ROANOKE’S AROUND THE SEC-Bye Week

Our bye week finds us beat up and upbeat. It was a narrow escape in rainy Murfreesboro last Saturday night. And this would have been a long, grim bye week if the Commodores stood at 1-4 coming off another CUSA loss. As it is, it will be a week of optimism and hope – and, perhaps, a bit of reflection on our offensive revival in the final eight minutes of the game.

In the “growing up” department, it was the first road win of the Mason era.  It was also only the second time we have won a game after trailing at halftime under Coach Mason.  More importantly, we beat a good football team.  The Blue Raiders’ freshman QB, Brent Stockstill, is outstanding, and MTSU’s receivers are extremely talented.  MTSU boasts significant upperclass experience.  Their lone touchdown came on a drive aided by a rare “roughing the snapper” call and culminated with a spectacular tumbling grab of perfect throw splitting double coverage.  What high-scoring MTSU got against us, they earned – and it did not come easy.  MTSU lost in the last minute at Illinois the week before facing us – and Illinois beat Nebraska last Saturday.  Take anyone downplaying the quality of this road win with a grain of salt.

It continues to be more satisfying focusing upon our defensive conquests than our offensive trials.  MTSU’s potent offense was held to 34 yards on the ground in 23 attempts.  That is 1.5 yards per carry.  We forced two turnovers and made key defensive plays when we had to.  None was bigger than Zach Cunningham’s sparkling fourth down, goal line stop of Stockstill, who looked like he had a clear path to paydirt.  Cunningham – who was everywhere for the second week in a row – not only dropped MTSU’s QB in his tracks, but forced a fumble on the play.  For the record, Cunningham had 15 tackles on the night, 2½ for loss.  Oren Burks and Torren McGaster continue to play at an all-star level.  Adam Butler again clogged the middle – and got held a lot doing it.  Stephen Weatherly, Ryan White, Darreon Herring and Tre Herndon contributed strong efforts, too.  Our defense has held all four opponents significantly below their scoring average.  Clearly, our staff is doing something right here – and watching the defense work is truly enjoyable (a word not associated with Vandy football much last year.)

Our offense continues to frustrate – even as it churns out time of possession and 400+ yards per game.  Our first down play-calling was particularly conservative for stretches of this rainy game.  In the second quarter, for six first downs in a row we failed to gain more than 3 yards.  This vanilla streak was broken by a pass play where our receiver failed to get out of bounds and, instead, fumbled straining for extra yards with less than a minute left in the half.  The win – and the 414 total yards – help mask the fact that Vandy failed to take a single snap in the red zone this entire game.  That is not a good stat for a team stressing ball control.

We did run for 237 yards on 41 carries.  But the runs between the tackles consistently were forays into a brick wall from the pro set playbook.  102 of our 237 yards came on three plays when we did something different:  our one end run of the game (Sherfield for 34), McCrary's TD scramble for 29, and Webb’s 39-yard scamper from the spread where everyone was expecting us to throw.  Even the runs between tackles were better after the Sherfield sweep, because the defense suddenly couldn’t cheat up the middle any more.  It makes you wonder why we never used the play again?  Or why we don’t pull other trick, misdirection plays out of the mothballs occasionally?

Much as I credit OC Andy Ludwig’s turn-around of the offense and improvement in time of possession, play count and yardage, we got caught Saturday trying to be who “we want to be,” rather than doing what was working best.  It felt a lot like opening night versus Western Kentucky for three and a half quarters  I understand that the pro-set, pocket passing attack seems to be who we want to be – I simply remain unsure why?  It is an especially difficult approach in the defense-minded, big-bodied SEC.  It seems our spread and hurry-up consistently garner better results.  Perhaps over this nice two week period, our offensive braintrust can reflect about employing a little more deception into the game plan.

In defense of the conservative offensive approach, several factors do need to be acknowledged:  it was raining, it was windy, it was not our QB Johnny McCrary’s most accurate night and our o-line was banged-up almost beyond repair.  On a night when McCrary was baited into throwing into a lot of triple coverage, the safe approach did ultimately pull out the W.

