Even special teams looked sharp for the most part – our coverage was improved, Darius Sims almost broke a return, and we recovered a muffed punt (albeit before it hit the ground.) Unfortunately, one special teams flaw proved disastrous – a failure to chip an Ole Miss rusher equaled a blocked punt with the score tied. This gave Ole Miss the go-ahead field position it needed to retake the lead (and the block seemed to still be in Tommy Openshaw’s head when he yanked a chip shot wide at 20-16.)
We needed to be perfect to win this road game – and we weren’t. But we were close. I attended the Ole Miss game last year and it was a soul-crushing fiasco. This Oxford performance resoundingly reaffirmed that we are on the right track. Ole Miss is a better team than it was a year ago – which means we are exponentially better than 2014. The problem is, no one will notice until we start winning some games – and that is the challenge of this week for Coach Derek Mason. After coaxing an inspired performance out of his club last week, he needs the same energy again in Murfreesboro.
Coach Mason likely does not need additional chalkboard material to fire up his squad. We are MTSU’s homecoming date and Vegas has posted Vandy as a slight underdog to the Blue Raiders. To be clear, MTSU has a good football team and playing an SEC team at home makes this game the Blue Raiders’ Super Bowl. Coach Mason has to make sure that Vandy does not let down after the draining effort in Oxford.
One small scheduling break is that we already spent Ole Miss week practicing against defending what MTSU does best. Their QB, Brent Stockstill, has completed 69.5% of his passes, and he masters the hurry-up, quick drop throws á la Chad Kelly. MTSU also has top-notch receivers in Ed Batties and Richie James. MTSU likes the wide receiver screen and we have had some scares on defending this. The Blue Raiders amassed over 70-points against two over-matched early season opponents – and lost last week to Illinois in Champaign on a last minute Illini field goal. Bama only beat MTSU 37-10. This is a tough road game, but it is the kind of game Vandy has to start winning. Bad weather may hamper both offenses – if this happens, it is notable that MTSU has not been able to run on Big Five defenses.
Vandy’s offense looked crisp against Ole Miss – until it reached the red zone. I give OC Andy Ludwig credit for turning around our offense as far as first downs, play count and time of possession are concerned. Johnny McCrary also has progressed solidly in his last two games. Ludwig has given McCrary a lot of underneath options in the passing game and McCrary has begun making the right reads. In a tone-setting 19-play early drive against Ole Miss, McCrary was 7-of-7: but we had to settle for a field goal. Late in the third quarter, down 20-16, we had second and one at the Ole Miss 11 yard line. We lost the game right here – testing the middle twice for no gain and missing the field goal.
The reality is, in the red zone, the field is short and it is easier for defenses to take away the short throws McCrary thrives on. We have to show more deception on the ground and try edge runs in the red zone to challenge defenses. As long as we test the middle (and defenses stack the box), we will be settling for field goals – and failing to post 7’s was the difference against WKU, and will likely be a key this week too.
In addition to McCrary, Steven Scheu had a solid game on offense last week, catching numerous big third down balls. Ralph Webb ran hard for 90 yards against one of the best defenses in America. Josh Crawford made an impressive debut backing up Webb. Caleb Scott had his best game as a Commodore. In Oxford, the O-line played admirably, protecting McCrary surprisingly well against several future NFL-ers. In what is likely to be a “weather game” the push from the banged-up O-line will also be a key to winning. Hopefully, Ralph Webb will be able to build on last week’s performance.
Vandy’s defensive effort against Ole Miss was heroic. Still minus Nigel Bowden, our linebackers stepped up mightily. Zach Cunningham had a particularly good game. Adam Butler remained fierce in the middle, and Nifae Leolao and Jay Woods also gave inspired efforts along the trenches. Oren Burks and Stephen Weatherly had highlight reel games, while Torren McGaster spent all night holding his own against Ole Miss’s prolific passing game. Caleb Azubike and Jahmel McIntosh made big plays too. The defense, notably, forced a couple of turnovers – and the offense gave up none.
Ole Miss took our best shot last Saturday. We would have won a lot of SEC games with that performance. If we can revive last week’s hungry, road warrior mentality this Saturday in Murfreesboro, we should be able to spoil MTSU’s homecoming. Pick: Vandy 34, MTSU 23.
* * *
The premier game in the SEC this week takes place in Athens where Bama meets Georgia. With rain and winds expected, one would think Georgia’s running game could be the deciding edge. Bama, however, already has a loss and Nick Saban cannot afford another one. This is a scenario for a classic game. My brain thinks the elements favor Georgia; my gut tells me mankind cannot exist in a universe where this Alabama team is 0-2 in the SEC. My gut wins this debate. Pick: Bama 31, Georgia 27.
Florida hosts Ole Miss. After literally stealing their game from Tennessee last week, and going 5-for-5 on fourth down doing it, it is hard to bet against the Gators. Jim McIlwain’s undefeated club continues to find ways to win. Florida’s defense is truly fearsome – although it fell prey to some trick plays by the Vols. Normally, I would think Ole Miss might be on upset alert heading for Gainesville, but Hugh Freeze may be thanking Vandy this practice week for returning the Rebels’ focus to the task at hand. Pick: Ole Miss 42, Florida 24.
Two desperate teams meet in Knoxville this Saturday evening. In contrast to Florida, Arkansas and Tennessee keep coming up with ways to lose at the wire. The Vols’ fourth quarter meltdowns are now well-chronicled. The weather could complicate matters – which might help neutralize Tennessee’s passing game. How Tennessee responds in this crucial game sets the tone for the rest of this once-promising season. My gut feels like Arkansas is due to break out eventually and that panic may set in if the Vols fall behind. My brain recognizes Tennessee as a 7-point favorite at home. My brain wins this one. Pick: UT 24, Arkansas 20.
Missouri hosts South Carolina in a game that was bound to be played in Columbia. Mizzou QB Maty Mauk is suspended for this one. Missouri’s offense has been so ineffective it is hard to tell if the suspension could make it worse? South Carolina’s recent win over winless UCF may give the Gamecock’s a needed attitude boost, but it was an ugly win. In the end, Mizzou’s defense remains very good. Pick: Mizzou 17, South Carolina 14.
Texas A&M is favored by 6½ at home versus MSU. MSU QB Dak Prescott managed a hard-earned SEC win last week, and MSU’s defense has been surprisingly good. A&M woke up in time to beat slumping Arkansas last Saturday, but the Aggie offense is not scoring in the style to which Kevin Sumlin has grown accustomed. Both teams are ranked and playing solid football. Pick: A&M 27, MSU 17.
On the cupcake front, Auburn tries to get back on track versus San Jose State. Vegas likes Auburn by 20. Pick: Auburn 34, San Jose 17. Kentucky looks for win number 4 versus overmatched Eastern Kentucky. Pick: UK 49, EKU 7. LSU faces Eastern Michigan, a team that gave up 58 points to Army last week. Les Miles will rest a lot of starters in the second half. Pick: LSU 56, EMU 14.
This week’s game in Murfreesboro is undeniably pivotal for the team and for the staff. A win leaves us 2-3 heading into an optimistic bye week that points toward a date with struggling South Carolina. A loss leaves us 1-4, with hopes of a successful season effectively gone. Losing really isn’t an option here.