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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Stanford

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Two minutes can completely change a game.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 18 Stanford at Vanderbilt
Rocko’s life just got a lot busier, so how will he hold up?
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Commodores were going toe to toe with Stanford. The game was tied at 14 then Stanford hit a FG with 1:53 to play until halftime. As the Vanderbilt offense took the field, many fans must have been feeling unexpectedly hopeful. Stanford had just thrashed the mighty USC badly enough to get Clay Helton fired 2 games into his 7th season. Now, the Commodores coming off a last-minute win over Colorado State and a 20-point loss to ETSU were eyeing the possibility to tie the game or take the lead heading into halftime before receiving the second half kickoff.

Instead of capitalizing on the opportunity, Ken Seals threw an interception. Then, the defense allowed a TD on 2 plays. The offense came back out and went 3-and-out fast enough that a 48-yard punt return coupled with a penalty for an illegal formation allowed Stanford to tack on another 3 points as the half ended. Stanford’s lead had gone from 17-14 to 27-14, and the game was never truly in doubt in the second half.

This game represented the last time for probably 4 weeks that Vanderbilt fans can learn too much unless it is extraordinarily positive or catastrophically bad. Georgia and Florida look to be national title contenders, especially with the Gators only losing by 2 to Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The best thing we can do in those games is look for individuals doing things really well or really poorly, unless of course the “extraordinarily positive” scenario kicks in and either game is at all competitive. Between those two, UConn is, according to Bill Connelly’s SP+, the 2nd worst team ever. So, if we do not do to them what Georgia does to us, the “catastrophically bad” situation is upon us.

Lessons We Know Well

It may be an overreaction, but I am going to downgrade the certainty about the offensive line because they may be upgrading. Nothing else has stood out as set in stone. This section is, for now, back to being blank.

Lessons We Are Learning

With that said, the offensive line did surprisingly well. We were told Stanford’s defensive line was suspect, but they are still worlds better than Colorado State or ETSU up front. Vanderbilt’s offensive line turned in their best performance of the season by far. The Cardinal only managed 3 TFLs, one of which was a 9-yard sack of Seals. Seals was also hurried 4 times. A sack allowed rate of only 2.6% would be fantastic IF they did that every week. Pressure rates are not readily available, but Seals was only credited as being pressured on 13% of the drop backs. If they can remotely replicate this performance against Georgia, it would be a massive reason for optimism. The concern is that the sack came on a play where Tyler Steen completely ignored the defensive end on his side while doubling down on a play that was a play action deep shot. As you can guess, the DE unloaded on Seals.

One important factor in slowing down the pass rush was the use of read option and some RPOs. I am planning on doing an explainer of the huge difference in those two concepts that some Vanderbilt fans seem unable to differentiate. Until then, just know that RPOs do not mean using Ken Seals as a running threat, real or imaginary. However, the threat of a run or pass can help keep linebackers and defensive backs from stepping up in run support. Meanwhile, the read option (or plays designed to look like a read option) are doing work on freezing defensive ends and outside linebackers. Of the big runs by Griffin and Davis, at least 2 were on read option or imitated read option where the DE froze. Basically, it turns Seals into a blocker when the DE/OLB freezes. Oh, and Seals had carries for 8 and 11. One was on a rollout scramble, but the other was a punishing, aggressive keep. I love it, even if you always cringe at each impact to your starting QB.

Defensively, Vanderbilt is just trying to do the simple things right. They are bringing a little pressure but have not had much success getting to QBs, though the defensive line has tipped or knocked down several passes. The problem right now is mostly in allowing explosive plays. On review, none of the big plays allowed were situations where the defense was completely imploded. Instead, one man misses his assignment leading to just enough space for a long run. To that point, Stanford’s top 4 rushers had their longest carry account for 69%, 53%, 41%, and 76% of their total yardage. The defense is also improving as the games get into the second half. Colorado State was held to less than 70 yards of offense in the second half before their 50ish yard scoring drive to tie the game. Stanford split their yardage 248 and 174. It is promising that they can adjust. The hope is they can grow into the scheme and gameplans to come out strong, too.

