Last year when we faced Charleston Southern, our OC tried to work on the doomed pocket passing fundamentals we could not accomplish against BCS schools. We eschewed what was working and almost lost the game. This coming week we will see if Coach Derek Mason insists on “perfecting” our Stanford approach against a weaker opponent (against whom pounding the ball should work) – or whether we turn to the hurry-up, misdirection, motion QB offense that actually worked late versus Georgia and WKU. Last year our “cupcake” game shook our team’s confidence badly. This year, hopefully, history will not repeat itself.
The truth is, whether we run power sets or focus on change, we should win this game. Handily. The Governors have been outscored 80-13 in their opening two contests (versus Mercer and Southern Miss) and they face a frustrated Vanderbilt offense in desperate need of confidence. In particular, our O-line needs to experience dominating an opponent and our offensive braintrust needs to open the playbook and give future opponents something to think about. Our running game is so predictable right now that our longest run versus Georgia was an uncalled QB scramble and our second longest run was the punter’s sprint on a bad snap.
Against Georgia our offensive play-calling for three quarters was extraordinarily conservative. And extraordinarily Stanford: runs between the tackles and pocket passes. When we lined up in “jumbo” packages, Georgia stuffed the box and there was nowhere to run. Even when we faked rocket sweeps, runs up the middle worked better. It is difficult to understand why we do not actually run sweeps and McCrary keepers more often. Ditto with the wide receiver screens that make a defense worry about the entire field. When we telegraph the power runs, we simply run into a brick wall. OC Ludwig’s fascination with plays “between the hashes” – much like his predecessor – suggests Coach Mason has a stronger pull on offensive philosophy than he is letting on.
Another problem with the pocket emphasis on throwing – especially against Georgia which has a talented front seven – is that leaving Johnny McCrary in the pocket behind a patchwork O-line accentuates the negative. McCrary had trouble seeing the field under duress – and when the pocket broke down, he panicked and threw into triple and even quadruple coverage. McCrary is much more in control of his fate when he is on the move. And our offense works much better when he is comfortable.
Ralph Webb had another rough day between the tackles – but showed he can be a dangerous receiver when we finally began throwing to the safety valve. Our receiving corps is progressing – Latevius Rayford had a good outing and DeAndre Woods and Trent Sherfield continue to flash bright futures. Steven Scheu, who was blanketed much of the day, had a rough afternoon – taking a high hit on a circus catch that was overshadowed by several earlier drops.
It is worth mentioning that McCrary did throw for 295 yards, amidst various drops and shaky protection against an SEC foe. There is much to critique about the soph’s reads and decision-making – but the critical “decision” is the one to leave McCrary in the pocket. Notably, after a fairly sketchy first quarter on the O-line – insertion of true freshman Justin Skule seemed to help stabilize things.
While the conservative offensive scheme is frustrating – it is hard not to acknowledge that OC Ludwig is gaining some meaningful traction. Just as in Week 1, Vandy won the time of possession battle, ran far more plays than Georgia, and got more first downs. Ultimately, we amassed 400 yards. Also, like Week 1, red zone turnovers spelled doom. The forced INT in the end zone on second down at 24-14 was inexcusable – even a field goal there makes it a one possession game. The subsequent pick-6 added insult to injury and only reinforced the trend of sloppiness when it matters most. Introducing more hurry-up (especially in the red zone), running wide, and a little trickery would all be welcome signs this week.
Special teams continue to be inconsistent. Tommy Openshaw had a nice game punting (and running.) But coverage is spotty – and special teams, not unpredictably, gave up a long TD return. I liked the bloop kick-offs for this very reason: the short kicks, at least, were covered. Blocking on returns remains unconvincing – and we let numerous punts drop in front of us (and almost got hit by another one.) The “on-sides” kick was nice and Openshaw’s field goal range is solid – despite one long range doink off the upright.
Our defense continues to be excellent. In Game 1 we faced one of the best passing offenses in America and held WKU to 14 points. Last Saturday our defense faced a great running game and held Georgia to 17 “offensive” points. Stephen Weatherly was unbelievable and he was not the only one. There were only a few breakdowns – Chubb’s 60+ yard run (where Tre Herndon made a tremendous play to nudge him out of bounds), the dropped INT that was thrown right to our safety, and Sony Michel’s TD run. Take away those plays and the defense was inspiring. Jay Woods, Darreon Herring, Zach Cunningham and Oren Burks get special mention – but again, almost everyone looked rock solid.
