Frankly, how we respond to this alarming performance is a major challenge for our staff. After the Temple implosion last year, our confidence on offense was shaken to the core. We spent the next two months in a dizzying quarterback carousel from which we never really recovered. The irony is: in the first half against Carolina we did a lot of creative misdirection – and it worked. We got the ball to Darius Sims, tossed wide receiver screens, let Johnny McCrary run and even threw in some option. It was not a spectacular success – but we were ahead at the half. It turns out the use of innovation in the first half was merely a set-up so we could revert to downfield pocket passing and north/south running in the second half.
Pocket passing was a particularly serious miscalculation against South Carolina – because the one thing the Gamecocks do extremely well is pressure the passer. And the main challenge our QB faces is a lapse of decision-making under duress in the pocket. It was a predictable recipe for disaster.
Many will point out that OC Ludwig did not urge Johnny McCrary to throw downfield into double and triple coverage – but the OC clearly put him in a position to slip into panic mode. With our o-line hanging on for dear life, our downfield passing scheme played right into the Gamecocks’ strength and our weakness. Enough said. Our north/south red zone running scheme also might justify a Congressional Inquiry.
The dilemma facing OC Ludwig is not a simple one. The o-line is beat up – and, to some extent, makeshift. Opposing defenses know that, between the tackles, we have trouble running to the right – so they load up on the left. South Carolina was able to pressure McCrary without blitzing – and when the Gamecocks ultimately figured this out (and dropped back to take away the short stuff) we were done. While McCrary had a bad game, he did not get much help – his star receiver had key drops, his o-line let him down, and his featured running back could not find a hole.
The bright spot was Darius Sims who ran for 104 yards on six carries. That is over 17 yards per carry. It was Sims’ first break-out game as a running back and, at a minimum, he will give opposing defenses something to think about. There were a few other positives – Caleb Scott had a nice TD catch, Steven Scheu converted a tough third and 17 grab. Will Holden made a shoestring hustle tackle that saved a touchdown on our first turnover.
Our special teams were also much improved. Coverage was good, mistakes were kept at a minimum. Even with our first-team holder knocked woozy, we converted a good “hold” on our field goal. This was one area that looked better after the bye. I confess that watching Carolina boom kick offs through the end zone made me nostalgic for Carey Spear.
Vandy’s defense remains solid – but there were misplays on Saturday. The key breakdown was Pharoh Cooper’s easy 78 yard slant. Several times Carolina slid a receiver out of the backfield to find green pastures. But, on the whole, the defense held Carolina to 19 points – despite the offense giving the Gamecocks several short fields. The defense also turned Carolina over several times – but the offense simply gave the ball right back. Demoralizing.
Zach Cunningham was all over the field again. Darreon Herring, Ryan White, Stephen Weatherly and Jahmel McIntosh turned in big plays. Basically, the defense played well enough to win – but not A+. Caleb Azubike missed this game – and Nigel Bowden is still out. It also made a difference that Carolina’s bruising rb, Brandon Wilds, was back in the line-up and we surrendered 100 yards to him. In the end, South Carolina played like a desperate team. Our offense played like a confused one when it mattered most.
It does not get easier for the offense this week. Missouri’s defense is ferocious, fast on the edges, and has no weakness. Kentrell Brothers has been stellar – and the d-line and pass rush have to be concerning given our problems. By the same token, Mizzou’s offense has been extremely challenged all year long. The Tigers have not scored a touchdown since playing South Carolina three weeks ago. Missouri is averaging 13½ points per game – including cupcakes. Notably, Missouri is breaking in a talented freshman QB, Drew Lock, who possesses a strong arm. Running back Russell Hansborough has given us trouble in the past, but Missouri’s running game has been off-kilter all season. The Tigers’ poster QB, Maty Mauk, remains suspended – but Mizzou’s problems arose even with Mauk under center.
The over-under for this game is 34½. Amazingly, neither Mizzou nor Vandy has gone “over” in any game this year. That makes going “under” here seem smart – but what if the defenses start scoring? Mizzou has already played two 9-6 games this season – beating UConn and losing to Georgia. Imagine a locker room after holding Georgia to nine points and still losing? The main intangible in our favor is: we have not been home since September 19th. This game is the one time all year Mizzou will face back-to-back road games (after last week’s trip to Athens.) Also, maybe this week we will play like the desperate team. Pick: Mizzou 20, Vandy 13.
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Alabama faces another opponent coming off a bye – this week it is the Vols. Bama is favored by 15½. During its off week Tennessee was able to build on its big win over Georgia. Josh Dobbs had a fantasy football trifecta versus the Bulldogs – running for 100 yards, throwing for 300 more, and accounting for 3 touchdowns by air and 2 by land. Bama’s defense is coming off a three touchdown game itself. Running back Derrick Henry has been hot for the Tide, too. Bama has beaten the Vols eight straight times. In fact, Tennessee has lost its last 22 road games against ranked teams. An interesting sidelight: Vols’ rb – and Alabama transfer – Alvin Kamara returns to Tuscaloosa. Pick: Bama 38, UT 27.
Auburn, despite its disappointing start, is now 4-2. Arkansas is 2-4 – so it is a little surprising to find the homestanding Razorbacks favored by 5½ over the Tigers. Auburn seemed to right the ship in its narrow win over Kentucky. Arkansas cannot afford a loss here – a loss likely means no bowl game. Arkansas has not exactly thrived under pressure this year. Pick: Arkansas 27, Auburn 24.
Texas A&M visits Ole Miss in a game that sees both teams coming off painful losses. Mississippi got drilled on the road by undefeated Memphis, while A&M lost to Bama by serving up three pick-sixes. Ole Miss is favored by 5½. Both squads still only have one conference loss – so there is much on the line. The Rebels’ shaky road performance in Memphis was the last game of Laremy Tunsil’s suspension and the big lineman’s return could aid Ole Miss’s tepid running game. The match-up here is confounding. A&M was run over by Bama – but the Aggies have a solid pass defense. Pre-Tunsil Ole Miss has had trouble rushing, and relies heavily on Chad Kelly’s arm. It will be strength versus strength in Oxford when Ole Miss has the ball. The Rebels have been on a downward trajectory since narrowly toppling Vandy: Ole Miss is 1-2 since that game. Pick: A&M 33, Ole Miss 30.
Kentucky travels to Starkville following a heartbreaking loss to Auburn. MSU’s offense came alive versus Louisiana Tech last week after spotting Tech a 14-0 lead. Dak Prescott has never lost to the Wildcats and MSU is favored by 11. Pick: MSU 31, UK 20.
The Western Kentucky-LSU game will be an interesting affair mainly as a case study in how to handle the Hilltoppers. LSU should win handily behind its ground game. Vandy stopped Brandon Doughty better than anyone else has all year. LSU could be looking ahead slightly to its Bama match-up in two weeks – and, as we know, WKU has talent. Pick: LSU 49, WKU 27.
It is hard to over-emphasize the importance of this week’s game for Vanderbilt Football. The margin for error is long gone. At some point, the team and staff need to produce in conference.