Vanderbilt is coming in off of a bye week, following their 21-20 home win over Charleston Southern two weeks ago, while Missouri is coming off of a 42-13 road win last week at Florida. The Commodores are looking for their first conference win under first-year head coach Derek Mason.
Coach Mason said that the bye week was good for them. He said that they scouted themselves, made adjustments, and had a good week of practice during the bye.
“We had three good days of hard practice, good on good,” explained Coach Mason. “We retooled some things, and looked at our schemes and personnel, and just got back to the fundamentals of hitting, tackling, and being able to make sure we can create a competitive environment. So, we can look to get off to a fast start.”
Coach Mason is optimistic going forward.
“We've been able to put together consecutive practices where guys are really in tune with what's happening,” continued Coach Mason. “I think our schemes fit our guys now, and we've been able to move personnel around and get guys in spots to try to get this second half of the season into the type of season we want it to be. It's about having a one day, one practice, one week, and one game at a time mentality. We are approaching the second half of the season with a 1-0 mentality and just trying to make sure to get ourselves to Saturday and get ready to play."
Vanderbilt is an extremely young team. No team in the country has played more freshmen this year than the 31 freshmen that have played for the Commodores.
In addition, Vanderbilt has thus far experienced a QB carousel. Through their first 7 games, the Commodores have utilized 3 different starting quarterbacks, and a fourth quarterback, 6’4” 230-pound red-shirt freshman Johnny McCrary closed out the Commodores’ win over Charleston Southern. Earlier this week, McCrary was listed as a co-starter, along with 6’4” 212-pound true freshman Wade Freebeck, who has started 4 games this season. Vanderbilt’s most-productive and most-experienced quarterback has been 6’4” 212-pound red-shirt sophomore Patton Robinette, who has been injured, and is currently being held out while he recovers from a concussion. Another QB, 6’7” 235-pound graduate student Stephen Rivers, a transfer, also started one game, and has played in others.
So for now, it appears that it’s Freebeck and McCrary. Between them, they’re completing just under 50% of their pass attempts for just under 6 yards/attempt. Earlier this week, Coach Mason said that McCrary would “probably get the start”. By midweek, there were multiple reports circulating that McCrary will get his first start at Missouri.
“Johnny McCrary can extend plays,” said Coach Mason. “His eyes stay down the field, or he can run……………………………………. We have to play to Johnny’s strengths. We’ve got to give him opportunities to have success. And, we will.”
“Johnny’s strengths” probably include the Commodores trying to establish a running game. That means a reliance on 5’10” 196-pound red-shirt freshman RB Ralph Webb, who through the Commodores’ first 7 games has averaged more than 17 carries/game and 4.6 yards/carry. He’s backed up by 6’1’ 225-pound freshman Dallas Rivers (4 carries/game, 4.1 yards/carry) and 5’7” 196-pound junior Jerron Seymour (5 carries/game, 5.3 yards/carry). Vanderbilt likes to use Rivers in short-yardage situations. He’s found the end zone twice. But Webb is the workhorse.
I think we’ll see McCrary keep the football, as well. And, with an extra week to prepare for Missouri, some trickeration may be in store for the Tigers. At the very least, some misdirection, and some QB read-option. But Coach Mason, the former Stanford assistant, would like to run the football downhill, and set up the play-action pass to his tight end.
Through the first 7 games, Vanderbilt has rotated a number of receivers, and 14 different players have made at least 1 reception for the Commodores. Their top three receivers, including their two starting WRs and their starting TE, have accounted for nearly 60% of their receptions on the season.
The Commodores’ leading receiver is 5’11” 195-pound red-shirt freshman C.J. Duncan, who has 20 receptions for 322 yards and 2 TDs on the season. His complement is 6’1” 192-pound sophomore Latevius Rayford, who has 15 receptions for 140 yards.
The Commodores’ second-leading receiver is their tight end, 6’5’ 250-pound junior Steven Scheu. Through 7 games, he has 19 receptions for 269 yards and 1 TD. Again, play-action involving the tight end is going to be a staple of Coach Mason’s offensive philosophy.
