Roanoke's Around the SEC: Ole Miss Week

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have him around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” I was reminded of this Mark Twain quote as I watched Vanderbilt’s offense perform last Saturday versus Austin Peay. Once OC Andy Ludwig found his groove, the team scored on six of seven straight possessions (with the lone miss being an errant long-range field goal attempt.)

Against the Governors’ over-matched defense, Vandy’s play-calling suddenly grew both creative and impressive.

Johnny McCrary was, frankly, brilliant.  He followed up his 295-yard passing performance against Georgia by throwing for 368 yards in three quarters versus Austin Peay – and he ran for 41 more yards.  In individually amassing over 400 yards, McCrary was 28 of 33 through the air – and several of the misses were drops.  More to the point, given time and protection, he made the right decision all day long, accounting for zero turnovers.  McCrary accomplished this precision minus several familiar targets – Steven Scheu was out after taking a high hit versus Georgia, and both Latevius Rayford and DeAndre Woods left the game with injuries.  (Woods, sadly, suffered a season-ending knee injury.)  The depleted receiving corps provided an opening for Trent Sherfield to shine – and he did not miss his opportunity, grabbing 16 catches for a record-breaking 240 yards.

Two very negative plays, in particular, stand out from this game as potential turning points for the season.  In the past, both miscues might have snowballed into memorable disasters.  The first came with the score tied 0-0 at the end of a 15-play, eight-minute-long Vandy drive.  On a fourth and a foot inside the 5-yard line, we decided to try the power formation and eschew the field goal.  Our o-line got absolutely stonewalled by Austin Peay.  While the air was coming out of the stadium, the offensive braintrust was recognizing that our power scheme in the red zone cannot work even against the Governors.  For the record, we scored on our next six trips into the red zone.

The next “turning point” came when Austin Peay called a nice trick-punt out of the shotgun – we misplayed the kick into a turnover deep in our own territory.  Our one defensive breakdown of the day followed – a miscommunication between linebacker and corner – that allowed Austin Peay to run an untouched slant into the end zone.  Suddenly we were losing 7-3 to Austin Peay in the second quarter.  You can only imagine the trash talk – and laughter – emitted by our SEC brethren (and ESPN talking heads) over this score.

It would have been easy for panic to set in here.  Last year, it would have.  This team responded by calmly dissecting the Governors’ defense for a precision 78-yard drive, highlighted by DeAndre Woods’ 43-yard catch and run.  The next two times we got the ball, we scored again.  By halftime, we knew we were going to win this game easily and so did the Governors.

Once again, our defense was very good.  Austin Peay’s only score came on a short field created by a turnover.  We held the Governors to 99 total yards through three quarters and 144 for the game.  Adam Butler was dominant in clogging the middle.  A host of other defenders including Tre Bell, Arnold Tarpley, Oren Burks, Ryan White and Ja’Karri Thomas had solid games.  NiFae Leolao also had an impressive outing on the d-line – and several newcomers including Charles Wright, Khari Blasingame and Dare Odeyingbo made impact plays.

The defense, again, failed to collect a turnover.  At the same time, Vandy’s special teams suffered another botched punt return turnover.  There is still a lot of room for improvement on this young Vandy squad, but the trajectory is up.  The performance against Austin Peay was a confidence-builder.  Of course, it is not as if beating Austin Peay is a sign of turning a corner.  To put things in perspective, the Governors entered Dudley with three freshmen starting on their o-line and having lost 32 consecutive road games.  Just the same, we passed the eye test on Saturday.  We looked talented, organized and crisp.  Our staff made positive changes on the fly.  This was no Charleston Southern game – and last Saturday this team did a lot to put last year’s misery behind them.  Last year there were no “clear the bench” forty point victories.

This coming week, the squad will get the chance to bury last season altogether with a solid effort.  The game in Oxford features an Ole Miss offense that has been impressive on historic levels.  After breaking 70 in its opening two games, the Rebels hung 43 points on Alabama.  We have already faced two potent offenses this year – a passing onslaught led by WKU’s Brandon Doughty and a steamrolling ground attack from Georgia.  We held our own against both of them.  The Ole Miss attack will look a lot more like the Hilltoppers’ pass-first offense.  The Rebels’ QB, Chad Kelly, however, can throw the deep ball – although he does focus on the short drop, quick timing patterns.  Alabama’s linemen had success getting their arms up and batting down short throws, but Kelly did significant damage anyway.  Ole Miss has been challenged in the run game – but if Vandy sells out to stop the passing game, the Rebels have capable backs.  Notably, Vandy’s pass defense left Georgia QB Grayson Lambert so dazed and confused that his job seemed to hang by a thread – but versus Carolina the following week the same Lambert was 24 of 25 for 330 yards and 3 touchdowns.  Hopefully, Coach Derek Mason can conjure up some similar mystery in Oxford.  A good performance, here, gets Vandy national recognition.  A bad one – and this is our first road game of the year – could unravel all the progress achieved. 

