There was yet another downpour, a parade of injuries, and, ultimately, the predictable bloodletting of turnovers. The valiant-but-doomed defense hung in until the forces of darkness could be held at bay no longer. Houston would have its carnage. It took a nationally televised humiliation in Starkville last year before Coach Mason instituted meaningful change for his defense. Maybe this ESPN documentary in futility will have a similar result for our offense? After amassing a season low 185 yards in offensive yardage, there is, at least, hope our braintrust will re-evaluate its stunningly naïve attempt to run Stanford’s offense this year.
At the outset of any self-evaluation, it is not unreasonable to consider legitimate excuses. Injuries have ravaged our offense – from the o-line, to the depleted receiving corps. We could certainly use C.J. Duncan and DeAndre Woods, not to mention Andrew Jelks and Justin Skule the rest of the way. The schedule also is unbefitting a power 5 team – we have played one home game since September 20th (and we happened to win it.) This takes a toll on a student-athlete. Most of our SEC brethren play a minimum of seven home games and play “back-to-back” road games once in a season at most. We have an inexplicable road schedule this year – and next year we have set another six-home-game slate with three back-to-back road trips. That is self-inflicted. Moreover, if we had played Elon or Western Carolina at home last Saturday night instead of a road game at #18 Houston, we would be a .500 football team with an energized fan base. Those lobbying for a tough “interesting” out-of-conference schedule wreak their own special vengeance on a squad trying to deliver six wins.
But even reasonable excuses do not address the fundamental shortcomings of our flawed offensive premise. We are implementing a North-South running/pocket passing attack that fools no one. In fact, it is premised on fooling no one – the goal of a smashmouth, pro-style attack is to telegraph what is coming and to be lumberjack enough to impose your own will anyway. We are short a few lumberjacks – and our offense is so predictable that opponents know what is coming and, worse, know that our banged-up o-line cannot stop a telegraphed blitz. Our philosophy of leaving our young qbs on the train tracks and urging them to make smart decisions as the speeding train hurtles toward them is a failed approach. It is particularly an ill-suited directive for Johnny McCrary’s skill-set.
McCrary – who was top-ten in the SEC in total offense before getting benched two weeks ago – needs to be protected from panicky decisions, not thrust into a “meet me at the quarterback” defensive coordinator’s paradise. By leaving a sitting target in a collapsing pocket behind a depleted o-line, our offensive braintrust invites turnovers. With McCrary – who is very talented – there needs to be a Plan B. And through 8 games – there hasn’t been. We need to move the pocket, roll McCrary out, encourage him to run, and use misdirection and screens to discourage the blitz. Then, if receivers are covered – and frequently they are – he can, at least, run for his life. Similarly, our hurry up generally takes the edge off defenses and discourages blitz calls – and we use it sparingly. Again, what is working often turns out not to be “who we want to be.”
More than anything this staff needs to be desperate enough to go with whatever will work and stick with whatever is working. That means we need to abandon scripted plays and aspirational goals. Our staff seems bent on passing even when running is working – which it was early versus Houston. I am willing to bet McCrary’s first series was scripted – regardless of the fact we were deep in our own territory and an INT in that situation was lethal.
Finally, Coach Mason has to invite misdirection into his playbook. As part of the smashmouth lumberjack theory of offense, we literally avoid fooling defenses. A reverse, half-back pass – even a rocket sweep – makes a defense think. One needed only to watch the moving parts of Houston’s offense to know that the Cougars give opposing defenses a lot to think about. We actively discourage deception – and Sims and Sherfield are fast enough to make it work if we would try it.
Last year it seemed like our unimaginative offense was the result of an OC who wanted to squeeze square pegs into round holes – that could not be fixed until a post-season firing. This season we have an OC with a creative past implementing much the same “theory” as last year. It makes me wonder if Coach Mason’s crowning achievement is also his fatal downfall? In understanding, himself, how to stop a good misdirection offense – he assumes the misdirection offense is flawed and unworthy. He should give himself and his prowess more credit – accept that a spread, misdirection approach does put pressure on most mortal defenses – and stop trying to be Stanford. Frankly, Stanford would not be Stanford against SEC defenses, and right now we do not have the personnel to pull it off anyway.
Lost in the 34-0 Halloween night drubbing is the fact that our defense played a decent game. The defense held Houston to season lows in yardage and points (tie) and forced several turnovers. Our offense gave Houston the vast majority of its points. Zach Cunningham and Stephen Weatherly were brilliant yet again. When d-line anchor Adam Butler went down, I was impressed how back-ups like Torey Agee stepped up. Houston’s top ten rushing attack gained 2.9 yards per carry on 51 attempts. Butler seems recovered and ready to go this week – and Caleb Azubike is back too. So there is a little good news.
