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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Ole Miss

The coaches keep finding new and exciting ways to make a bad season even worse.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Mississippi
Clark Lea appears to be channeling his inner 2014 Derek Mason
Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The Commodores went to Oxford knowing they would have an uphill battle against the #12 team in the country. Things got off to a bad start with the defense allowing a 75-yard TD drive in only 6 plays and 1:39 of game time. Ken Seals then threw an interception on 3rd down. It got uglier from there.

Frankly, this looks like a team coached by people who are completely lost. It feels more like what 2014 would have looked like if that team was as talented as the recruiting rankings made us believe. Derek Mason and Karl Dorrell would have still ruined the results, but the talent would have flashed. The 2023 Commodores show signs that there is talent on the field, but it quickly gets mitigated by coaching decisions. If you are wondering, the Sunshine Pump is completely clogged.

Lessons We Are Learning

Clark Lea is at least equally guilty with Joey Lynch for the offensive struggles. He had the entire bye week to sit his OC down and get him in line. Instead, it looks like he bought some nonsense about Ken Seals being the problem. Seals was coming off a 71.1 Total QBR against Georgia and had been at 48.1 and 51.8 in his previous 2 starts. Against Ole Miss, he posted a 12.7. He was benched for Walter Taylor, who then posted a 14.4 with 4/12 passing for 38 yards and an INT. The offense looked like it was completely rudderless with Seals due to playcalling then found an incredible simple identity for Taylor. Of course, Lynch found a way to botch even that with a pair of 4th and 2 straight dropback throws that left the big, mobile Taylor way out of his comfort zone against an aggressive defense. Both plays, as expected, failed. The HC has to shoulder a large portion of the blame when his coaching staff is that inept coming out of a bye week while he allows them to make ridiculous decisions like going from a QB who has been running the offense well to one who needed the RBs and OL to guide him through protections and concepts during the game.

With that said, Walter Taylor is an impressive athlete. It was fun to see him truck a safety on his first carry. He certainly flashed a useful skillset and imposing figure. At 6’7 and a listed 235 pounds, Taylor showed he has speed to go with the power. Unfortunately, his arm and ability to read defenses lags well behind his legs. Right now, he can be a change of pace option, or even take a full series as a kind of Wildcat set with a little extra threat to throw than a typical RB. At this point in his development, I am very happy with what we saw from him. He has 3 more years of eligibility after 2023. I can see him being an effective starter in his final year of eligibility after Seals and/or Swann exhaust their eligibility. Starting Taylor over either of them right now is ridiculous.

Lessons We Know Well

This horse is so dead that it has already been turned into glue, but Joey Lynch is this team’s biggest problem. By far. If you told me the cost to fire Lynch was keeping Nick Howell, I would sign up immediately. No questions asked. Why? Well, all 4 drives QBed by Ken Seals started with a run right up the middle. He also insists on tight sets with the WRs essentially turned into mini TEs. These sets make routes take longer to come open as the players have to work to separate. Ole Miss is one of the best in the country at creating pressure with a 4-man pass rush, as they had 22 sacks (of 25 this season) on such pass rushes coming into the game. He consistently sets players up to fail, which is the opposite of what Vanderbilt needs when already facing a talent disadvantage.

Normally, I would praise the playmakers this offense does have, but they did not have much chance to shine. Jayden McGowan did rip off an 18-yard jet sweep. Junior Sherrill made a fantastic catch for a 28-yard gain. Sedrick Alexander had a respectable 26 yards on 7 carries. Patrick Smith was pretty efficient as he juked his way to 20 yards on 3 carries. Oh, and AJ Newberry sprinted out for a 21-yard gain in his first game action. He had a 9 combined yards on his other 2 carries.

The soft defense is letting other teams go on painfully long drives. The Rebels gained 30+ yards on 7 of their 12 possessions. Two others churned up 25 and 20, and those were the final 2 drives of the game for the victors. A lot of it was down to freshmen and sophomores making mistakes, too. Martel Hight’s tackling is very much that of a freshman used to being able to rely on athleticism to make plays instead of facing WRs who are as quick in tight spaces as he is. The young guys also had some communication errors switching off coverages. Those are growing pains you can live with to an extent. Ole Miss ended up 32 yards short of their season passing average and 10 short of their rushing average. They also scored 6 fewer points than normal. Against an explosive offense without their best defender CJ Taylor, I think the defense played about to pre-season expectations. Those expectations were low, but even they have not been met except maybe against Ole Miss and Georgia.

Oh, yeah, defensive injuries. Those are fun. CJ Taylor was out against Ole Miss and is still out. Savion Riley and Yilanan Outtara are also out. De’Rickey Wright keeps playing, but his ankle is obviously still an issue to anyone watching him move on the field. Getting Kane Patterson back was big for the LB corps.

There is not much to say about special teams except that Hayball does not have the best vision as a ball carrier. There was a fake punt from Vanderbilt’s own 30. If Hayball had stayed inside, the Rebels had left acres of space to run for the fairly athletic (for a punter) Aussie. Unfortunately, he tried to go wide and got chased down short of the first down. Also, Jayden McGowan was returning punts, and he did a much better job of catching everything in the air to prevent extra yards lost to bounces and rolls. He did not get to return any of the punts, unfortunately.

Lessons for Further Study

Can Vanderbilt create a little havoc on defense? The coverages were still soft, but there was some blitzing that got home. Both Patterson’s had sacks on the same double A-gap blitz with LBs crossing each other. Ethan Barr basically turned into a FB taking on the center to leaving a Patterson brother free on a dead sprint. Langston knocked the ball out of Dart’s had for what could have been a scoop and score for Outtara and should 100% have been a turnover, expect the defensive lineman stumbled on the scoop attempt and lost out to an OL. Kane nearly chokeslammed Dart on his free shot. There were also times where pressure was generated with just 4 pass rushers. All in all, Vanderbilt had 3 sacks (other was Nate Clifton) and 5 other TFLs. Those can be drive stoppers even if the other team is able to pick up a few first downs before getting knocked back.

What the hell is going to happen at QB? Walter Taylor made it pretty clear it should be Ken Seals or AJ Swann at QB for the majority of snaps this season. He deserves a package of plays for short yardage, red zone, or even just intermittent change of pace. The fact he played the entire second half except one play due to a lost helmet is dumb. Ironically, the play he missed was a 13-yard Seals completion to Kamrean Johnson on 2nd and 18. It was followed by the now-infamous eye roll and head shake sideline reaction form Seals.

In conjunction with the QB battle, is there a risk of losing the locker room? This came up in the mailbag, and it is a question I cannot answer yet. You would hope not, but I can certainly understand why it might happen. Going with Taylor full time is basically punting on any more wins this season. It also greatly diminishes the roles of Vanderbilt’s most dangerous offensive weapons. Sure, McGowan, Sherrill, and even Humphreys may get some extra rushing opportunities on jet sweeps and reverses, but Will Sheppard is basically a blocker if the ball is only going into the air 15 times per game. Sheppard, right or wrong, has already been openly frustrated with the offensive game plans and personnel usage this season. Seals showed his frustration. If those 2 check out, this team might come apart. And since the decision that drove them to it would be complete idiocy, I really would not blame them.

Can Vanderbilt break the tie with Auburn? The series currently stands at 21-21-1. A Vanderbilt win would give them a winning record over 2 SEC teams going into 2024 thanks to an 8-3-1 record against incoming Texas.