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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Georgia

Here is your refresher course on Vanderbilt football before the mid-afternoon time slot of games kicks off.

NCAA Football: Georgia at Vanderbilt
The game started surprisingly well.
Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off an open date, we have to throw it all the way back to October 14th when the Georgia Bulldogs came to Nashville. The game was expected to be a massive blowout. Then the Dores struck first and created a turnover on Georgia’s first drive. A missed 47-yard FG followed by a Bulldog TD turned the tides back towards business as usual. Vanderbilt would hang around though. A 10-point surge for Georgia in the last 4 minutes of the first half, assisted by a Ken Seals TD and some defensive missed alignments, would provide the final margin.

Granted, the Dores did not stop fighting. The lead was pushed to 20 before being cut to 13. Vanderbilt even got it down to 10 late after a failed 2-point conversion could have made it 8. In the end, Georgia scored again to put the final margin back to 17. Based on the opposition, it was the best full game Vanderbilt has played all season. It made the struggles so far this season even more frustrating.

Lessons We Are Learning

Ken Seals is still the starter, and it may be because the things he is doing better than AJ Swann outweigh the potential of what Swann can do better than Seals. Swann still has more raw arm talent, but Seals is making better decisions and operating the offense better than Swann did. The offensive playcalling against Georgia was probably the best it has been all year except maybe UNLV. Seals was 19/29 for 201 yards with 2 TDs and an INT. The problem is he was 11/15 for 122 yards with a TD and an INT in the first half. He missed some throws, but the biggest limiter was Vanderbilt only having 4 2nd half drives. Georgia got more aggressive with the pass rush while Lynch/Lea got too timid. Still, Seals graded out at a 70.3 Total QBR, which outscored Georgia QB Carson Beck’s 69.9.

Lessons We Know Well

Joey Lynch still needs to be fired. It may have been a mostly acceptable game from a scheme and playcalling perspective, but the personnel decisions are still idiotic. There is no reason Will Sheppard should be on the sideline for more than 20-25 percent of the offensive snaps unless he has an injury. I would be surprised if Sheppard played more than 50 percent of the snaps against Georgia. There were also important 3rd downs where he was pulled off. Sometimes, he was on for 1st down then pulled for 2nd and 3rd. I am fine with rotating Quincy Skinner and London Humphreys some since they refuse to use 4 WRs, but Gamarion Carter should not be playing instead of Sheppard unless necessary. Lynch also regressed to his mean late with a designed drag on 3rd and 7 with the inside WR and TE setting up to block. Vanderbilt was down 13 with 9:05 to go. It fell incomplete anyway.

It is a good thing Vanderbilt has guys who can step up when the coaches decide they do not want to utilize one of the most effective WRs in school history. Jayden McGowan had 5 catches for 58 yards. London Humphreys pulled in 2 passes for 51 including the 49-yard TD on the first drive. Sedrick Alexander, Richie Hoskins, Justin Ball, Quincy Skinner, and Justin Sherrill all had a pair of catches with yardage totals between 16 and 12 yards each. Spreading the ball with that cast is great. It is one of the things Seals does really well, whereas Swann was locking in on 1 guy too often. Will Sheppard needs to be targeted more than 4 times no matter what coverages he faces. The one catch he had was ridiculous on 4th and 8.

The injuries continue on defense. De’Rickey Wright and Martel Hight were out before the game. Trudell Berry and CJ Taylor went down during the game. Taylor is the best player on this defense. The report for today is that Taylor is doubtful while Wright is questionable. Kane Patterson is back along with Savion Riley, who also went down during the Georgia game. Wright’s ankle has been bothering him for a long time. I would be careful with it and Taylor’s knee. Taylor probably is in the situation he is in because he tried to play through a nagging injury that could have made the joint less stable when he jammed it up while trying to spin through the contact from Carson Beck saving a TD with a full send dive.

At least the defensive gameplan was better. The zones got picked apart on intermediate throws, especially to the middle, and they were playing conservatively to avoid giving up deep plays. The biggest difference from the Florida game and most of the season was that DBs were starting close to the line then bailing instead of starting 8-10 yards off then still bailing. DBs were able to plant and drive on screens and other edge throws at or near the LOS. The blitzing was also minimal, but 4-man pressures got home a couple times for 2 sacks while also getting decent pressure on Beck for most of the game. He did get extended protection in some crucial spots, unfortunately. Add this to “if we could do it against Georgia, where has it been all year?” pile.

