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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Florida

Looking back at this game may still be more enjoyable than looking forward to the one played today.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 07 Vanderbilt at Florida
No, Will, we are not sure why you were not targeted in the second half either.
Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Losing by 24 to Florida was awful. It was also imminently preventable. Quincy Skinner fumbled after having enough yards gained to convert a 4th down in Florida territory while tied at 7. Kamrean Johnson dropped a 4th down pass in the end zone to tie the game at 14. Those are plays those guys should make. They are also probably mistakes Vanderbilt fans can live with in Year 3 of a big rebuild post-Derek Mason when playing in The Swamp. The problems that have this team at 2-5 (0-3) are much deeper and harder to fix.

Lessons We Are Learning

There are still distinct reasons Ken Seals was not the starter earlier, but he has still flashed the promise that made us all fall in love with his ability as a freshman. Seals was 19/34 for 280 yards with 2 TDs and no interceptions. His Total QBR was a 54.8, which is okay but not quite good. The experience shows up in how he often navigates the pocket and finds checkdowns, but he missed some throws. Just before Johnson’s drop, Seals air mailed Skinner wide open in the back of the end zone. He missed Will Sheppard too far inside, both on slants and an out route, a few times. He does not have the same cannon AJ Swann possesses, but he should be throwing downfield more, as he did on a huge connection to Junior Sherrill. OC Joey Lynch is also putting him in bad situations a lot on 2nd and 3rd down thanks to some horrid 1st down playcalling.

Maybe this one should go below, but I have not mentioned it previously. Head Coach Clark Lea is being extremely aggressive on 4th down. Maybe he does not trust Jacob Borcila, whose only miss in 7 attempts was the potential winner at UNLV. Whatever the cause, Vanderbilt has gone for it on 4th down 16 times. Opponents have only attempted 7 4th down conversions. It begs the question why Lea will be so aggressive in his decisions to go for it, but the rest of the team seems entirely built on the concept of the safe play.

Lessons We Know Well

Jumping right into the offense’s problems seems like the best idea. Lynch did the flip the script a bit in this game. Generally, the Commodores start slowly then find success late. In fact, going into Week 6, Vanderbilt was the highest scoring 4th quarter offense with 83 points scored in final frames. The trip to Gainesville had early promise with a quick-strike, 2-play TD drive after an interception by Florida. Then they 41 yards in 9 plays before the Skinner fumble on a should-be 4th down conversion. The Johnson drop ended a 7-play 71-yard drive empty. At halftime, the yardage totals were 264 to 237 in favor of the home team. Still, 237 first half yards should not only score 7 points. Will Sheppard also had 3 catches for 107 yards in the first half then was not targeted once in the second half. The offense only gained 107 yards after the break, and 75 yards came on one drive. While the offense may be way more productive than the defense, they are still massive underperforming the talent at Joey Lynch’s disposal. The runs up the middle on 1st down by one of the most pass-happy offenses in the SEC is handicapping them on 2nd down and makes no sense.

The stars on offense are not just Will Sheppard and Jayden McGowan. Sheppard had the aforementioned 3 catches for 107 yards with an 85-yard TD. He also had a 17-yard punt return. McGowan has not been as busy catching passes with only 3 catches for 12 yards in the last 3 weeks; however, the jet sweeps are in full swing with 2 for 25 yards in Gainesville after 3 for 24 against Missouri. Besides the 2 household names, London Humphreys, who is still healing from an injury, leads the SEC in yards per reception, and Sherrill has back-to-back games with catches over 45 yards. Skinner has also flashed a few times, and the inability of Joey Lynch to get 4 WRs on the field at one time is absolutely mind-blowing, even if we did finally see an empty set a couple of times last Saturday. There need to be more snaps without a TE.

Defensively, they are drowning due to injuries. They were bad before, but the depth is exhausted at this point. Langston Patterson, De’Rickey Wright, Jaylen Mahoney, CJ Taylor, and Martel Hight have all missed and/or will miss extended time going forward. When something is already bad, losing the bright spots will only serve to up the suffering.

With that said, the game plan against Florida was atrocious. Graham Mertz has one of the lowest average air yards per completion in the country. If there was EVER a team to press and dare to beat you deep, this year’s Florida team is it. Instead, Vanderbilt backed off coverage like normal and let Mertz complete 30 of 36 passes for 254 yards while averaging 1.9 yards in the air, which is an absolutely absurdly low number. I understand trying to protect your weakness, but you cannot give up the one thing the opposing team wants to do. Granted, Florida also carried the ball 27 times for 230 yards (excluding QB stats because it was only sacks), which is a blistering 8.5 yards per carry. Big gainers of 43 and 34 yards did inflate things, but that still leaves 6.1 yards on the other carries. The worst part is that the simple solution of more bodies in the box and around the line of scrimmage would probably have aided both main methods of attack by Florida. Somehow, the Vanderbilt coaches never sorted it out.

Bipolar special teams continue to rear their ugly head. Matthew Hayball is a punting maverick. He had punts of 43 (downed at Florida 7), 49 (18-yard return), 60 (3-yard return), 44 (downed at Florida 9), and 36 (out of bounds at Florida 34). That is basically punting perfection except for the last kick. He is forgiven. Sheppard had his 17-yard punt return but also decided not field a punt that he could have comfortably fair caught. Instead, it rolled 17 yards to the Vanderbilt 8. Oh, and Junior Sherrill forced a drive to start at the Vanderbilt 8 thanks to stealing a kickoff from McGowan after McGowan had called fair catch and camped under the ball. No idea why he literally muscled in on McGowan to field the kickoff. The inconsistency here is weird and wild.

Lessons For Further Study

How is the team going to handle what is most likely a beatdown today? No, the coaches and players should not be going into this game anticipating being blown out or how to handle being demolished. They probably are going to need to deal with it by about 11:40 AM CT though. From a player standpoint, I just need to see them stick together, fight hard, and show some discipline/common sense.

How embarrassingly conservative will the game plan be? I guarantee we are going to see a gameplan designed with the intent of losing by only 30 instead of trying to pull off a miracle while maybe losing by 60.This might be the most sickening part of today.

Will there be anything today that is a shiny speck in the overwhelming darkness? I am not asking for much. Maybe an impressive game for London Humphreys or Junior Sherrill? Then, at least, we would have some evidence of them being effective against a very good defense and team. Or does a defender have a surprisingly effective day?