The problem in Houston was all about the offense: we threw 20 times, completing only 5 to our guys and 3 to Houston’s defenders. This week we face an amazing defense that loves to blitz. Jonathan Bullard, Vernon Hargreaves, III, and Antonio Morrison will make life even more difficult for OC Andy Ludwig. If he fails to move the pocket, attempt some misdirection and allow an escape route, we may lower our season scoring average further. As it is, our largest scoring output of the year (aside from the Austin Peay romp) is 17 points versus MTSU. Ludwig needs to focus on the unconventional – hurry up, misdirection runs, wildcat and whatever works this week. In fact, he might watch the tape of our last visit to Gainesville. It was inspirational.
Florida is coming off an East-clinching victory over Georgia. The Gators are down two o-linemen and their starting qb is suspended. Treon Harris scorched us at qb last year – but he did a lot of damage with his legs. With no back-up qb, Florida is trying to keep him in the pocket – where he seems to have trouble seeing the field. A lot of intangibles suggest that Vandy is capable of making a good showing this Saturday.
With a sleepy noon-time start, this is a recipe for the ‘Dores to rise up and surprise a complacent Gator squad. We played well – and made changes – after our most embarrassing loss last year, and I expect us to give Florida our best shot this week. Unfortunately, this year, Florida is significantly better than we are. Pick: Florida 24, Vandy 13.
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At first glance on the Week 10 SEC schedule, I wanted to pick upsets at every turn. Upon further review, I have talked myself into backing away from the precipice. This begins with the match-up in Tuscaloosa. LSU is undefeated and Leonard Fournette seems fairly unstoppable. But LSU has not met any top ten defenses like Bama’s. If Bama devotes all its resources to stopping Fournette, can LSU’s qb Brandon Harris rise to the occasion to win the game? I don’t think so. At the same time, Bama has been very UnBama-like at home in SEC play, losing outright to Ole Miss and being crushed by the spread versus UT and Arkansas. One cannot help wondering if, after peaking too early last year, Nick Saban has brought this team along more slowly this year. The Tide may rise at just the right time, beginning now. Bama has won four in a row in this series and both teams are coming off a bye. Pick: Bama 27, LSU 21.
Tennessee is a 17 point favorite at home over the Gamecocks. South Carolina is playing feisty football lately. Will the Vols take a week off now that they have hit the soft side of their schedule? My gut says yes – but my brain vetoes any notion of an actual upset here. Maybe Carolina makes it interesting for 20 minutes, though. Pick: Tennessee 38, SC 17.
The Kentucky-Georgia match up in Athens is a study in two teams going the wrong direction. Georgia, favored to win the East, has let another title shot slip away. Coach Mark Richt’s seat may not exactly be “hot,” but it may prove to be an ejector seat if the Dawgs stumble down the stretch. Meanwhile, the Wildcats are on a demoralizing three game skid in which Kentucky’s defense has given up over 40 points per game. Still, Kentucky can score – and, lately, Georgia can’t. It appears Greyson Lambert is returning to qb for the Dawgs and Sony Michel plans to play despite an injured right hand. Vegas likes Georgia by 14 – but Georgia hasn’t scored a touchdown since playing Tennessee. I think it will be much closer. Pick: Georgia 28, UK 27.
Arkansas blew Ole Miss out of Fayetteville last year – so there will be no sneaking up on the Rebels here. Ole Miss still has only one SEC loss and is very much in the SEC West hunt. Vegas likes Ole Miss by 11 and, again, this seems like too many points. The return of Laremy Tunsil and the presence of Laquon Treadwell (who missed the Arkansas game last year) should be enough for Ole Miss to secure a narrow win, but this one has potential upset written all over it. Pick: Ole Miss 27, Arkansas 23.
Auburn has only four wins and A&M, Georgia and Bama left on their schedule. The Tigers have to win one of those three games to be bowl eligible. Auburn seems to be playing better football the last three weeks – and, at the same time, A&M has gone into a tailspin. Kyler Murray replaced Kyle Allen at qb last week in a win over South Carolina. My gut is screaming for a Tigers win here – but the match-up that gives me pause is A&M’s stud receiving corps versus Auburn’s challenged secondary. It is hard to pick against that match up. Pick: A&M 30, Auburn 26.
Thursday night Missouri hosts MSU. This game was most notable for the lifting of Mizzou qb Maty Mauk’s suspension – only to see the suspension reinstated a few days later. Mizzou’s defense is good – and the Tigers have been stewing over their loss in Nashville over their bye week. Dak Prescott & Co. need to be careful here – but Mizzou has not scored a touchdown in over a month. Pick: MSU 24, Mizzou 10.
The last thing Vandy needs is another road trip against another good defense. But that is what faces our offensive braintrust this week – hopefully, we will see a little more innovative thinking in Gainesville. The same tired lumberjack approach will not help sell season tickets next year.