Roanoke's around the SEC: Georgia Week

It is tempting to grow numb to the statistics our offensive brain-trust has put together through five weeks. We have failed to score an offensive touchdown in the majority – 60% – of our games. Our leader in touchdowns, Darrius Sims, does not even play offense. Vandy is near rock bottom in the nation in offensive yards per game, which should surprise no one.

This stunning offensive death-spiral was solidified when we compiled a total of 137 yards in Lexington. Our slow-developing passing game was 8 for 25 for a miserable 85 yards and 3 INTs – and that does not include significant sack yardage. We insisted on pocket passing – and Kentucky blitzed relentlessly. It looked as if our staff had never seen a blitz before. We certainly had no answer for one. Currently, through five games, our defense and special teams have scored more touchdowns than our offense.

Last year our offense averaged 30 points per game. This year we have exceeded seven points only twice in five games. Even a mediocre performance by our play-callers gives us a chance to win the Kentucky game. Instead, they delivered a wholly losing formula. For those searching for philosophical shortcomings in our offensive scheme (as opposed to glaring tangible ones), we need look no further than my personal pet peeve: time of possession. Incomplete pass after clock-stopping incomplete pass meant that 5:43 was our best time of possession in any single 15 minute quarter in Lexington. We were crushed – again – in time of possession last Saturday by a margin of 38:22 to 21:38. This wears out our solid defense in addition to producing an ineffectual goose egg on the scoreboard.

The only positives from the trip to Kentucky came on defense and special teams. And there were genuinely encouraging signs here. Sadly, our defensive brain-trust opened the game tentatively – with the familiar soft cushions to “feel out” Kentucky’s offense. This amounted to giving the Cats 7 points. After a stellar Colby Cooke punt, that was downed by Sims at the UK 1 yard line, our defense dropped back. Patrick Towles simply took what was given eight yards at a time. The Cats marched 99 yards with Towles confidently going 8 for 8 on the drive. We repeatedly gave underneath and UK took it. Even here, bad luck followed us. On their opening drive UK fumbled the ball as their receiver stumbled toward the end zone. The ball was loose and out before the goal line. It was pretty obvious and even the tv commentators were pretty adamant about it. UK was given the TD anyway – and it proved to be an obstacle our offense could never overcome.

Our defense, however, stiffened after allowing this “score,” holding UK to 17 points while scoring seven itself. The cushions were scrapped (an in-half adjustment!) – and our corners played well. Torren McGaster had his second monster game in a row. Sims swiped a pick-6 and Paris Head solidified his hold on the starting job. Nigel Bowden, Caleb Azubike, Ryan White, Adam Butler, Zach Cunningham and Barron Dixon deserve favorable mention, among others. The defense played well enough to win. Period. Especially given the phantom touchdown.

Special teams also remains a beacon of hope. Colby Cooke continues his outstanding punting. Our coverage has been good too – downing one ball at the one yard line, and recovering a fumble deep in UK territory. For the first time in three weeks we did not get the opposing team’s special teams coach fired or reassigned – but that is a high bar to measure against.

The defense and special teams were not only solid this week – but solid on the road. This week we face the rigors of back-to-back road trips and a game that happens to be the biggest challenge on our schedule: at Georgia – a team that will probably remember we beat them last year. This year we are 33 point underdogs in Athens which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about how well we have built upon the recent foundation of nine win seasons.

If Patton Robinette can play, we can be competitive. Not only because he is good (71% completion average), and experienced and mobile – but because our staff calls dual threat plays for him sometimes. We execute these to the extent that we are positive 55-24 with Robinette under center – and minus over 100 without him. In fact, last year Robinette starred in leading us from behind to beat Georgia in Nashville.

Our recent trips to Athens, however, have been difficult. Coach Mason’s predecessor took the beating of his life there in his first trip, to the tune of 48-3. Our last two trips to the Peach State have resulted in a cumulative massacre of 91-3. Georgia is loaded on offense – with incredible strength at running back in Todd Gurley and Nick Chubb. For those thinking Georgia’s passing game has looked iffy – they have been without a stable of talented receivers. Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley return, just in time, this week – which will give QB Hutson Mason more options.

Sunday morning, still nursing my wounds from the game, Mrs. Roanoke and I headed to one of our favorite local breakfast haunts. Mrs. Roanoke had set her sights on a veggie omelet (minus onions) with hash browns (minus onions). (Mrs. Roanoke is not a morning onion person.) However, we were greeted by the one waitress in the place who routinely cannot keep an order straight. She is very cheerful and nice, but if you ask for no onions – you get double onions, if you ask for java, you get decaf. I heard my wife quickly audible to two eggs over easy, grits and bacon. “I didn’t want to make it too complicated,” she explained later. I contemplated this simple adjustment to the talent available – and wished our offensive play-callers had been there to see it Call your plays to give your talent the best possible chance to succeed. We utterly failed to do that on offense in Lexington last Saturday – we need to do it in Athens.

I’d like to say things will start to turn brighter after this road trip – but recent successes make it hard to see anything overly positive about a looming 1-5 record. Still, our SEC schedule was largely front-loaded, and, hopefully, our offense can only get better.

* * *

Around the Conference, intriguing games abound. Perhaps none bigger than UT hosting Will Muschamp’s Gators. The Vols are favored by 2½ - and it is a game with real drama. UT is trying diligently to turn a corner with a signature win, while Muschamp is trying to hang on to his job. Some wonder – despite the dreaded recent vote of confidence – whether the Gators’ coach can survive a loss here. I think UT is as good as Florida this year – as long as Justin Worley is playing his A-game. But Worley got banged up last week – and Florida is coming off a bye with two weeks to think about the shellacking at Bama. This is a game where a defensive score or a funny bounce could decide things.

Texas A&M ventures into Starkville where MSU has had a bye week to let the LSU win sink in. A&M meanwhile required overtime to subdue Arkansas and looked quite mortal doing it. An underlying story here is the SEC’s suspension of MSU center Dillon Day for “stomping” opponents during the LSU win. It was not his first dance, so to speak, as he had a similar incident last year. MSU, favored by two, was already really thin on the o-line before this blow, and the suspension may be just enough edge for A&M to steal the biggest game in Starkville in a while.

“Interesting” games aside – the big one is in Oxford where Alabama rolls into town a 6½ point favorite. Bama had a bye last week, while Ole Miss was overlooking Memphis. Ole Miss players still found time to run their mouths a bit, while Bama made adjustments from a sloppy outing against Florida. Oddly, some of Coach Saban’s big losses at Bama – to LSU in 2010 and 2011 – came after a bye. This is the best Ole Miss team in a long, long time. Will they handle the pressure and national attention – or crumble under the pressure? Bama has won ten in a row in this lopsided series (excluding forfeits.)

Last year LSU was a major roadblock in Auburn’s dream season. LSU’s lines have dipped this year and Auburn is favored by 8 at home. Auburn, however, may face some desperate Bayou Bengals following their MSU loss. South Carolina fell asleep at the wheel versus Mizzou last week and squandered a 13 point lead in the waning minutes. The Gamecocks may well have a hangover Saturday on the road in Lexington. Our nightmarish performance against the UK blitz may be the difference here – if our ineptness encourages UK to blitz the Head Ball Coach in similar fashion, the Cats will be punished with an array of screens, quick slants and draws. Still, the possibility for the Gamecocks to let Mizzou beat them twice is out there.

It is a big week in SEC football. Let’s hope we adjust a bit on offense – and that Georgia is looking ahead to Mizzou. It’s possible.

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Also see: Vanderbilt Report Card: Kentucky

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