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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: UNLV

The House won this round...

Vanderbilt v UNLV
Yeah, this pretty much shows how Vanderbilt had to keep fighting themselves to find success.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

That game sucked. It freaking sucked. Well, actually it was great then it was bad and got worse before finally flickering with hope. Finally, it sucked the life out of every Commodore fan watching. So, yeah, it sucked. A lot. A loss to a middling-at-best G5 team where you led 17-0 is inexcusable. Some think it is fireable on its own, but I would not go quite that far. Let’s get to the messy business where I tick people off for not being mad enough and acknowledging that not everything is awful, even if the problems are vastly outweighing the good.

Lessons We Are Learning

The 2023 Vanderbilt Commodores are beating themselves much more than their opponents are winning games. It may sound like a copout, but when you have turned the ball over 7 times while having 4 or 5 other drives killed by bad snaps and fumbles recovered by the offense. It has been mentioned a few times, but exactly half of UNLV’s points came off turnovers. Obviously, simply not allowing those points would have been more than enough to win. Vanderbilt was up 17-7 until a fumble allowed UNLV to get a FG on a drive they moved the ball 5 yards. The Dores followed that by fumbling away a scoop and score to get the game tied. If not for those plays, I really do not think UNLV ever gets any momentum going.

The game plans are doing the players no favors either. On offense, the Commodores should look like a Big XII team based on AJ Swann and the plethora of receiver options. It would also fit Patrick Smith and Sedrick Alexander better, too. Pressure identification from more spread formations may also help the OL not get confused on assignments while Swann and WRs can identify when they need to go to “hot” routes. Defensively, attack and let the kids play. When that happens, Vanderbilt has been somewhat successful. When they try to be conservative and safe, it has too often bit them in the ass. Embrace the risk-reward relationship.

Another situation that has been risk-reward is the rushing attack. After having some success against Wake Forest, a painful 23 carries for 61 yards by the trio of Patrick Smith, Sedrick Alexander, and Chase Gillespie. AJ Swann offered a bit of a threat, with 27 yards from 11 rushing attempts. Why OC Joey Lynch decided UNLV was the type to reveal the Scramblin’ Swann offense, I have no idea. In principle, I am totally for seeing Swann carrying the ball 3-5 times every game (not counting QB sneaks) as just enough threat on read option looks or as a way to save some yards against good coverage. He is not fast at all, but the 2-5 yards could translate to 5-10 yards somewhere else as he occupies a defender. It should have been saved for this week when a wrinkle like that could turn a game whereas last week SHOULD have been a comfortable win.

Special teams decided to have another mercurial day. Matthew Hayball boomed off punts for 41 (downed at 9), 54 (fair caught), and 58 (returned 22 yards). Jayden McGowan almost busted off a kickoff return for a TD. Jacob Borcila even knocked through a trio of FGs before missing the would-be game winner from 33. The return allowed was not good but not critical. Neither was a 36-yard kickoff return. Narrowly, McGowan avoided adding to the turnover parade when Nick Rinaldi rescued a fumbled on a kick return. However, there was no such recovery for a long snap that hit an upback to give UNLV the ball at the Vanderbilt 14. Details. Details. Details.

Rollercoaster Swann is in full effect. He had his second straight 300-yard passing game including 3 TDs. Unfortunately, he also had an interception and was only 17/35. Even with the 11 carries for 27 yards, his QBR was a meager 34.2. He struggled early and never got going until after his injury spell. Then, he really lit UNLV up. In the fourth quarter alone, Swann was 8/16 for 182 yards. He did show some good things by scrambling instead of forcing throws, so maybe he can capture the improvements while resetting to happier days in other areas. I feel like I have been saying that all season though.

One freshman is giving Swann a new, exciting way to be successful. London Humphreys has fully cemented himself as the third option behind Will Sheppard and Jayden McGowan. He followed up a 4-catch and 109 yard day in Winston-Salem by catching 3 passes for 102 yards in Las Vegas. He did have a couple drops that you would prefer to see him bring down. Those plays should come based on the plays he has made downfield. He also has 3 TDs in 4 games as a Commodore. Now, he has to prove himself against a conference opponent.

Lessons We Know Well

The pair of game breakers Vanderbilt has, one on either side of the ball, did their best. Sheppard did lose some 1-on-1s, but they were mostly really good coverage. He ended up with 5 receptions for 97 yards. His tag team partner, McGowan, hauled in 5 passes for 81 yards. Neither had a TD. On defense, De’Rickey Wright and CJ Taylor both got banged up and missed some significant time in the game. Their status for Saturday has been listed as “questionable,” and any hopes of stopping Devin Leary and Ray Davis will rely on them playing.

The other topic that was here last week did play last week, so it will be omitted unless there is further reason to discuss the dark times.

Lessons for Further Study

Let’s start with the same question as last week. How do the Dores respond? They looked to have the perfect reaction to a frustrating loss at Wake Forest by coming out blasting away at UNLV. Then they ruined everything. The in-game response was not good until the 4th quarter. The Commodores need to find a way to compete, and probably win, if they want to get to their goal of a bowl game.

Screw it. I am stealing the second question, too. Can Vanderbilt please play a full game at or near their potential? They were good for the first 15 then bad for 30 then mostly good for the last 15. They need 60 straight minutes of good, clean football. They do not have to be spectacular the entire game. The turnovers and critical errors must be avoided though.

Can the bad snap bugaboo die? Please. Schelling has had 1 notably bad snap in his career. His is forgivable. Hernandez is making a habit of it. That habit needs to be broken.

Are more changes coming? I am not sure if the switch to Trudell Berry and Martel Hight at CB was entirely by choice or somewhat enforced by an illness. Hopefully, it proves to be entirely by choice. As noted above, other scheme issues exist. Clark Lea likes talking about identifying areas to improve. They need to find the obvious. Stop trying so hard to find deep answers when the surface options are available. Take the easy progress.

Extra Credit (Random Observations)

Settle down on the anger about players laughing on the sidelines after bad things. At least for Ken Seals, it was a coach making him laugh after his fumble. These players care. They are putting too much blood, sweat, and tears into these games for them not to care. They do not have to start breaking whiteboards for them to be fixing the problems.