This would be a pretty big step forward for a team that was winless in conference last season – and only scored within a touchdown of one SEC foe in 2014. Despite the unmistakable signs of improvement, the progress is muted because it is so uneven.
Vandy’s defense absolutely dismantled Florida in Gainesville. The Gators started seven drives on Vandy’s side of the field – but they could rarely cash in. By contrast, Vandy ran three plays in Florida territory all day. Undeterred by our lack of offensive firepower, