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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Wake Forest

That Wake rocked the ship and made us all a little nauseous.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 10 Wake Forest at Vanderbilt
Ray Davis has been a consistent force for the Dores while carrying a heavy burden.
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A 20-point home loss to the #23 Wake Forest Demon Deacons has muddied the Deep Waters a bit. On one hand, never cutting the deficit within 2 scores after 2 minutes and 50 seconds into the 2nd quarter makes it hard to call the game overly competitive. On the other, Wake used 2 minutes and 15 seconds at the end of the 1st and overlapping into the 2nd to score 21 points via a pick 6, 68-yard 1-play drive, a fumble recovery, and a 30-yard pass. It was a soul-wrenching series of events that turned a 3-0 Commodore lead after a goal line stand by the defense into a 21-3 deficit.

Games where there are very plausible explanations for why a game that could have been close gets blown open are my least favorite. I, for the purpose of this series, do not particularly care about the final score because the contents of these articles are more about process pieces. The final score does matter, but the way we got to that score is just as, if not more, important. So, is this just going to be sunshine pumping? I am not saying.

Lessons We Know Well

The first topic of the season to make this category might be the most obvious thing about Vanderbilt football, which makes sense. This team and program are still growing and have a miniscule margin of error. The good news is that they probably did not EVERYTHING to go right to be in the Wake Forest game or even win. They do need to play very clean football. A pick six and two lost fumbles on their own 32 or closer put the defense under too much strain. As I pointed out in the opening, 2 minutes and 15 seconds of game time sunk this game with two turnovers contributing.

Lessons We Are Learning

Ball security is starting to look like a concern. The ball was on the ground 3 or 4 other times besides the two lost fumbles. Of the four I noticed, Vanderbilt muffed a punt and fumbled three times. The fumbling players (Jayden McGowan and Davis) recovered the ball themselves on two of them. One went out of bounds. The other was a combo fumble on PA or an RPO (leaning PA because the “handoff” motion never got the ball below Davis’s shoulder pads) that Mike Wright recovered. The fact Vanderbilt turned the ball over three times and let it hit the ground four other times means the Commodores need to be much more cognizant of how they are handling the football. The ball was on the ground 2 or 3 times against Hawaii, too, even if none of them ended up in the other team’s possession. I am especially keen to see how one particular player responds.

Mike Wright had been mostly stellar and never detrimental in the first two games. The jinx was on when I mentioned his decision making and command of the offense though. Against the Demon Deacons, Vanderbilt’s starting QB looked uncomfortable. He had a decent start to the game – granted with a misfire or two passing – then could not get himself reset after the pick 6 and fumble. He knows better than to catch a tipped pass in the backfield, yet he did it with 5:38 left in the 3rd quarter. The Dores were down 28-10 at that point. A good drive and score would have put the game back into reach. Instead, Wright caught the blocked pass then had a miscue on the mesh with Davis because the read was obviously for Mike to keep the ball. It was hard to tell if Davis expected Wright to pull it and never clamped down or if Wright tried to pull it later than normal and Davis thought it was his to keep.

This is the Achilles heel of the offense Joey Lynch has implemented. On a day where Wright’s handling of the ball was a problem and made some poor reads (both passing and in option situations), the offense is going to struggle. Most offenses go as their QB goes, but Vanderbilt’s attack is so predicated on finding assignment mistakes to exploit that it goes up a notch. Also, Wright’s limitations as a passer also mean the offense is going to struggle mightily if Lynch feels uncomfortable with the ball handling. I would have liked to see some more straight dropback passes early because they were opening up. Unfortunately, Wright misfired a couple of times early, and Lynch went away from it. Vanderbilt can probably surprise some teams if they mix in healthy doses of straight drops just because so much of the offense is play action or option (pick a variety). The switch to Swann somewhat showed how ill-prepared Wake was for a traditional approach from the QB. He made some throws, but some of those targets were wide open.

Ray Davis is a workhorse. With Rocko Griffin and Patrick Smith both out the last two games, he has carried a might load. He carried the ball 17 times and caught 5 passes. He churned out 87 yards on the ground and 21 through the air. A 47% success on rushing attempts is fantastic efficiency. Keeping the offense on schedule in terms of downs and distances is paramount to keeping as many options open as possible. Davis is doing so frequently. I hate to say it after recent news, but Davis reminds me a lot of another former #2, Zac Stacy. The speed is not what you notice, but he is not slow. The real gifts are the vision to find the right running lane and getting low in their pads to bounce of tackles. Both were listed at 5’9”. Stacy was only listed as 5 pounds heavier than Davis at 210. The worse part about watching Ray Davis on TV is how often I heard “There goes Davis.” I love that he is moving the ball so often, but that phrase is forever connected to one play and one play only.

The defense may not have all the talent or training to stop an offense like Wake Forest, but there was a lot to like in the first 3 quarters. They looked drained in the fourth quarter after slugging it out and constantly being under strain in the first 3. Wake Forest did score 45 points, but they only managed 24 points when not starting at or inside the Vanderbilt 32. Anfernee Orji is all over the place. Kane Patterson made some plays, including making first contact on the 4th down stop at the goal line. Jaylen Mahoney, Jeremy Lucien, and BJ Anderson had some nice pass breakups. There is a lot of growth to be made, but they faced a really good offense and did not look unprepared or incapable of defending them until the game was all but over. Real progress can show up if they control the game tomorrow.

Lessons for Further Study

Coming off an ugly performance, what is the offense’s response? Does Joey Lynch keep things fast and free, or is he going to be more cautious? The two questions really belong together because the first is about players while the second is about coaches. Their combined response will decide whether this offense can stay high-flying. On a bad day, they still scored 25 points against a P5 team. They only scored that did that once in a 2021 – a 37-28 loss to Missouri. The offense still looks much improved, but they need to keep things clean but not turtle up.

What changes do we see? Clark Lea has made it clear he is going to adapt and evolve throughout this season. He thought the defense did not rotate enough against Elon, and a lot more bodies saw the field against Wake. I have not heard any of his comments since the game. Yes, I re-watched the game but did not take 30 minutes to watch press conferences. There will be changes though. I am interested to see what happens.

Can Vanderbilt surpass last season’s win total? If so, where is the ceiling for wins this season? I thought 5 wins was probably the highest the Dores could get pre-season. Four wins seemed doable, but three was the most likely outcome. Now, I think it is probably four wins as most likely (NIU and Missouri, if I had to pick). Beyond that, I am not sure. To be fair, unless Vanderbilt loses or barely beats NIU, I am not sure we learn anything about the ceiling. Running them over like Hawaii may make 5 wins feel more doable, I guess, but this is not an SEC team by any stretch.