 1.

What will Mike Wright’s role be now? After a first half where many fans were ready to see a different QB, Ken Seals came to life (but still was not his best) to win the game. I still think using Wright as a change of pace is the best option for the Commodores. It needs to be spot duty though, not full drives. Build the offense completely around Seals’s skill set but have a package of plays for Wright specifically. It is a tricky balance, especially if the Wright package gets rolling in a game where Seals might be struggling. Seals needs to be the starter AND undisputed QB1.

Can Vanderbilt generate and use some momentum from last Saturday to start strong today? Within the game, Vanderbilt kept finding plays to spark the comeback, but it took a few of them before the engine finally fired up. The Rams missed a FG. Nothing. The defense held to force a punt. Nothing. CSU missed a second FG. A little life from the sideline but nothing on the field. Then, Allan George partially blocked a punt to give Vanderbilt good field position that was taken advantage of for the first Commodore TD of the season. The offense stalled again to start the 2nd half, but Jaylen Mahoney’s diving interception was like lighter fluid. Vanderbilt would score a TD, force a punt, and score another TD. Things slowed down after the 3rd TD, but the motor never appeared to die again. Not even when CSU scored the tying TD. Seals and company calmly marched down the field and set Joseph Bulovas up for his successful game-winning FG. The Commodores need to keep the spark burning and not have to re-fire the engine every game while struggling through slow starts.

With the strongest opponent to this point in the season coming to Nashville, we should learn a lot about this team tonight. Maybe most importantly, we might start sorting out which things were true about this team in weeks 1 and/or 2 but are not accurate anymore. I anticipate that being the case quite often this season. Year 1 of a new coach is typically a time when a team is volatile.