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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Ole Miss

That started so well...

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Vanderbilt
Will Sheppard went up and got this ball for a TD then toe-tapped to be in bounds.
George Walker IV-USA TODAY Sports

I thought this was going to be a very different week at halftime. Vanderbilt was really the better team for most of the first half except for two plays of 61 and 48 yards on the Rebels pair of TD drives. Yes, Ole Miss had been stopped on downs at the Vanderbilt 32, but a 49-yard FG is not a gimme even for a kicker 6/8 from 50+. The problem in the second half was the big plays kept coming while the offense stalled. So where does that leave us once the emotional reaction has calmed?

Lessons We Know Well

If you want proof of the progress, Vanderbilt led a Top 10 team at halftime. The last time the Commodores were even tied at halftime with a team ranked in the Top 10 was the season opener in 2012 against #9 South Carolina. The last halftime lead was 2007 against the #6 Gamecocks in a game Vanderbilt won. No, halftime leads are not the end goal, but you have to be competitive for the first half to have a chance in the second half. Vanderbilt was shutout in 2 of the last 8 games against Top 10 teams running back through the James Franklin days. Painfully, the big step forward sometimes reminds you how far you have to go yet.

Will Sheppard, Jayden McGowan, and Ray Davis are all fantastic weapons for this offense. It is a lot of fun knowing that trio can make a play at seemingly any time, and they all do it in different ways. Sheppard is not going to wow you with any single facet of his athleticism, but he has great hands and is great on jump balls and contested catches. Davis is another guy whose physical skills are not eye catching, but he finds holds and runs low and hard to stay on his feet and churn out yards. McGowan is the flashy one who has the SEC speed and quickness to square an Ole Miss DB up, shake him out of his shoes, and then sprint for a 36-yard TD while the rest of the Rebels try to hunt him down. This trio gives Joey Lynch and AJ Swann a lot of playmaking and will also draw a lot of attention from other players.

Playmakers cannot do their job without a good QB. AJ Swann is already that halfway through his first season on campus. Swann had a 79.2 Total QBR against Ole Miss and is up to a 72.0 for the season. If you are not familiar with QBR, it is a percentile statistic. He is 37th in the country this season and 7th in the SEC. He threw the ball 38 times and completed 27 of them for 281 yards and 2 TDs. He is now into 6th for freshman passing yards at Vanderbilt with only 3 starts. If he can throw for 138 yards today, he will jump into 4th. Treating his 5 appearances (1 quarter against Hawaii and 1.25 quarters against Wake) as 4 games, he is averaging 212 yards per game and only needs to average 181 yards per game to pass Ken Seals’s freshman yardage mark. Oh, and he has not thrown an interception yet this season which is massive since he clearly has the arm to make all the throws. There is a lot to love here. The Georgia boy is going home to take on his childhood team and probably has a chip on his shoulder about not being recruited strongly there.

Lessons We Are Learning

Joey Lynch is working his magic with the freshman QB and his playmakers, and he now has the former starting QB Mike Wright at his disposal. We saw some fun stuff with both Wright and Swann on the field along with Wright as the lone QB. I do think the special stuff for Wright was a bit overdone last week, but it may have been due to an issue for Swann’s left arm/elbow/shoulder that had him holding it awkwardly. The biggest complaint was that Wright did not throw the ball even once in his participation. They did show a look where Swann was lined up to Wright’s right in the shotgun and had a pitch faked his way for a presumable HB Pass type play. Lynch did bust out a double pass on a lateral to Ray Davis for a throw back to Wright. The ball was incomplete, but Davis got blasted to earn a flag for roughing the passer. I love the trickery, but I think the offense may have gotten a bit out of rhythm. And I would like to see Wright come in as the one not taking the snap. A double reverse pass with McGowan taking a jet sweep before tossing it to Wright for a downfield strike would be fun. Overall, Lynch has done a good job to get Vanderbilt into position as the 43rd scoring offense which is a huge improvement from 128th last season.

The defense is still a problem though. Vanderbilt did okay against the run and held the 8th best rushing offense in the country to 143 yards on the ground. The Rebels were below their 5.6 yards per carry average down to 5.1, which is not great but average defense would be acceptable. The problem is the secondary. They are slow and struggling. De’Rickey Wright is getting absolutely abused downfield and was responsible on a couple of Ole Miss’s biggest plays. I really wish they would find a way to move him down in the box for nickel and dime packages because surely we have someone faster for the deep third coverage. The personnel is limiting what Nick Howell can do as DC, and opposing OCs can figure out the few tricks he has at his disposal. It is a bad spot to be in as a DC.

The offensive line is doing enough to keep the offense on schedule, even if they are not road grading opposing teams. Vanderbilt has only been tackled behind the LOS 3.17 times per game which is good enough to be tied for 2nd best in the country. Georgia is another one tied at that mark. Lynch and OL Coach AJ Blazek are scheming ways to at least get the ballcarriers back to the LOS, and some of the credit has to go to the backs for their vision as I discussed with Davis. Vanderbilt is also only allowing 1.00 sacks per game, so the backs and TEs are helping in pass protection to go with schemes to get the ball out quick. The point is that the OL is much improved from the Swiss cheese they were last season. Going from getting imploded constantly last season to at least holding their own is a massive step forward, too.

Lessons For Further Study

Can the second game this season against a Top 2 opponent on the road go better? Vanderbilt was emulsified by Alabama 55-3. The Dores need to find the end zone today, and they need to get a couple more stops to really make a point about improvement. Again, if it ends up with the same score, I do not think it says the progress of this season is dead, but they need something positive going into the next week at Columbia, Missouri. Georgia had also put out 2 lackluster performances against Kent State and Missouri before destroying Auburn. I do not think the Bulldogs have another today, but it is homecoming in Athens.

The top 3 playmakers are obvious, but Gamarion Carter stepped up for 3 catches and 35 yards. He also got some big targets when Will Sheppard was momentarily sidelined. He nearly got on the end of a deep TD pass and had Swann miss on a couple other contested throws to give him no chance. As teams focus on the trio, can he provide enough production to make teams pay for overcompensating?

I really do not know what else we can learn against the best team in the country. Just repeat most of the things from Alabama. Georgia, stumbles aside, are on another planet when it comes to football than most of the country and especially a team in year 2 of a massive building attempt. Compete. That is all the Dores can reasonably be expected to do. Anything beyond that is really gravy.