Roanoke's Around the SEC: Ole Miss Week

Conventional coaching wisdom suggests that a football team makes its biggest strides of improvement between its first game and its second. In the case of Vanderbilt Football 2014, that needs to be true.

The opener against Temple was historically bad. Seven turnovers. No offensive points. An inexplicable quarterback carousel. Lost amidst the smoldering train wreck was the debut of a number of star-caliber newcomers on the defensive side of the ball. Oren Burks, Nigel Bowden, Tre Bell and Ryan White were particularly impressive first-time starters. I am genuinely excited about our defensive potential for the future – but our relatively passive scheme against Temple allowed the Owls to pick us apart anyway.

The “aha moment” came to our defensive staff last year after a miserably vanilla, soft-cushion smack-down by Missouri. We became noticeably more aggressive from that point on – which basically saved our season. The epiphany hopefully will come earlier this year – as the uninspired scheme versus Temple proved so transparent, it has to be tweaked. We cannot give eight yard cushions, fail to blitz, and telegraph the holes in our zone, and expect to win. The TV commentators, from time to time, were “drawing up” the uncovered gaps in our coverage. If you show a gap and then switch up, you can fool an opponent. But we telegraphed much and disguised little versus Temple. That is not on the players – although our total lack of a pass rush was a performance issue. Our history with Bo Wallace suggests that he can be crossed-up and baited into turnovers. Give him free throws, however, and he will connect all night.

If it is possible for a defense to look talented while giving up 37 points to Temple, our unit pulled it off. Seven turnovers – virtually all in our own territory – will lay waste to any defense. Add to that, a failure to sustain any offensive drives and a total beat-down in time of possession and we drew up a recipe for putting our defense in a losing situation.

Our offensive scheme is where the real problem reared up last Thursday night – and it is hard to sugarcoat it. Again, several newcomers looked great – Ralph Webb and C.J. Duncan in particular. The O-line looked pretty good run blocking – in fact, it was not your imagination that we could gain five yards per carry handing the ball to Webb: that was his average. But we mixed in enough sacks, incomplete passes and turnovers to never get the running game untracked. The absence of any wildcat was inexplicable. The absence of misdirection or roll-outs was fatal.

The root cause of our offensive woes seemed to be a grim determination to leave our qb in the pocket all night. Our line did not protect well – but Temple knew exactly where to find our signal-caller – and if Temple can destroy our openly-telegraphed passing game, imagine what SEC defenses will do? Those with any institutional memory at all have to be shaken to hear the offense plans a pro-style pocket passing game. We have had a genuine NFL qb in the pocket in the past – and he never made it to a bowl game even with a genuine NFL receiver in his receiving corps. Against SEC-caliber defenses it helps when you roll out a credible running qb so he can ad lib if necessary, and defenders have to worry about the dual threat. Robinette seemingly was benched for running when no one was open – yet this is arguably what he does best. Similarly, with all new receivers, if we want to throw, we need to establish the run – which we also did not do.

Frankly, the yanking of Robinette with the score tied 7-7 smacked of panic. But the aftermath will be interesting: Robinette’s forte is not standing in a collapsing pocket. He did a nice job of running the hurry-up and he made no turnovers – but he did get sacked when his young receivers were covered. Rivers, known as the “throwing qb,” seemed to give credibility to our passing game. He looked game-rusty, but he is tall and somewhat adroit at avoiding the blitz, and he can be a legitimate passing threat – who could also make play action a reality. (McCrary, who may have the most upside of all, looked fluid and smooth, but his two INTs in three throws will likely keep him on ice a few weeks longer.)

Robinette is a genuinely good running QB – but when you force him not to run, he is out of his element. Rivers is the best passer of the bunch – he can hit targets, but he seems immobile, bordering on “lumbering.” The answer here is not particularly difficult: use both. Mold your offense to your talent and let both QBs do what they do best. And leave opposing defenses to prepare for all of it.

