Vanderbilt is now guaranteed to have a worse record than last year. Dropping to 2-8 with games at South Carolina and Tennessee ahead of them, this season now has to be considered an unequivocal disappointment. A miracle finish that included 3 SEC wins might have been enough to spur similar energy to last year’s two late wins over Florida and Kentucky, but most of the same issues that plagued this team all season showed up again. Most of them are down to coaching, too.
Lessons We Are Learning
There are two slight glimmers of progress from season’s start to this point. For the last two weeks, the defense has schematically matched more of what I wanted to see all season. It had a lot of the expected growing pains, but it also has been successful for stretches. If they had played this way all year, those growing pains may have happened sooner with more time to iron out the wrinkles. The two biggest details are how they are attacking short routes on the outside and applying pressure up front. Instead of giving everyone a ton of space, flat defenders are going full tilt to shutdown screens, swings, and other throws behind the line of scrimmage. Nick Howell or Clark Lea have also started utitilizing the LBs more in the pass rush and have fallen in love with cross dog (LBs cross each other from starting positions and attack the gaps between center and guard AKA A gap) blitzes. They forced a fumble and a couple sacks last week, and Payton Thorne was under fire from it all game. Hugh Freeze mentioned scheming to protect against them at halftime, and they were slowed down a bit. Why it took this long to get to this point and who made the change, I do not know. It does fit Howell’s MO though. He was known as a guy who liked blitzing before he got to Vanderbilt, yet we have seen very little of it here.
The defense has also seen a youth movement shift. The obvious one that came first earlier in the season was getting Trudell Berry and Martel Hight more playing time. Gumbo Gaskins has gotten some opportunities in the last three games. Langston Patterson has been an animal the last two weeks and has gotten more playing time. They have all made mistakes, but they can learn from them. Having inexperienced defenders on the field at the same time will cause more mistakes, but, in a season like this, mistakes of inexperience are much more palatable than watching more experienced but less talented players get beat over and over. I have also noticed De’Marion Thomas on the field a few times because he has created some serious push inside. The 6’2 321 lbs freshman is showing some power. Oh, and Bryce Cowan had his big moment with the fantastic pick 6 then a big TFL on the next drive. Let the young guys go fly around to make plays and mistakes. They are not doing any worse than what we have seen most of the season.
Lessons We Know Well
Joey Lynch has absolutely become the coworker we all wonder how he still has a job when he is so completely incompetent. I am not normally for firing coaches early, but I would love to see him gone by about 4 PM today. Let literally anyone else – except Clark Lea after his praise of the 3rd and 20 run at Auburn’s 45 down 14 early in the 2nd quarter – call plays against Tennessee. It might be disastrous, but Lynch has been awful all season until we are down too much for it to matter. Lea is obviously part of the problem in building gameplans since he praised that cowardly run, but even when the reigns come off later in games, Lynch still finds ways to do idiotic things.
In the realm of stupid things to do on offense, pulling your starting QB after the first drive moved 40 yards with exactly half of it through the air then the second drive was hampered by a stuffed run then a bad drop that meant a 7-yard scramble that included running over a defender was not enough to get a first down. The QB was not the issue early. Seals ended the game 16 of 29 passing for 160 yards with a TD and an INT. His QBR was 19.8, which seems ridiculously low given that 3 passes for an easy 30 more yards were dropped. I did not think he had a great game, though he flashed when the offense finally opened up on the TD drive at the end of the 3rd quarter and the ensuing drive that died on downs on 4th and goal. He was 6 of 9 for 115 yards, including the TD, on those two drives alone. Seals was also sacked three times on those drives under heavy pressure. As I have said before, I like using Taylor in situations, but it was a dumb time to insert him into the game. It was extra dumb to give Taylor two drives in a row. I think it would be better to switch Taylor in mid-drive to catch defenses off balance because the change-of-possession offensive huddles give away which QB is going into the game, and I am sure opposing defensive coaches in the booth are keeping an eye on that since the QB swaps have become a thing.
The playmakers on offense are being hampered by the scheme. They did have some drops with Humphreys, Sheppard, and McGowan each having a pretty bad one. Sheppard was able to haul in a 28-yard pass on 4th and 5 where the DB got his hand between Sheppard and the ball but could not yank it free. Junior Sherrill showed up for a 30-yard TD reception, and Humphreys had a 20-yard snag along with a first down where he had to outrace some defenders to the sideline to get to the sticks. McGowan was quiet on his 4 catches for 15 yards and only had 1 carry for 3. However, McGowan did make an impact in the return game.
Hayball had to punt 8 times. He had kicks of 56 (6-yard return), 47 (3-yard return), 38 (no return at AU 37), 40 (no return at AU 2), 59 (touchback), 30 (out of bounds at VU 45), 47 (no return and ran into by defender), and 42 (to AU 8 with 5-yard return). First of all, the fact that penalty was only called as “Running Into” not “Roughing” was absolutely awful. The would-be punt blocker slid through his planet foot, which is supposed to be the differentiation between the calls. Running Into the Kicker is supposed to be when the free kicking leg is contacted while Roughing is supposed to be for egregious contact or when the plant leg is impacted while on the ground. The reason is the obvious injury risk. That play was 100% roughing, which would have been a free first down, which the 5 yards from running into did not grant.
Splitting Hayball away from the ups and downs of the rest of the special teams seems fair after how busy and effective he was. Will Sheppard was pulled off punt return duty after a fair catch, muff that was nullified by kick catch inferference, a fair catch, and another muff recovered by Bryan Longwell. The first muff was definitely caused by him having to dodge around an Auburn defender, but he probably had misjudged the ball a bit anyway, which fooled the defender into getting too close. McGowan’s punt returns were a 29-yard return, fair catch, and return for no gain. The shifty WR also returned a kickoff to the 35 to help spark the lone TD drive. Oh, and Borcilla missed a 43-yard FG on the opening drive to squander a chance for an early lead. Yuck.
Lessons for Further Study
Will Vanderbilt keep trying to create havoc on defense facing a very bad South Carolina OL? I asked a similar question last week, but I did not want to assume anything had really changed quite yet. One game does not a scheme adjustment make. As I discussed earlier, Vanderbilt was able to bother Payton Thorne and Auburn’s running game quite a bit. South Carolina allows 8.44 TFL/G with 4.11 of them being sacks. For comparison, Vanderbilt is allowing 5.9 TFL/G and 2.4 sacks/G. If Vanderbilt does not blitz them to death (as they should have Zeb Noland on the last drive in 2021), it will be coaching malpractice.
Will the few mistakes that gave up big plays be cleaned up quickly? I loved the schematic change. Now, they need to show improvements in preventing the big plays. Auburn had 226 yards of offense in the first half, and exactly half of it came on the 56- and 67-yard TD runs by Jarquez Hunter. The 424 total yards were also buoyed by a 53-yard TD pass where Trudell Berry had a miscommunication on a coverage swap that left a man running free. South Carolina is not explosive at all on the ground. They are last in the SEC with only 26 runs of 10+ yards and 7 of 20+. Vanderbilt has 28 and 8 of each. Through the air, the Gamecocks do have some juice and rank T-4 with Missouri and Vanderbilt for 30+ yard passing plays at 20. They are tied tops with LSU in 40+ yard passes at 14. Still, I think playing aggressive is the best way to get Spencer Rattler off his game and not give Xavier Legette time to get open.
Can we please do something good? Pretty please. Nah, there is a curse.