And coming up with a win on the road on a B-minus night is a step forward.  “Knowing how to win” is a quality that only comes with winning.  Our staff seemed to have the players believing they would win this game, even down 13-3 with 8 minutes left.  In fact, I particularly liked Coach Mason’s time out at this juncture, on an MTSU third and fifteen, to stop the clock (that MTSU was draining too early) and to make sure the defense was prepared for a play it had to stop if the game could be won.  I liked Coach Mason’s scream-fit after some glaring holds by MTSU on Caleb Azubike, Stephen Weatherley and (bear hugs of) Adam Butler – we actually got a holding call later.  Finally, I liked the tactical decision to reduce the dreaded three man rush – against a good QB and receivers, this just provides talented playmakers more time to make a play.  We made some nice adjustments in this come-from-behind win.  Now, hopefully, we will start to get healthy, too.

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Texas A&M, Auburn and Kentucky join us in bye mode this week.  Kentucky had to rally mightily versus Eastern Kentucky before prevailing in overtime.  A win is a win though.  All four SEC bye-standers have the luxury of sailing into their week off following a win.

Among several critical SEC jousts this week, the game in Knoxville is the headliner.  Georgia visits Tennessee with both teams reeling.  Georgia provided a Mr. Hyde performance at home versus Alabama last week.  The Tide could have named its score, and Georgia visibly lost confidence as the massacre unfolded.  Meanwhile, Tennessee staked itself to another 14-point lead versus Arkansas last Saturday before dropping its game against the Razorbacks at home.  The Vols’ problems seem magnified at the moment.  As Vol boards melt-down and pundits lay on the criticism, Pig Howard was dismissed from the team this week.  The loser of this game will be in some serious pain – to make matter worse, the 0-2 Vols next SEC game is in Tuscaloosa.  If Georgia loses (for its second conference loss), the Dawgs' presumed hold on the East will – once-gain – appear quite slippery.  In a must win setting, will Tennessee finally play a full four quarters?  Will Georgia’s uncompetitive effort last week help the Bulldogs focus in Knoxville?  Vegas likes the Dawgs by 3.   The key stat looming after last week is that the Vols gave up almost 300 yards on the ground to Arkansas – and permitted two Razorback RBs to hit 100 yards rushing.  Georgia’s ground game should help the Dawgs pull out a bruising affair.  Pick: Georgia 27, Tennessee 23.

Florida continues to shine.  After waxing Ole Miss to remain undefeated, the Gators defense has become a force to be reckoned with.  Mizzou, however, has a tremendous defense of its own – and the Tigers have owned Florida lately.  The game is in Columbia and even Vegas seems to forecast a Florida let-down after emotional wins over Tennessee and Ole Miss.  The line is Florida by 4½.  Missouri’s offense has been terrible.  Mizzou freshman QB Drew Lock showed a good arm against South Carolina – but he will face a different level defense this week.  Maty Mauk remains suspended – which may spare him a physical beating at the hands of Florida's front seven.  Pick: Florida 24, Mizzou 10.

Arkansas travels to Tuscaloosa this week as a 16-point underdog.  Bama seems to be hitting on all cylinders after its wake up call loss to Ole Miss – but Arkansas has given the Tide problems in recent years when their running game is in gear.  The Razorback ground attack was surely working in Knoxville.  However, after stifling Georgia’s running game in Athens, Nick Saban’s crew should be up to the task.  Pick: Bama 38, Arky 17.

As South Carolina recovers from its thousand year torrent and resulting floods, the Gamecocks’ game has been shifted to Baton Rouge.  Often, faced with this kind of hardship, an embattled team rises to the occasion with an inspired performance.  LSU has been sleepwalking through its games lately anyway – and Leonard Fournette has been carrying the groggy Bengal Tigers.  Look for Carolina to try hard, but come up short.  Pick: LSU 33, South Carolina 23.

Mississippi has hung 70+ on both of its out-of-conference opponents this year.  This week, following three straight SEC contests, perhaps the Rebs will rest a few players.  Pick: Ole Miss 62, New Mexico State 7.  Mississippi State takes on struggling Troy.  The Bulldogs will get the Trojans best shot – but it is not good enough.  Still, Troy is getting 30½ points – and that’s a lot of points.  Pick: MSU 33, Troy 21.

As Vandy byes go, this one comes at a perfect time.  A lot of banged up players can recuperate.  Meanwhile, the team can rally around its respectable 2-3 record, with beatable South Carolina on the horizon.  It is a nice scenario for putting our feet up and watching our SEC brethren beat up on each other - while we heal.

 


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