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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: South Carolina

Losing winnable games on self-inflicted wounds is the worst.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 05 South Carolina at Vanderbilt
Ray Davis left a lot of Gamecocks clutching at air en route to a great night on the ground for him.
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The loss to South Carolina was brutal. The Gamecocks were viewed as a beatable opponent. A few experts even took the Commodores to pull the “upset.” Instead, Vanderbilt did some things we have talked about here. Some other topics may need to be revisited. Full disclosure, I did only re-watch the first half.

Lessons We Know Well

Ray Davis is a damned good running back if he gets any help. The offensive line was not creating a ton of push, but they were creating seams. Davis was finding them and making one man miss. Even hobbled a few times, he was able to carry the ball 20 times for 167 yards. If there was any more speed in those legs, he would be an All-SEC caliber back. As it is, Davis provides a dependable and very effective running threat.

Davis stepping up is especially key because the exciting freshman QB AJ Swann has hit a rough patch and will also miss at least the Kentucky game with an injury. The concern is another concussion after suffering one in the last game two weeks ago against Missouri. If that is the case, Swann’s season probably should be and likely will be over. He has struggled lately, but the talent is unmistakable. Some of the bad throws are obviously designed shot plays, like the interception on the first drive, but an experienced QB would put the ball in a safe spot, even if it meant accepting the play as an incomplete. Others are antsy freshman mistakes like throwing off balance when he has time and room to stand and deliver. Swann is likely feeling the pressure of (not from) a coach who is yet to win an SEC game, too.

Joey Lynch needs to find the creativity that was successful early in the year. Obviously, drops and an out-of-sync QB will hamper an OC, but some of the decisions to protect his units are causing more problems than they solve. Lynch is trying to protect an OL that has its strengths and weaknesses but has been decent for most of this season. It is time to stop protecting units and players. Play to their strengths but worry less about the weaknesses. It is risky, but with 3 games left in the season and none of them looking nearly as winnable as Missouri or South Carolina, risk is necessary. Tomorrow, Mike Wright, Jayden McGowan, Ray Davis, and Patrick Smith need to be attacking every inch of the defensive front in the running game. The passing game needs to focus on the gaps created by a run-heavy offense like TEs up the seam and WRs in one-on-one coverage. But the players have to execute and not do things like drop wide open third down passes at their numbers.

The offensive line is continuing to grow. The offense should be getting better and better thanks to their improvement, but other aspects stumbling have hidden their progress. Bradley Ashmore is done for the year after surgery Monday. Delfin Xavier Castillo is also out. It will be interesting to see how the re-shuffled unit adapts and performs. Coach Blazek and his unit should be proud of the improvement they have shown this season after being abysmal last season. Ray Davis and others are all benefitting from mildly competent play in the offensive trenches.

Will Sheppard and Jayden McGowan are still dangerous, but they are being limited. Sheppard is getting bracketed or outright doubled a lot. Finding space to operate is very tough for him right now, but he managed to make 6 catches for 95 yards. The fact that production is underwhelming speaks volumes about his abilities. McGowan has just made too many mistakes. He had a bad drop on 3rd down along with a fumble on a kickoff return that Cole Spence pounced on to save the possession. The help for Sheppard may be coming, but McGowan has to find it within himself to do the little things right in order for his elite athleticism to give him a chance to do big things.

Speaking of things that are not working, Joseph Bulovas has completely lost the script. Bulovas was 5/5 entering the Georgia game. He missed from 44 against the Bulldogs. Then, with some bad wind conditions in CoMo, the Alabama transfer missed from 45 and 27. The most recent miss was 44 yarder that would have cut the Gamecock lead to 14-10. It is demoralizing for a team to know they have to get a TD because they cannot trust their kicker at all. Meanwhile, his special team’s colleague Matt Hayball is pinning teams deep and flipping field position.

