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ETSU 23, Vanderbilt 3: Who’s going to man the Sunshine Pump this year?

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Anybody? Bueller?

NCAA Football: East Tennessee State at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Box Score

Five Factors Vanderbilt ETSU
Five Factors Vanderbilt ETSU
Plays 74 59
Total Yards 320 314
Yards Per Play 4.3 5.3
Rushing Attempts 27 37
Rushing Yards 117 179
Rushing YPP 4.3 4.8
Passing Attempts 47 22
Passing Yards 203 135
Passing YPP 4.3 6.1
Rushing Success Rate 44.40% 35.10%
Passing Success Rate 40.40% 31.80%
Success Rate 41.90% 33.90%
Avg. Field Position 26.2 26.5
PP40 0.6 4
Turnovers 3 0

Okay, so I’m not about to try to put a positive spin on this, because there’s simply no way to spin losing to an FCS team. But, just eyeballing the box score, Vanderbilt probably should not have lost this game, and certainly should not have lost it by 20 points.

And I don’t know if that makes Clark Lea’s debut look better or worse.

Granted, some of this was garbage time. Ken Seals went 14-of-20 passing for 131 yards in the fourth quarter; prior to that, he was 6-of-13 for 75 yards. On Vanderbilt’s final drive — mind you, the game was already 23-3 at this point — Seals went 6-for-8 for 79 yards. And then he threw an interception in the end zone. Not that it would have mattered, but it was that kind of night.

Still, ETSU’s 33.9% success rate was low; the Buccaneers simply got a few big plays and otherwise didn’t do a whole lot. 105 of ETSU’s 135 passing yards came on exactly four plays; 90 of their 179 rushing yards also came on four plays. So, ETSU had eight plays for 10 yards or more, and their other 51 plays netted them a total of 119 yards.

Of course, giving up a few big plays doesn’t explain this. Vanderbilt won on success rate, and the Commodores basically won the field position battle up until the bitter end, when a long interception return gave ETSU the ball at the Vanderbilt 19 (after a touchdown was called back due to unsportsmanlike conduct.) But the Commodores couldn’t make anything of their scoring chances: Joseph Bulovas hit a 53-yard field goal in the first quarter after a drive stalled. The results of Vanderbilt’s four other trips inside the ETSU 40: a punt on 4th and 11 from the ETSU 37 (this coming after Bulovas had already made one with room to spare from 53 yards), a turnover on downs on 4th and 6 at the ETSU 34 (after a touchdown was called back due to a penalty for an ineligible man downfield — which, while technically a penalty, is the kind of thing that actually gets called basically never), an interception on 2nd and goal at the ETSU 6 (returned back for a touchdown, later called back), and an interception in the end zone on first down at the ETSU 21.

So that’s the “Vanderbilt should not have lost this game” part, and not even in a “no shit, we were playing an FCS team” kind of way. And now, let’s talk about the problems.

Vanderbilt managed 4.3 yards per rushing attempt against an FCS team. And neither Ken Seals nor Mike Wright could get in any sort of a rhythm because of seemingly constant pressure from an FCS defense. On the night, ETSU had four tackles for loss, two sacks, and three quarterback hurries. The offensive line is a problem, and frankly I should have viewed it as a bigger red flag than I did that Vanderbilt’s starting offensive line averages 307 pounds across and features a walk-on as the starting center. Granted, I did see that as a red flag, I just didn’t think it would be an issue against ETSU.

Ditto the defensive line, which got zero pressure on ETSU quarterback Tyler Riddell (two quarterback hurries and no sacks.) While we’re on this subject, the state of the lines is why I’m not completely beating up Clark Lea for this loss, because holy hell, the lines being this big of a problem against ETSU is 100% a talent issue, and the team’s current talent level has exactly nothing to do with Clark Lea. It needs to be fixed, obviously, but it’s not something that could have been fixed this season.

The TL;DR version of this is that Vanderbilt is very bad, and that fact is mostly on the previous coaching staff, which had seven years to build an offensive line that wasn’t going in their with a 290-pound right tackle and a walk-on center. Vanderbilt also still should have beaten ETSU — both in a “it’s ETSU” sense and in the sense that the box score says Vanderbilt definitely shouldn’t have lost by 20 points and probably should have won this game. How much of that is on Clark Lea? I’ll hold off judgment on that front until I see how the team responds to this. Considering the response to ETSU scoring a touchdown to take the lead in the first half — a point which seemed to completely alter the course of the game from a game that I thought Vanderbilt would win to “holy crap, they’re gonna lose this” almost as soon as it happened — well, Clark Lea has a lot of work to do.