Special teams was mostly uneventful except for Jacob Borcila leaving a 47-yard FG short. That moment felt like the death of whatever upset hopes might have crept in after the initial TD drive followed by a strip sack. The Dores were still up 7-0, but it left the game at one score. The miss also probably altered the coaches’ ideas about the need to score TDs instead of trusting Borcila. Also, Matthew Hayball shanked his first punt for only 33 yards thanks to a generous bounce then proceeded to net 46 (muffed but recovered by UGA), 42, and 46. The return game was silent except for McGowan trying on a single kickoff where he nearly slipped through at full speed except for one grab that slowed him down. Otherwise, it might have been a big return.

Lessons for Further Study

Was it one decent performance, or was it a building block? The Commodores have to win out for a bowl game. That goal is almost certainly out the window. However, winning a couple of the final 4 games down the stretch might be enough to restore some faith in, or at least patience for, HC Clark Lea with the assumption he makes necessary offseason changes.

What changes were made during the bye week? There are a lot of things this staff needed to address. Most of it was about their own approach when it comes to schemes, playcalling, and personnel usage. No, the players have not been at their best. The coaches need to put them in the best positions to succeed THEN worry about the execution. Too often, the players have been setup to fail then not had perfect execution when perfection was necessary for success.

Extra Credit

So, normally, I do a big “Open Week” version where I look back at the preseason question list. Since I screwed that up, I am just going to do quick hitters on that broad view stuff.

Does Vanderbilt and Clark Lea carry over the finish to last season (sans season finale), or is it mid- or late-season before the Dores find their feet again? Well, it definitely was not carried over. Whether a mid- or late-season resurgence can happen again is up in the air. Game 8 was the best performance of the season against the best team on the schedule. Maybe? Or is this the hope the kills us?

Does the offensive line see another big step forward? No. Just no. The pass protection might be getting a little better as the season goes, but they have been generally awful so far. Huge disappointment.

Can the front seven create pressure without excessive blitzing? The immediate reaction is another no with laughing, but the problem is we have almost exclusively seen 4-man pressures. Most teams do not generate pass rush only sending 4. DC Nick Howell has not been fond of blitzing at all. Finding a better balance would be nice down the stretch.

Can any of the DBs be reliably effective? The safeties have been mostly okay. De’Rickey Wright is very good, and it has taken injuries for teams to get the best of him. Jaylen Mahoney has also been very good for the most part. Marlon Sewell, Savion Riley, and John Howse IV (except the late deep pass against UNLV) have been serviceable backups. They have been caught out a few times when forced into too much action by injuries. Trudell Berry and Martel Hight have flashed on both ends of the spectrum, but they have not quite fit “reliably effective.” BJ Anderson has been horrible, and Tyson Russell has been below average. Gumbo Gaskins got his first major action of the season against Georgia and showed some good coverage skills but was also playing even softer as if he was nervous, which is understandable.

Has anyone stepped up in the RB room? Not really. They have had a hard time with the OL unable to do anything useful while run blocking. Sedrick Alexander has flashed some high end ability a few times, especially as a receiver out of the backfield, but he has been inefficient at times, too. Patrick Smith has been okay, but he is not quite shifty enough to have much success with the blocking given. He is a more straight-line guy who has good speed but is not as agile. His success was almost entirely against Alabama A&M and Wake though.

Is the Fall Camp hype about how good Vanderbilt’s WRs are or how bad the DBs are? Yes. The answer here is yes. The WRs are very good. It might be the best receiving corps top to bottom that Vanderbilt has ever had. The only group that can come close was 2012 with Matthews, Boyd, and Krause. Krause did not break out until 2013 when Boyd was gone for disciplinary reasons. The DB situation was already addressed.

What is sophomore AJ Swann? Inconsistent has been the answer. His season since halfway through the UNLV game has been impacted by injury. The extent is unknown to me. He looked like he was fine for most of the Kentucky game before going down clutching his elbow late. There were bad passes in that game, but the ball flight looked fine. The issue is supposedly lingering, but Swann’s struggles may have lost him the job unless Seals goes through a serious rough patch. We got to see Swann’s arm at its best and worst in the same game too often. Swann will need to show he can be steadier if and when he gets another chance.

What differences do we see from Clark Lea and his coordinators? The defense is basically the same soft mess as last season. The offense is generally idiotic until the opposition takes a big lead except for the Georgia and Florida games. Against Florida, the offense started somewhat smart then went straight to hell. Against Georgia, the playcalling was mostly okay as noted above, but the personnel usage was braindead. Basically, any changes have been bad. It is time to change the coordinators.