A critical difference between Ole Miss and the previous offensive powers we have faced is that the Rebels have one of the best defenses in the country.  While we won time of possession and play count handily in our earlier games, this will be a tall order against the Nkemdiche Brothers.  Ole Miss is very fast to the edges – any execution of east/west running and misdirection will be challenging this week.  Even in the solid win over Austin Peay, power running sets between the tackles did not work and our rbs averaged under four yards per carry.  The Ole Miss defense is the best we will face this year and if we emphasize the pass (as logic would suggest), keeping McCrary upright will be a primary concern.  It will be interesting to see what OC Andy Ludwig dials up – but the fan-base needs to exercise patience on Saturday.  Even as a trap game following Ole Miss’s emotional win over Bama, the match-ups this particular week are not very favorable.  Pick: Ole Miss 37, Vandy 17.

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Many of the in-conference games on the SEC slate look like dart throws this week.  Chief among them is Tennessee’s visit to the Swamp.  For the second week in a row the Gators put a lengthy winning streak on the line.  The Vols continue to impose total dominance over easier foes, but remain haunted by the Oklahoma set-back.  The match-up with Florida will go a long way toward establishing what the Vols have on offense.  Dobbs Hurd & Co. have impressive highlights – but Florida’s defense was ferocious against Kentucky last week.  The Gator offense will see Wil Grier exclusively at the helm this Saturday – with competing qb Treon Harris suspended.  (This makes our old friend Josh Grady the Gator’s back-up qb.)  There is a lot of pressure on Tennessee this week between the 10-game losing streak to Florida, the Oklahoma collapse and the memory of the infamous 10-9 loss to Florida in Knoxville last season.  This will also be Tennessee’s first road game of the year.  Jim McIlwain has pushed all the right buttons so far – but with the schedule ahead, this is a must-win if the Gators want to compete in the East.  Pick: UT 20, Florida 17.

Kentucky has to be kicking itself after letting Florida escape Lexington with a hard-fought win last Saturday night.  UK had numerous scoring chances turned back by the Gators.  If Florida’s defense looked dominant against the Wildcats, there is no telling what kind of carnage Missouri may inflict.  The Tigers have 34 tackles for loss so far (against three cupcakes) and are allowing a paltry 217 yards per game.  Kentrell Brothers (who leads the nation in tackles) has been stellar for Mizzou.  But Maty Mauck and the offense have not cooperated – last week’s 9-6 home win over UConn was one of the most heinous offense performances college football has seen in recent years.  The narrow escape versus Arkansas State the week before was an equally uninspired effort.  Mizzou is 3-0 – but does not deserve to be ranked at this point.  Still, Missouri has navigated its schedule and survived some key injuries.  If the Tigers get back rb Russell Hansborough for this week’s game, it will make a significant difference.  As of now, he is listed on the depth chart.  Pick: Kentucky 17, Missouri 16.

Auburn has made headlines for the wrong reasons lately.  The demotion of Jeremy Johnson has left freshman Sean White at the top of the qb depth chart.  Last week, Auburn defenders made LSU’s Leonard Fournette look like a video game character as he rolled over, through and around hapless Auburn tacklers.  MSU, with veteran qb Dak Prescott, took LSU to the wire in Starkville.  Sometimes the transitive property does not work in football, but this time it is hard not to think that real trouble is brewing in Auburn’s collective psyche.  Nonetheless, Vegas likes Auburn at home by 2½.  Pick: MSU 27, Auburn 24.

The final in-conference SEC tilt pits two of the biggest surprises in the SEC.  Texas A&M is a surprise of the pleasant variety – Arkansas, by contrast, is reeling after home losses to Toledo and Texas Tech.  Vegas likes the Aggies by 7.  I do not foresee Arkansas staunching the bleeding here.  Pick: A&M 38, Arkansas 27.

The non-conference match-ups this week do not involve any toss-ups:  SEC teams will be heavy favorites.  The surprise here is that UCF visits South Carolina and the teams have one win between them.  Winless UCF is nursing a couple of one-point losses to FIU and Furman along with a drubbing from Stanford.  The Gamecocks start their third different qb of the season, freshman Lorenzo Nunez.  Pick: South Carolina 31, UCF 16.

Georgia should dismantle Southern.  Pick: Georgia 56, Southern 10.  Louisiana-Monroe  visits Angry Bama.  Bad Timing.  Pick: Bama 45, ULM 14.  LSU travels to Syracuse.  Pick: LSU 49, Syracuse 7.

The schedule is not easy for Vandy after this trip to Oxford.  But it is easier – our two toughest SEC games will be behind us.  If the Dores turn in another confidence-boosting performance on Saturday night, we may surprise ourselves the rest of the season.  The problem is, Ole Miss has overwhelmingly deflated every opponent it has faced so far.  Stopping potent offenses is the reason Coach Derek Mason was paid the big money – but for Vandy to compete in this game, our offense will need to help our defense by moving and eating up clock (and hanging on to the ball.)


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