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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Alabama A&M

It got better in the end.

Alabama A&M v Vanderbilt
That is one way to potentially rise up the depth chart!
Photo by Johnnie Izquierdo/Getty Images

After a 7-point win over Hawaii, a 5-3 lead after one quarter that became a 12-3 halftime lead had the natives feeling restless. The frustration in the stadium was palpable. The Commodores were not imposing their will for the second straight week. Dreams of a bowl game seemed to be fading as fans were forced to wake up to an all-too-painful reality.

A quick, assertive TD drive to start the third quarter made the home fans perk up. However, Alabama A&M would answer with a 62-yard TD pass before traded punts brought back the exasperation. The punt would prove to be the only time Vanderbilt would not score in the second half with the exception of the final drive of the game where Walter Taylor and Drew Dickey would split snaps as the clock’s final moments were exhausted.

The final score was probably more flattering than it should have been. Negativity about the halftime score is probably a bit overstated. Reality is in the middle somewhere with the caveat that slow offensive starts are not something this Commodore team can afford. The talent gap makes these games hard to assess in some ways, but I think there are things to be gleaned from a 2-0 start.

Lessons We Are Learning

For the second straight week, the dynamic duo of Will Sheppard and Jayden McGowan had 6 catches each. The yardages were similar, too, with Sheppard having gained 62 while McGowan added 70. Sheppard had a pair of TDs for the second straight week, too. The supporting cast was less effective, but still flashed. Junior Sherrill had a catch for 35 yards along with a 20-yard carry. Justin Ball gained 27 yards after some AJ Swann pocket magic where the TE found space and waited for his QB to find time to get him the ball. London Humphries went up the seam for 23 yards. Kamrean Johnson took a TE screen to the house from 17 yards out. Logan Kyle had a 12-yard reception. They each showed some things to like but were maybe not as impressive as Week 1. The talent is still clearly there. It may just be a bit inconsistent in production.

The defensive playmaking pair of De’Rickey Wright and CJ Taylor was also quieter but had an impact. Wright had his evening end early when an injury removed him after the first drive. He made his mark though by finally getting a third down stop on the 4 yard line after the Bulldogs had converted their first 5 third downs. They would only convert on third down once the rest of the game. CJ Taylor could have had a pick 6 but was still his disruptive self with 6 tackles.

Special teams were a positive again with blocked punts by Bryan Longwell and Langston Patterson. Longwell’s rejection went through the back of the end zone for a safety. The punts that did get off were returned for effective yardage with Sheppard having returns of 39 and 8 yards while Martel Hight Jr got the chance to bring one back 22 yards. Jayden McGowan had a nice kick return where he should have housed his second in two weeks but could not get through the leg impact applied by A&M’s kicker. Jacob Borcilla was perfect on his 6 PATs while also chipping in a 23-yard field goal with ease. Matthew Hayball’s monster leg dropped his two punts in at 52 and 54 yards each with neither returned. This group could be a difference maker if Vanderbilt gets into close games in the coming weeks.

The corners have staved off demotion to “we know you suck out loud” from “we are pretty sure you suck out loud.” A&M’s QBs were held to 18/34 passing with only 143 yards gained through the air. Almost half (62) of that yardage came on one play where BJ Anderson either got caught by a PA and pump fake combo OR misread the route combo in zone coverage. I think it was the latter, and Jaylen Mahoney could not get from his safety spot to the boundary in time to chase down a slot fade. Holding anyone to 143 yards through the air in the modern game is something to applaud. This group probably deserves a golf clap, not a standing ovation. They will have a much tougher test reading Wake Forest’s slow mesh offense and tracking the Demon Deacon WRs. It may be a better idea to play more man defense to keep their eyes on their assignments, but it seems unlikely to happen since Vanderbilt’s defense has been predominantly zone coverage for all of Clark Lea’s tenure.

Lessons For Further Study

Can the offensive line push around a better team? They had some concerning breakdowns against the Bulldogs but were much improved from the previous Saturday. Vanderbilt was able to average 6.3 yards per carry, including a sack of Swann and his 1-yard QB sneak since he evened it out by scampering for 25 yards. Vanderbilt’s top 3 RBs all averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry, so it was not just tricky action like Sherrill’s 20-yard jet sweep. A&M had 3 other TFLs, so there is still plenty to clean up for a group that should not be struggling at all.

Has Swann taken a step back, or are there things they are specifically asking of him early in the season that might be hampering his play? He was a pedestrian 15/29 for 194 yards and threw a Johnny McCrary-esque end zone interception when he locked onto one receiver way too long as that option ran behind traffic. Sheppard was wide open on a trail route, too. He needs to be at or near his best this week to put pressure on Wake Forest, both their defense and offense. He has enough weapons that getting locked onto one of them should never be an issue, especially since he never showed a problem going through progressions last season.

Is Sedrick Alexander going to be the answer at RB? He had three flashy runs to finish the game, but those were against Alabama A&M’s backups. His final stat line was 12 carries for 87 yards and 2 TDs. Patrick Smith and Chase Gillespie both averaged 5.0 yards per carry against probably better competitions. Alexander looked really slippery and instinctive on the TDs though, so it may be that he can create yardage against better competition, even if it doesn’t end up being as flashy.

Defensively, can the Dores slow down a potentially good offense? Wake Forest is without now-Notre Dame QB Sam Hartman. New signal caller Mitch Griffis was 19 of 30 for 329 yards, 2 TDs, and an interception against Elon. The rushing attack was not good though. The Demon Deacons ran the ball 31 times for 128 yards with sacks removed. Griffis was sacked 4 times for 30 yards, which is also not good. Vanderbilt should be able to get pressure if they are willing to use 5 rushers and be aggressive. Tell guys to get home and see if they can disrupt that slow mesh.

What impact does the weather have? It is supposed to be very wet. Vanderbilt wants to throw the ball around and has shown a propensity for the subtle trick plays. Rain could effect that. It could also make Wake’s ball handling more difficult. Just something to keep an eye on.