On that note, Vanderbilt is not good enough to win while self-inflicting wounds. Bresnahan gave up a back-breaking fumble. Swann’s interception turned into a TD, and his fumble became 3 more points for Cocky. CJ Taylor tripped over his own feet in coverage on an otherwise well-defended play to give up a very long TD that was heavily yards after the catch. Somebody forgot they were contain on 3rd and 1 to give up a 55-yard TD to a FB. Huge plays over and over going the wrong way. They have to stop hurting themselves because teams in this conference are good enough to hurt you without you giving them the knife.

Lessons We Are Learning

Quincy Skinner may be the WR2 sorely needed by this offense. He had 4 catches for 79 yards, including a 66-yard dime down the sideline where he outraced a few South Carolina defenders. He has had 4 catches in two straight games. He also scored two TDs. The deep shot was the first, and the other was a snag on a high-and-inside slant where Skinner pulled the ball out of the air away from one defender then spun through another’s tackle and sauntered into the end zone. There may be fewer balls thrown his way with Wright at QB, but he has shown a flash of being a viable option that can make plays.

CJ Taylor is staying on the field. He had the 3rd most snaps of a Commodore defender behind De’Rickey Wright and Jaylen Mahoney. He made 9 tackles (6 solo). There is not a lot to say about a defender doing his best but surrounded by a lot of struggling. But, I think Taylor’s ascension should open up an important option for DC Nick Howell.

The defense is not getting much better. In the first half, they were mostly back to the painful habit of being good until they gave up a big play. They could get SC into 3rd and 19 or similar then would give up a conversion. Or they would stuff a run up the middle on 3rd and 1 only for the FB to bounce outside of the pile and run for a 55-yard TD. Against a Kentucky offense that may be without Will Levis, who has struggled mightily of late, go after the run. Ironically considering one of the mailbag questions, Cover 3 is probably your friend. Have the deep thirds covered to prevent anything over the top and get CJ Taylor and De’Rickey Wright in the box more. Maybe take Worship off the field more or have Wright-Taylor-Orji be the LBers with Orji in the middle, and the other two can alternate roles between true LB and Anchor. Put a speedier safety on the field, even if it means taking Worship off. Maybe some ideas were already in play because I admittedly did not pay too much attention to defensive personnel nor alignment.

Lessons for Further Study

Can Mike Wright find his groove as a starter again? I really like ESPN’s QBR, but I think it was too friendly to Wright. The 6 carries for 43 yards probably unfairly overshadowed his 8/15 passing for 101 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT. He did have two impressive throws to Sheppard back-to-back for 19 and 28 yards on the way to a TD. His ball security still scares me, especially with the weather expected to be cold. The rain is looking like it may be gone by kickoff, though snow flurries may be in play.

How does the team respond to a bad loss and a change in coach for the DBs? I am tired of asking the first part of the question, and I cannot believe the reason I have to ask the second. These kids care. They fight hard. They are not checked out on the season, team, or program. The losing and how they do it must wear on them. Having a coach suspended, even if he damn sure should be kept away from the team, is not easy. Jackson was not getting the most out of his unit, but the change in messaging can make players second guess. Or maybe the DBs will play a lot better.

How much change can Daevion Davis bring to the defensive line? Davis is unanimously the most disruptive and effective defensive lineman Vanderbilt has. He has not played a down this season due to injury. It looks like he will play against Kentucky. He is almost certainly going to be on a snap count though. A lengthy time on the sidelines may also carry some rust. We shall see, assuming nothing happened to cause him to be held out again this week.

Has there been any consideration to play Seals? This question will go unanswered unless we see Ken in action. The redshirt is still firmly in place. He may even be able to improve his stock in the transfer portal by playing and showing he is a better version of freshman Seals instead of the disaster that was 2021 Seals, which was probably heavily influenced by injuries. The weather actually tilts it back to a running QB game for Wright, but the offense can be so much more unpredictable with Seals. When Wright is in the game, the offense is more predictable, but knowing the play and what each option is does not mean all of those options get covered properly. I just wonder if Joey Lynch and Clark Lea have had any discussions about using Seals.