Wednesday, February 28

Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Florida

A move and generally chaotic week last week kept me from being able to re-watch or even take the time to sit down and do a statistical deep dive on the Kentucky game. As such, I did not attempt to dig into what changed for Vanderbilt to break a 26-game SEC losing streak in impressive fashion over then-#24 Kentucky. The good news is that my thoughts about it and the Florida game were pretty similar live, and nothing changed significantly while re-watching the most recent contest.

Lessons We Know Well

Ray Davis is a bad man. He has rushed for 167, 129, and 122 yards in the last 3 games. The YPCs for those games were 8.1, 5.0, and 4.1. Davis looked to have a little extra burst against Florida, too. He has been banged up a few times, so maybe he is getting a little healthier and finding another gear. It would be incredible if that was the case with him carrying the ball 20, 26, and 30 times during that stretch. The energy around the team may just be boosting him a bit. Whatever it was, an energized Ray Davis is going to be key for Vanderbilt tomorrow. I think we get it with a Ralph Webb-esque goal line statement by running over a Volunteer defender.

Mike Wright has also been revitalized since resuming duties as the starting QB. He was at his dual threat best against Kentucky when he threw for 184 yards while going 12/23 through the air. He had 1 TD and 1 interception in that game. On the ground, Wright ripped off 126 yards on 11 carries including a 59-yard TD. Florida limited him to 10/16 for 108 yards, but he was lethal in the red zone with 3 passing TDs and only 1 interception. His ground game was strangled to 13 yards on 8 carries. The pick against Florida was at a crucial time and should have been thrown into the Gator bench instead of forced to a well-covered Will Sheppard. One concerning trend that showed up against Florida was an apparent fear of contact with Wright dancing around and sliding, even in cases where it looked like his speed would have gotten him to the edge for extra yardage. Conversely, his best passes from him against Florida were off schedule throws where Wright used his legs to buy time then found an open teammate. Vanderbilt needs #5 to be assertive on the ground and efficient through the air. The scramble drill plays could be key against a Tennessee secondary that has had trouble maintaining coverage when QBs have time to throw.

The deciding factor in how effective Davis and Wright can be is the offensive line. Those guys set the floor. If they can give Davis any creases and let Wright hit the top of his dropbacks clean, the stars have a chance to make big plays. They have been massively improved this season. We have talked about it a lot lately, but AJ Blazek has a crew down 2 starters and another guy from the 2-deep due to injury. Somehow, they still look worlds better than they did last season and even better than they looked early in the season. The OL keeps getting better and better as the season progresses. They need to be ready for a feisty Volunteer front, especially in a rivalry game where tempers will flare. The trench coats can get exceedingly nasty, and the Grease Gang must embrace it without getting distracted.

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The other big weapons have made impacts the last two weeks. Ben Bresnahan has only had 3 catches combined and did fumble against Kentucky, but he made some important catches for first downs and had a powerful TD where he refused to be denied after the catch against Florida. Quincy Skinner had a MASSIVE 4th down catch for 40 yards against Kentucky that set up the game-winning score. Will Sheppard has made important catches but also has fumbled twice. The one against Kentucky put the Wildcats in great field position while the one against Florida ruined a Commodore drive about to enter the Red Zone. He was held to only 20 yards on 2 catches by the Gators, and he got drawn into extracurriculars against the Wildcats. Sheppard needs to keep his cool in what will be an emotionally charged rivalry game and let the talking come from the incredible plays he can make. Jayden McGowan has been the quiet one, unfortunately, though he did pop in the return game by getting a pair of late kick returns out across the 35 to start drives in good positions. Each of them probably needs to make a play or two while avoiding the fumbles and penalties.

One weapon has emerged on defense, too. CJ Taylor has become an “how is he EVERYWHERE?!” player in his hybrid LB/S role as the Anchor in Clark Lea’s defense that can switch from 3-3-5 to 4-2-5 to 4-3 to 3-4 all in one series based on one or two substitutions and how the players are deployed. Taylor might be the most important piece as he is just as comfortable in coverage as he is chasing down ball carriers and QBs. Taylor is second on the team in total tackles and was used sparingly until game 5 against Alabama. He is tied with De’Rickey Wright and Jeremy Lucien for most passes defended, which I grant is a very inconsistently reported statistic, with 5. He also has an interception and 2 fumble recoveries, both for TDs. He had huge pass breakups on both of Florida’s two point conversion attempts last week. The ability of #13 to be a Swiss Army knife on defense may well decide if Vanderbilt can slow down Tennessee’s offense.

