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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Georgia

Playing in this conference is a nightmare sometimes.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Georgia
Bottling up Ray Davis has not been easy, but Georgia was able to replicate success only Alabama has had otherwise.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Normally, I re-watch the game and have a ridiculous list of notes that mostly goes to waste because no one wants to read 2,000+ words of me over analyzing things, nor is that the purpose of what I want to do here every week. A big part of why I do things that way is because I am at the games more often than not and need the TV angles and a more relaxed viewing experience. I have already watched Saturday’s game three times since it was essentially the same game we played against Alabama.

I am concerned that I may be waving away these two results a bit too much. Maybe they are harbingers of bigger problems related to Clark Lea’s tenure. The game being uncompetitive at halftime was largely a function of 4 plays though. If Will Sheppard catches an easy pass, Jayden McGowan does not fumble, CJ Taylor makes a simple tackle instead of trying for a diving interception, and AJ Swann does not get called for intentional grounding, we are very likely talking about a 24-13 game going to halftime. Vanderbilt still never wins that game, but confidence is important. The Dores needed those points to feel better and spurned their early chances. They are not on remotely the same level as Georgia or Alabama, but a couple gold stars for punching the elite programs in the mouth would be nice.

Lessons We Know Well

Maybe it is a bit too optimistic leaving this here, but I still have not seen anything to tell me this team is not significantly better than last year. I have seen 2 games where whatever improvements have occurred meant nothing, and a third game meant the steps forward only got us to a halftime lead before mistakes resulted in an ugly final score. I guess you could add a fourth game where one player’s mistakes turned the result into a painful one. Appreciable growth in 4 of 6 games deserves a spot here on the topics list. The offense is still up from 128th in points score to 72nd after two games with a combined 3 points. I would say that playing Alabama and Georgia averages out with Elon and Hawaii. A 56-spot leap while moving to a freshman QB is massive. The defense is still very much a work in progress.

That freshman QB and his 3 favorite weapons are the beacon of hope for the stretch run. AJ Swann is still at a 72.5 Total QBR for the year. It amuses me greatly every time I look at his stats that his worst QBR by far was a 3.7 in mop-up duty against Hawaii. The next worst was the Alabama game at 34.6. The other four games are, in order of occurrence, 96.0 (yes, garbage time), 81.4, 79.7, and 66.1. If we get “better than 2/3 of other FBS QBs” play out of Swann the rest of the way, the Dores should win a game or two. Will Sheppard did drop a sure-fire TD, but he still averaged 15 yards per reception. Ray Davis only got 29 on 12 carries but did catch 2 passes for 20 yards. Jayden McGowan was bottled up for 12 yards rushing and 7 receiving. These four players on offense definitely give the Dores a shot to win in CoMo tomorrow.

The concern is on the other side of the ball. Vanderbilt’s pass defense is 130th of 131 FBS teams. Opposing offenses average 9.00 yards per attempt and 13.55 yards per completion. It adds up to 333.0 yards against per game. As an aside, THEM are 129th at 332.0. Against the run, the Commodores are better but not good. Teams churn out 4.71 yards per carry and 160.7 yards per game. From what I have seen, the pass defense being able to do anything except bail out and try to keep pass catchers in front of them would fix the run defense. When the Commodores know other teams are running the ball, they seem pretty successful, but I cannot think of a stat that would confirm or deny that supposition. Maybe Bill Connelly has something like “run success rate allowed during rushing downs,” but I cannot find it. The closest I can get is, also from Connelly, that Georgia had 18.4% of their rushes go for no gain or negative yards, so the Dores stuffed them on almost 1 out of 5 runs but were gashed a lot since 47.2% of Georgia carries went for 5+ yards. Basically, if the defense could play in standard sets they could be okay, but the lack of secondary speed is killing them.

Joey Lynch is generally being very good, but I need to add a caveat this week. He needs to trust this offensive line a little more. Will Sheppard is good on contested deep balls. Jayden McGowan can run by guys downfield. AJ Swann throws a pretty deep ball. The offensive line is actually not terrible this year. They are still averaging only 3.29 tackles for loss allowed this season, which is 6th best in the country. Vanderbilt passers are being sacked once per game. Take a little risk. Swann has show he can be elusive in the pocket. Downfield throws would open up the running game by pushing safeties back and make the screens and sweeps for McGowan more effective. Swann threw 3 passes between 11 and 20 yards and 4 passes beyond 20 yards. The deep shots were, I think, all lobs to Sheppard down the sideline. We need to see SOMEBODY go up the seam. You have two TEs on the field a lot, so use one of them or one of Boddie, Carter, and Skinner.