You want a certain degree of arrogance in any coaching staff – and it is normal for a staff to implement the staff’s own system over time. But transition is logical – wholly scrapping our successful misdirection, roll-out passing and wildcat running game was both a mistake and a waste of our existing talent. It is certainly what Robinette and our o-line do best. Generally, trying to force square pegs into round holes results in frustration as well as failure. At the same time, Rivers shows signs of being a decent pocket-passer and, if he can throw quickly enough, could give our offense a legitimate double-threat.

We will learn a lot this week in just seeing what the staff draws up against Ole Miss – on both sides of the ball. The bad news for the offense is that this could be the toughest defense we play all year. Ole Miss’ safety Cody Prewitt is outstanding. Ole Miss held Boise State at bay even with Serderius Bryant ejected early for targeting and Denzel Nkemdiche suspended. Mississippi is very aggressive on defense and their line is big – so running will be easier said than done this week. Misdirection needs to get worked into the smashmouth. Whoever holds the reins to our offense this Saturday will be in for a stiff challenge.

There is also a significant chance – after being too quick to pull the starter last week – that we will find no QB rotation this week. If this is true, the anointed starter may be a strong clue as to who controls the philosophical reins of this offense – Robinette is the most well-rounded (if he is allowed to use his strengths); Rivers is the pocket passer a West Coast advocate might prefer. The mere announcement may tell us a lot.

As for the Ole Miss offense, Bo Wallace threw for over 380 yards last week. But he also threw three INTs and looked quite mortal through much of the game. Ole Miss only led 7-6 at the three quarter mark. Laquon Treadwell looked like an All-American against us in the opener last year – but it was his best game of the season. Treadwell and Cody Core were both 100 yard receivers last week – and Ole Miss will thrive on taking the short stuff if we roll out the eight yard cushions again. Ole Miss’ running game remained fairly bottled up against Boise. Our run defense seemed to wear down versus Temple – hopefully we will plug the holes, keep time of possession respectable and disguise our scheme a bit better this Saturday.

It is easy to say things have to get better this week – but they don’t. We face a very good team in a stadium that will likely hold many Ole Miss fans. And we have players and coaches whose confidence has to be rattled after a 30-point home loss to a team that went 2-10 last year. How our players and coaching staff respond to the disappointment of the Temple game will be a strong indicator of what is to follow. The rest of this season hangs on a competitive, spirited performance.

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Soberingly, aside from us, every SEC team that faced out-of-conference opposition in Week One prevailed. Most won handily. The other “big loser” from last Thursday was South Carolina – and the Gamecocks face a dangerous East Carolina squad this week. The Pirate’s Shane Carden is a very good QB – and this looked like a trap game (a week before Georgia) on the schedule prior to the massacre in Columbia last Thursday night. After SC’s performance versus A&M, it is hard to imagine the Gamecocks will overlook ECU – but SC may still have trouble slowing the Pirates down.

Missouri also looked somewhat sluggish in winning their opener – and they travel to Toledo this week where they are only favored by 6½. Tennessee looked great in dismantling Utah State – but they have a fairly short week to prepare for a decent Arkansas State squad. Kentucky also gelled against UT-Martin – but we will get a slightly more realistic picture of how much they have improved this week versus Ohio.

From the cupcake files, look for Bama to name their score against Florida Atlantic, Florida to smother Eastern Michigan, Arkansas to roll Nichols State, and A&M to crush Lamar. A&M and Kevin Sumlin were the big winners of Week One: they looked great, only making the West that much more difficult. Georgia – which enjoys a bye this week – also looked entirely for real in subduing Clemson by technical knock-out.

LSU upheld conference pride versus Wisconsin – this week they can relax a bit against Sam Houston. Similarly, Auburn should thrash San Jose State. Mississippi State takes on a much-improved UAB, but should also prevail. The out-of-conference record for SEC teams should be pretty solid this week. Meanwhile, Vandy will be fighting to save its season – we do not have to win this game, but we do have to play much, much better. Top Stories