Individual Stats

Passing Stats

Passing Comp Att Comp % Yds TD INT Sacks Yds Lost Net Yds Success Rate YPP
Passing Comp Att Comp % Yds TD INT Sacks Yds Lost Net Yds Success Rate YPP
Ken Seals 20 33 60.60% 195 0 2 2 25 170 45.70% 4.9
Mike Wright 4 9 44.40% 41 0 0 1 8 33 30.00% 3.3

So, remember the caveat about Ken Seals’ performance in what was essentially garbage time — yes, up until the scoop and score to make it 20-3, Vanderbilt was still technically in this game; Seals went 12-for-17 passing after that — and the two quarterbacks’ performances weren’t that much different once you account for Mike Wright’s superior running ability. Wright even had a touchdown pass that was called back due to a Run-Pass Option While Vandy.

That said, I kind of wonder if Seals’ performance was the result of him picking up on the coaching staff not having much confidence in him. Who knows. There is so much that appears to be mentally not there with this team.

Rushing Stats

Rushing Att Yds YPA TD Success Rate
Rushing Att Yds YPA TD Success Rate
Re'Mahn Davis 15 58 3.9 0 46.70%
Mike Wright 5 22 4.4 0 40.00%
Ken Seals 3 21 7 0 66.70%
Patrick Smith 3 13 4.3 0 33.30%

I generally liked what I saw from Re’Mahn Davis. Running behind this offensive line is going to be a challenge, but Davis showed the ability to make something happen when he did get room to run.

The rest of this is whatever. Seals had a 19-yard run on the drive that ended with the should-have-been pick six. (Note, of course, that the rushing stats I’m showing here are different from the “official” rushing stats, which include sacks as rushing attempts.)

Receiving Stats

Receiving Targets Catches Yds TD Catch Rate Yds/Target Yds/Catch Success Rate
Receiving Targets Catches Yds TD Catch Rate Yds/Target Yds/Catch Success Rate
Will Sheppard 17 9 84 0 52.90% 4.9 9.3 35.30%
Cam Johnson 9 4 31 0 44.40% 3.4 7.8 33.30%
Chris Pierce 6 4 53 0 66.70% 8.8 13.3 66.70%
Re'Mahn Davis 4 1 11 0 25.00% 2.8 11 0.00%
Devin Boddie 3 3 33 0 100.00% 11 11 100.00%
Ben Bresnahan 2 2 14 0 100.00% 7 7 100.00%
Patrick Smith 1 1 10 0 100.00% 10 10 100.00%

Let’s just say that Will Sheppard — who had two catches all of last season — getting targeted 17 times in the season opener was not something I saw coming. 9 catches on 17 targets isn’t great, but who knows how many of those balls were actually catchable. Meanwhile, Devin Boddie made his first appearance in a Vanderbilt uniform; all three of his catches came toward the end of the game. Where was Amir Abdur-Rahman, though?

Defense

In terms of stats, there weren’t really any standouts. Linebacker Ethan Barr was the team leader in tackles with 11 (7 solo, 4 assisted), followed by Anfernee Orji with 8 — and 1.5 tackles for loss. Nate Clifton and Max Worship also had tackles for loss, and Michael Owusu assisted on one. The team didn’t have a single sack — inexcusable against an FCS team — and only had two hurries, credited to Daevion Davis and Alex Williams. Clifton, Davis, Jaylen Mahoney, and Dashaun Jerkins were credited with pass breakups. I would say the defense did its job for the most part — see ETSU’s success rate — but the defensive backs (specifically Mahoney) got burned for big plays a few times, and the amount of havoc caused by the defense was minimal.

Participation Report

The offensive starters were exactly who the depth chart said they would be, and so were the defensive starters with one exception: Christian James started at defensive tackle in place of Malik Langham, though Langham did play, and without seeing a snap count I don’t know which of the two saw more action.

Just three true freshmen played: DB John Howse, LB Errington Truesdell, and RB Patrick Smith — far fewer than you would expect in a game against an FCS team, but then again it’s not as though Clark Lea was ever in a position to empty the bench. Let’s just say I would bet on two of those three not redshirting; I have no idea about Truesdell, but I would expect both Howse and Smith to play pretty regularly. Three walk-ons got on the field (not counting specialists); in addition to Michael Warden starting at center, defensive lineman Michael Spencer and linebacker Tommy Eckels — both sophomores — got in the game. I don’t remember seeing Eckels, but I know I saw Spencer out there in the first half, and “the defensive line is playing a walk-on outside of garbage time” is a pretty big red flag that there are depth issues up front.

Notable absences: Justin Harris (who wasn’t listed on the depth chart and I’m just gonna assume is injured), Alston Orji (not sure what’s going on there but holy crap there’s a recruit who didn’t work out), Derek Green (who I’ve heard is injured), Tyrell Alexander (again, no idea.)

What’s Next

Vanderbilt travels to Colorado State for a late kickoff on Saturday night (9 PM CDT.) The Rams are 0-1 after dropping their season opener 42-23 to South Dakota State. South Dakota State is an FCS team, albeit a really good one, but Colorado State managed to look less competitive against them than Vanderbilt did against ETSU.

Take a deep breath, everyone, this is going to be a long season.