Lessons for Further Study

When/Will Ken Seals and the passing game find some consistency? They found moments against both Colorado State and Stanford. The problem is rolling success from one drive to the next. Seals was 16/37 for a paltry 120 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT. The interception was the turning point in the game and his play. To that point, 9/18 for 78 yards. No, those numbers are not all that impressive, but three of the incompletions were bad drops. One was a jump ball for Pierce that was well thrown and well defended. He also had a perfect pass under pressure to Devin Boddie Jr for the second Commodore TD. To reach his peak, Seals needs to get out of his own way. He has shown a propensity to be rattled that did not seem to be the case last season. Tomorrow will be a daunting test of his mental state. Even if he plays spectacularly, the Georgia defense is going to stop us a lot and force him into mistakes just by how good they are. If he can roll with the punches and keep fighting, that will be a big step forward.

Is Rocko Griffin ready to be the feature back? The loss of Re’Mahn Davis was a blow the Commodores did not need at a thin position. Rocko was great against Stanford after stepping in as the main ball carrier. He carried 19 times for 107 yards. He lost yardage twice for 4 yards total. Griffin surprised me a little bit with his big 36-yard carry as I did not think he had the speed for that type of run. He reminds me athletically of Zac Stacy. Both backs are gritty runners who do a good job of finding seams to avoid direct hits and fall forward. Neither has elite speed, but they love the open field and can churn up some serious yardage. To that point, Twitter account SEC StatCat has Rocko as 4th in the SEC in Yards After Contact Average at 4.39. Incredibly, only 7.52% of his yards are gained BEFORE contact. Griffin is gaining 92.48% of his yardage AFTER a defender gets a hand on him. He will need to be that strong or stronger through contact against the Bulldogs.

How will Patrick Smith and James Ziglor III do in bigger roles? Smith has only had 4 carries for 17 yards on the season and had 1 run for 4 yards against Stanford. Ziglor saw his first rushing attempts last Saturday and toted the rock twice for 8 yards. Smith is probably the new #2, so his role is going to increase significantly. Getting your first major action against Georgia will be trial by fire. Whoever has the ball just needs to take what they can get and not try to do too much. Consistent short gains will be more useful (and likely) than trying to hit home runs, especially by bouncing plays outside.

Can the special teams please get it together? Harrison Smith was not getting his usual hangtime, and the coverage was doing a poor job of keeping Stanford’s returners contained. The kickoffs make no sense unless Pierson Cooke is injured. He is a guaranteed touchback. Bulovas was…not. There is no reason to get trick on kickoffs. We do not have the depth of athletes on our coverage units to make the risk-reward equation turn in our favor. Bulovas should have the leg to force a touchback every time. If he gives whoever Georgia’s returners are a chance, they will torch us. I was also confused by how short Bulovas’s 52-yard FG attempt was. I do not remember the wind being that strong, and he has a make from 53. The broadcast audio and video made it sound and look like he got too far under the ball, but I am no expert on kicking oblong balls.

Has this team grown mentally tougher since ETSU? I know the 2nd half against Stanford was not impressive, but the defense held very strong. The offense just sputtered. They never looked to be downtrodden or mystified like the opener. They just could not execute. Yes, I did say Seals appeared to be struggling with confidence, but that is significantly different than being shellshocked against an FCS foe. He, nor his teammates, lost composure. Georgia is probably going to test that mental resolve. Strong push back (not dirty stuff or fighting) and grinding until the finish will be a good omen for Clark Lea’s culture building.

What will Mike Wright’s role be? It has been a question every week, yet the answer keeps changing so much that nothing can be pinned down. He played full series against ETSU then did not appear at Colorado State due to injury. Against Stanford, Wright’s only appearance was leading the final drive of the game. Vanderbilt’s offense did light up Stanford’s backups and score an impressive TD. Pump the brakes though. Wright should have been picked off on the play before the TD, and the TD throw was one that gets picked off more often than not. Throwing the ball late, against your rollout, over the middle is a recipe for disaster. It worked due to a complete breakdown in coverage. Vanderbilt needs to use Wright, but it is tricky to insert a second QB when the first is not getting on track. Then, on the few drives the offense IS rolling, there is no need to risk disrupting it. If Seals can find his consistency, it becomes easier and more comfortable to unleash the weapon that Wright’s athleticism can be.

This game is a big deal, not for the scoreboard or stat lines but because it will test the team in every way they can be tested. Nothing will be easy. Even with backups in the game, Georgia will still be rolling out elite talent. The Commodores, individually and collectively, need to show their mental and physical growth to its fullest. For the fans who will be there, be loud. We know the likely result. The players are going to give it their best, so we give them our best.