This column took a week off last week. Or maybe it was given to the Wildcats like the football was 3 times. Either way, we are back after another hard day on West End. Vanderbilt felt to 2-4 (0-2) thanks to a sluggish offensive first 3 quarters and a defense that could only keep Missouri off the board a few times. Still, it was a game where the Dores had chances but could not convert.
Lessons We Are Learning
Ken Seals brings something different than AJ Swann, and it is not all a downgrade. One thing Seals did really well was getting to checkdowns. Sedrick Alexander had the most catches (7) and second most yards (65) through the air, and all of it came after the primary play design was not taken. Outside of an absolutely beautiful second drive, it took until the late 3rd quarter before Seals got the offense moving. A lot of it was design and scheme that will be dissected later. He did miss a few early throws though. Overall, Seals was 20 of 31 for 259 yards with 2 TDs and an INT through the air while tacking on a couple scrambles and a read option keeper TD on the ground. Of that, 199 yards on 11 of 16 passing, both TDs, and the INT came in the final 20 minutes of the game.
Lessons We Know Well
Unfortunately for a team that has struggled to start the year, not much is new or changing. Beating themselves is still the biggest problem. Granted, there was only one turnover against Missouri following a 3-interception day against Kentucky. This one was not returned for points or good field position, but it was in the end zone to negate a dangerous scoring opportunity when the lead was only 17. Penalties could have been a bigger issue, too, except that four different offsides penalties were declined because Missouri preferred the result of the play. A couple false starts killed drives. It was a little cleaner, but three drives were ruined by unforced errors.
The unit not hurting Vanderbilt are the WRs. Will Sheppard was not involved too much until the late surge, but he finished with 5 catches for 98 yards and a TD. The drive that cut the lead to 10 was two passes to Sheppard where he first caught the ball over a CB for 29 yards then snagged a skinny post and sprinted through the secondary for a 31-yard score. Jayden McGowan was quiet catching the ball (1 for 7 yards), but he was the most effective rusher with 3 jet sweeps gaining 24 yards total. Quincy Skinner’s only catches were on back-to-back plays for 37 yards total. Junior Sherrill had 3 catches for 43 yards thanks to two screens that lost yardage and a 45-yard bomb for his first career TD. London Humphreys was out with an injury. These guys are clearly the most dynamic part of this entire team.
Which makes Joey Lynch’s game plans and personnel usage absolutely baffling. The first 4 Vanderbilt drives all opened with runs up the middle (aka off guard or narrower). It also happened 2 more times. The Commodores had 11 offensive drives, so over half of them began going right into the teeth of one of the best run defenses in the country. Vanderbilt running backs carried the ball 11 times for 18 yards. Lynch also had Sheppard off the field on some obvious passing downs, but I was not able to track the exact number. The more infuriating part is a flat refusal to use 4WR sets. It will not kill us to play without Logan Kyle, Justin Ball, or anyone listed as a TE or F for a few plays each game. Forcing opponents into nickel or even dime packages may actually open the running game up a bit. It would definitely give Seals/Swann the chance to pick apart secondaries as Skinner, Humphreys, Sherrill, and Gamarion Carter get to line up against 3rd, 4th, and on option coverage DBs. Instead, base defenses get to put their best two corners on Sheppard and one of them while a nickelback or safety covers McGowan in the slot. Lynch has some great drive plans, but he is awful way too often. He needs to stop wasting talent. Immediately.
The defense has its own schematic issues, and it felt equally awful on Saturday. However, my re-watch cooled some anger. Brady Cook still ripped them apart, especially taking advantage of still-too-soft coverage on the outside. There were also some small glimmers. The run defense was generally solid in a way the 4.0 YPC average against hides because of 2 19-yard carries and a 14-yard carry by Nathaniel Peat. One of the longer ones was in an end-of-half scenario where Vanderbilt was understandably in a prevent defense. The other 25 carries by RBs averaged 3.2 YPC. The secondary did also get burned a few times by playing some more aggressive coverages, so as someone who has been begging for it, I am okay with the risk reward at times. Get Martel Hight, Trudell Berry, and even John Howse IV reps and experience with it. They can only learn by doing.
Special Teams have also settled back into a comfortable zone. Matthew Hayball was named SEC Special Teamer of the Week with 6 punts. His first was uncharacteristically short at 35 yards to the Missouri 25. He also had some shorter ones (see: 45, 44, and 41 yards) with no return. Then he boomed one 59 yards that slightly outdid the coverage and allowed a 17-yard return. He decided to LAUNCH the final punt 64 yards to be downed at the 16. The return game has been quiet since teams know how dangerous McGowan and Sheppard can be with space.
Lessons For Further Study
Is there a late surge in this team? Vanderbilt fell to 3-6 (0-5) last season before beating Kentucky. To be fair, they had lost at Missouri by 3 then 11 against South Carolina in the preceding weeks, so the turnaround started showing up at 3-4. The earlier SEC schedule was also much tougher with trips to Tuscaloosa and Athens sandwiching a home game against Ole Miss. The Rebels and Bulldogs are still looming while Auburn, who maybe showed some life by hanging with Georgia, replace their Iron Bowl opponents from the West. It is going to be tougher to stand up late, and losing to UNLV instead of beating NIU is going to put a much uglier hue on this season.
Similarly, can any of these characteristics that seem locked in for the 2023 Commodores change? Simply, the coaches have to stop being a major contributing factor in the team’s struggles. Vanderbilt’s players are going to make mistakes in execution. The opponents are going to make big plays. The team cannot afford to have the supposed adults in the room being key contributors to this team’s struggles by putting players in bad situations if they want to rescue the season. They do not seem to see the error of their ways though.
How is the QB situation developing? I think Seals has earned the right to start until Swann is fully healthy. He is not hurting this team. Hopefully, Swann is taking advantage of seeing someone else operate the offense to learn. He has the ability to get through reads. Seals did a good job of it last Saturday. If Swann can add that back to his game, it may make the injury a blessing in disguise. The question then becomes about when Swann is healed enough to re-take his position. After Florida, Georgia is next before an open Saturday. Saying he should be saved until after Georgia is a loser mentality if he is healthy and your best chance to win.
Finally, as with any underperforming team, how does the team stick together? Frustrations about different things have already shown. CJ Taylor and De’Rickey Wright have both shown displeasure for teammates making horrible plays. Will Sheppard has had some interesting social media activity that displayed his annoyance with some coaching decisions. These are still young men. A few emotional outbursts and ill-advised social media actions are fine. The problem is if moments become habits. There have been no signs of quit. It is just something to watch.
Extra Credit (Other Observations)
Derek Mason repeatedly saying “scared money don’t win” on the broadcast was comedic gold based on how scared he coached. He made a lot of money playing scared. He was not a bad color commentator, but his speech pattern is hard to listen to for that long. It needs a lot of cleaning up when he is part of a two-man booth, not something like the larger “Coaches’ Film Room” National Championship broadcast.