Also listed at the running back position is 5’9” 182-pound sophomore return specialist Darius Sims. He’s dangerous! He’s averaging 30.8 yards/kick-off return, and he’s returned 2 kick-offs for touchdowns this season. He’s also averaging 5.2 yards/punt return. He was moved from defense to offense, and coming out of the bye week, it would make sense that Coach Mason and crew will be trying to get the ball in his hands out in space more often.
Thus far this season, Vanderbilt has averaged 17.6 points/game. They’ve allowed 34 points/game. The Commodores have averaged 4.7 yards/play this season, but they’re not running as many plays as their opponents. Part of that is a -6 turnover margin, and it is partly the result of a 28% third-down conversion rate. At the same time, as Vanderbilt has averaged 57 offensive plays/game, their collective opponents have averaged 73 offensive plays/game, while averaging 5.7 yards/play, and converting 39% of their third downs.
So, while the Commodores have been outgained by their collective opponents by a little more than a 50% margin, they’ve been outscored by nearly a 2-to-1 margin.
Defensively, the Commodores play a 3-4 base, and are led in production by their linebackers and their secondary. Their leading tackler is 6’1” 245-pound red-shirt freshman ILB Nigel Bowden, whose 54 total tackles is among the league leaders.
The Commodores’ best pass rusher, 6’4’ 255-pound junior OLB Caleb Azubike, has 6 TFLs and 4 sacks on the season, which places him among the league leaders, as well. He usually lines up as a rush end, to give the Commodores’ defense a four-man look.
Azubike’s counterpart at OLB is 6’3’ 250-pound senior Kyle Woestmann. He provides the veteran leadership on defense for the Commodores. Earlier this week, he talked about some of the changes they’ve made during their bye week in preparation for Missouri and the rest of the season.
“I think you’re going to see a different pass rush (at Missouri),” said the senior LB. “We have a lot of very talented guys up front. And I think we are going to try to implement some different stuff to get a little bit more of a pass rush out on the field. So, I’m pretty excited about that! I think it is going to be a great opportunity to showcase some of the young guys we have, and their abilities to really get off the ball and move, and kind of get offensive lines disjointed.”
In passing situations, Vanderbilt has been removing a defensive lineman, and Woestmann and Azubike have usually lined up as rush ends, creating a 4-3 look. And, the Commodores have brought in a nickel back, or another LB.
Against the Missouri spread, we might see quite a bit of the nickel back, 5’9” 188-pound red-shirt freshman Ryan White, who is one of the Commodores’ more productive defenders, with 33 total tackles, including 3.5 TFLs, 0.5 sacks, 1 QB hurry, 2 PBUs, and a forced fumble.
Torren McGaster, the Commodores’ 6’0” 192-pound sophomore corner, has 37 total tackles and 4 pass break-ups, which makes him their most-productive defensive back.
Coach Mason said that as a result of their self-scouting and the adjustments they’ve made, he expects the Commodores to be “a better football team”.
“We look to be a better football team,” said Coach Mason. “I don’t want to get into the specifics, because we’ve done some great things in terms of game planning to get ourselves ready to go play (Missouri). What you’ll see, hopefully, is a better offense, a more productive and active defense, and on special teams, we need to cover better and make sure that we can change field position and be a difference maker in this ball game.”
Coach Mason said that his team spent the bye week working on improving some fundamental things that he believes will pay off for the Commodores.
“The self-scout was good,” explained Coach Mason. “It showed us exactly where we were weak and how to improve those weaknesses. It was not a mystery. You get back to the fundamentals of the game. The game really hasn’t changed. If you block well, if you can get off blocks, if you can tackle, you know, if you can move the chains, I think you’ve got a pretty good chance to be successful. Those things were paramount to what we needed to do. Last week, I thought we got that work in.”
“We’ve got to be a better tackling team,” continued Coach Mason, expounding on some of the fundamentals that he hopes his team improved on during their bye week. “That was our emphasis last week. If we do that, then I think we can get off the field.”
Coach Mason said that he’s paired down the offense so that they can run the plays that suit their personnel, and that they run well. He also said that it’s important for his team to take what the defense is giving them, and to keep moving the football forward, even if it is in small increments, and to avoid long-yardage situations, especially against Missouri.
“Let’s play football the way we’ve been coached,” said Coach Mason. “If we do that, it gives us a chance to make sure we stay ahead of the chains.”