I want to harp on the work of AJ Blazek a little more. Last season, Vanderbilt allowed 5.42 TFLs per game and were 52nd in FBS. Allowing 2.13 fewer TFLs is huge for an offense predicated on staying on schedule. In a lot of ways, that is 2 fewer drives that get doomed to stalling out. The sacks are down 1.33 sacks per game allowed. It breaks down to one fewer passing and one fewer rushing play that die before they start. Keeping a young QB clean is the best way for him to develop. Having him constantly pulling chunks of grass (or those super annoying black pellets under turf) out of their helmet is a great way to create turnovers and a scared QB. The OL has done a great job of going from a liability to being at least serviceable. I do think the stats are inflated by play choices and TE usage.

Lessons We Are Learning

The receiving options behind Davis, Sheppard, and McGowan are struggling to get going. The fourth most prolific pass catcher is Ben Bresnahan with 5 catches for 75 yards. Devin Boddie Jr has hauled in 3 passes for 61. Gavin Schoenwald is at 5 grabs for 57 yards. Quincy Skinner and Patrick Smith have 5 catches each but less than 50 yards. Outside of the trio, there have been 32 catches for 365 yards, so the receptions are averaging better than 10 yards per completion. The issue may then be chemistry or trust from Swann, but it is more likely about separation since the freshman QB would have plenty of reps with the 2s and 3s from before taking over the starting role. Whatever the case may be, Vanderbilt needs more than 5 receptions per game from someone besides Sheppard, Davis, and McGowan.

The rushing attack has a lesser problem, but Patrick Smith really needs to get going. Smith has only gained 32 yards on 15 carries. He is the only healthy scholarship RB behind Davis with Rocko Griffin and Maurice Edwards gone and Chase Gillespie injured. Ray Davis is getting overworked. Smith getting back to last season’s form (82 carries for 360 yards) would go a long way in being able to spell Davis. OC Joey Lynch has also tried some 2-back sets with Smith and Davis that only become more dangerous if Smith can get in gear.

Lessons for Further Study

Can Clark Lea and Nick Howell shuffle some pieces to shore up Vanderbilt’s pass defense? De’Rickey Wright is getting abused downfield. Could a CB slide back to safety and let Wright play as the Anchor? CJ Taylor is looking good at that Anchor spot, but they can either make a decision there or slide Wright down to Star since he does have the body for it. Maybe they go with more single high safety looks, but Max Worship is already more of a strong safety type who wants to get down in the box and lacks top end speed on the back end. It is a tricky situation with the bulk of the talent coming at LB and the two hybrid spots. The current plan is not working, but maybe it works a little better against offenses that do not have assortments of NFL WRs, an NFL QB, and/or Lane Kiffin.

Can the Dores be road warriors? Their first good chance at a P5 win comes on the road. Thankfully, the weather is going to be nice, so they will not be suffering through an early fall Missouri cold snap. Still, road games are known to give teams fits in college football, especially those struggling to find their groove. Vanderbilt needs to go up to CoMo and knock down the Tigers to really stamp the growth this season, and that pressure may be as hard to overcome as the opposition.

Where are the Commodores at physically after the consecutive games with Alabama, Ole Miss, and Georgia? Wearing down may have contributed to Georgia’s backups having concerning success. With a second open date on the other side, the Dores need to empty the tank. The question is whether the tank has enough fuel in it to get across the finish line. The best way to find some extra energy is…

Without facing Georgia or Alabama, can the Dores start fast? Since the switch to Swann, Vanderbilt scored on their first 2 drives (both TDs) against NIU then scored on all 4 of their full first half drives against Ole Miss. Scoring on their first 2 drives, especially if at least one is a TD, could set an early tone. Missouri might have some points, too, but early success offensively can make the other team feel the pressure. If it is back and forth, it will depend on which team breaks. If Vanderbilt can get an early lead, they may be able to feed on that for the necessary juice.

Clark Lea needs at least one P5 win to stamp the season. For some fans, the improvement will not be enough with just FCS and G5 wins. It is understandable. Missourah presents a good opportunity to get it early and get the season winning percentage back to 0.500. Doing that may get some other hopes, and more importantly confidence, up.

Extra Credit

A lot of talk this week centered on why Kent State or other minnows can score on teams like Georgia and Alabama while Vanderbilt struggles. It is frustrating, but the broadcast gave a stat that shows how weird things can be in college football. UGA scored TDs on 16 of their 17 Red Zone trips against Auburn, Oregon, and South Carolina, who were the best 3 defenses they had faced. Against Samford, Kent State, and Missouri, the Bulldogs only found the end zone on 8 of their 18 trips inside the 20. The cause may be an unknown, but it does point out that these huge talent gap games can have variability that makes the transitive property even less useful than it normally is in college football, which is basically 0 anyway.