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Lessons We Are Learning

The defense does seem to be trending upwards. Some of it is Taylor’s playmaking. Folks want to point to the removal of former DB Coach Dan Jackson, but Clark Lea surely saw how the DBs were being coached before. He was not letting Jackson go rogue. The defense has clearly changed their mentality though. The weather has helped as the Commodores greatest weakness downfield passing is limited in colder weather, especially when it is cold and wet as in Lexington. The weather does not explain how Vanderbilt held Florida, a team coming off 374 yards rushing at a 6.9 YPC clip against South Carolina and 291 yards rushing on a 5.8 YPC pace against Texas A&M, to 63 yards on 3.2 YPC. I even removed the bad snap that resulted in Florida being dinged for -18 yards rushing on the play. The defense has brought more 5- and 6-man pressures, but Florida’s OL was able to pick most of them up. I worry that bringing pressure like that against THEM might end with Milton still having time AND having WRs 1on1 with DBs. It will be curious what plan Nick Howell and Clark Lea cook up and call and how that plan works. Adjustments as the game progresses may be the deciding factor, too.

Joey Lynch has had ups and downs, but he deserves some credit for the recent offensive surge. Vanderbilt has scored 27, 24, and 31 against SEC opponents in the last 3 weeks. Yes, the 27 against South Carolina was not enough to win, but for a team that only scored more than 21 once when facing P5 opposition last season, it is a big improvement. The 2022 Commodores have only been held to 21 or less 3 times. They have jumped from 15.8 to 26.8 PPG against all opposition. Yes, Lynch was the OC last season, but either he has grown significantly, or he has finally been given the full reigns without the odd situation with David Raih. He has found ways to include the TEs in the last few games, especially in the red zone and plus territory. He is putting Mike Wright in situations to be successful, except for the interception late against Florida. For Lynch, the key is staying comfortable with the offense while not getting too greedy. Have some tricks up your sleeve, but use them intelligently.

The third phase, special teams, are also clicking. Wesley Schelling put the exclamation point on their play by diving into a pile and ripping out a loose ball for a TD after Florida muffed a punt. Matthew Hayball had launched one that left the returner chasing and late as it bounced off his arm / shoulder from him. Hayball has been elite all season. Joseph Bulovas has also made both of his attempts in the wins while not missing a PAT, unlike Florida’s kicker. Jayden McGowan had good kick returns, too, while Will Sheppard is keeping punt returns uneventful.

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This team will not die. After losses to Missouri and South Carolina, the season looked over. It was going to be a 3-9 (0-8) season to barely improve on last year’s 2-9 (0-8) campaign. Two weeks later, 5-6 (2-5) has us thinking about a bowl game and has revitalized large swaths of the fan base. The men in Black and Gold have been battling. Anfernee Orji said this week is a playoff game for them because they have to win it to play another game as a team. Each of the last two weeks have been playoff games, but they appear to be feeding on the pressure and the moment.

Lessons For Further Study

Can this team keep playing with the same fire without burning themselves? The intensity and passion has been nearly boiling over for the Dores lately. Will Sheppard was in a battle all day with the opposing #14. It boiled over to Instagram postgame. The game with Florida was as chippy as ever. Going toe-to-toe with the #9 Volunteers should bring out every bit of rage and desire in the Commodores. Oh, and Vanderbilt just has a bowl game on the line. They have to bring the intensity, but silly penalties could kill the chance to win the most important game of the season.

What wrinkles are coming? It may not just be on offense. Everyone expects a trick play or two against a rival. Will there be a fake punt or FG? Will someone try an onside kick after scoring to try and get a massive momentum swing? Do the defenses have some coverage and/or blitz packages to dial up that go against trends?

What is the crowd composition? The team has no control over this. It will likely be heavily a color we do not do inside FirstBank Stadium. The players are used to it, but having it happen in a rivalry game can carry an extra pain, especially on Senior Night under the lights. If you are joining me at Dudley Field, we have to be loud. If you are in the area, ticket prices have dropped around $70 on the secondary market. The weather has cleaned up a bit, even if it might be cool and a little wet at game time. Bundle up and grab a poncho.

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