This defense is not only good – but it is fun to watch. The most impressive aspect of the unit is that it is so incredibly young. In the two deep this week, there are only four seniors. The one obvious shortcoming is the failure to force turnovers. In the entire Derek Mason era, Vanderbilt has not won the turnover battle in a single game. Ending that dubious streak is job one next Saturday. Pick: Vandy 44, Austin Peay 12.
South Carolina stumbles into Athens as a 17-point underdog. Last week’s home loss to Kentucky is a bad portend of things to come for the Gamecocks – especially with their QB Connor Mitch disabled for a month. This game should help us gauge just how good our defensive performance was last Saturday. My guess is, very few defenses will hold Georgia to seventeen offensive points this year. Georgia may be brewing a genuine QB controversy – the Dawgs are in the National Title hunt if (but only if) they get competent qb play. Chubb, Michel and Marshall will continue to dominate in the interim. Pick: Georgia 45, Carolina 17.
Auburn may have looked past Jacksonville State – but even giving the Tigers the benefit of the doubt, Jeremy Johnson had his second head-scratching performance in a row. (Louisville’s loss to Houston also cheapens Auburn’s opening day win.) Question marks abound for Auburn – and that is a bad way to head into Baton Rouge. LSU survived a physical brawl in Starkville last Saturday. All signs point to an LSU win except one: Auburn absolutely waxed LSU last year, 41-7, and many of the match-ups are the same. In particular, that outing was one passing night that new starting qb Brandon Harris would like to forget – he was 3-for-14 before getting pulled. Vegas likes LSU by 7. Pick: LSU 29, Auburn 23.
This week-end’s biggest match-up occurs in Tuscaloosa. Ole Miss has hung 70+ on both of its early, over-matched opponents. The Rebels beat Nick Saban’s club last year – but that was in Oxford and with the help of key turnovers. Ole Miss’s defense remains outstanding. So far, the surprise has come on offense – Bo Wallace’s ghost has not haunted The Grove as anticipated. Chad Kelly has been “the Answer” at QB – but the question remains whether he can stay on target away from home against top competition? Vegas likes Bama by 6 ½. Bama may have an edge in already having faced a Big Five opponent. I picked Bama to win the West – but I also picked them to lose a game. This is the game. Pick: Ole Miss 24, Bama 23.
Florida and Kentucky both have opened 2-0 – and the winner of this contest has a real chance to crack the upper half of the downtrodden SEC East. Vegas likes the Gators by 3. This is a brain versus gut game. The brain reminds me that Florida has a 28-game winning streak against the Wildcats and the Gators seem to be on the way to righting the ship. My gut wonders if, while home and undefeated, Kentucky believes in itself enough to finally beat their nemesis. The Gator’s Vernon Hargreaves streak of 23 consecutive starts ended last week when he tweaked a leg injury. Key Gator linebacker Alex Anzalone is out for Saturday’s game. The banged up Florida defense has enough holes to give Kentucky a chance to shine – but the brain is still telling the gut that UK has only narrowly beaten UL-Monroe and a South Carolina squad minus its starting QB. Pick: Florida 31, UK 27.
Arkansas was shocked at home by Toledo last week. This Saturday high-scoring Texas Tech arrives in Fayetteville. Tech is averaging 64 points per game. The over/under here is 64 ½ - is picking the over too obvious? Pick: Arkansas 42, Texas Tech 34. Missouri survived a real scare at Arkansas State – and gets to rebound at home versus UConn. The Tigers are favored by 21 ½. Again, the luxury of gaining confidence by opening the season with three cupcakes merits mention. Pick: Mizzou 37, UConn 13.
A series of run-aways round out the SEC schedule. Mississippi State hosts outmanned Northwestern State. Pick: MSU 49, Northwestern State 10. Texas A&M is favored by 32 versus Nevada. Pick: A&M 51, Nevada 27. Tennessee faces Western Carolina after blowing a 17-point lead versus Oklahoma at home last week. This spells trouble for the Catamounts. Of some concern, the injury bug continues to afflict the Vols who lost defensive anchor Curt Maggitt for an extended period. Jalen Reeves-Maybin logged an insane 21 tackles versus the Sooners. It was not enough to stave off the melt-down – but it was a great performance. No chairs will fly at the Corner Pub when this week’s game ends. Pick: UT 52, Western Carolina 7.
It would be nice to have a good turn-out for Austin Peay. Last week Georgia fans enveloped our stadium – which had to be demoralizing for our squad. This team is getting better – and sometimes in the process of actually winning a game, a light goes on. I am hoping that is going to happen on several levels this week. And I am hoping there will be a lot of folks there to see it.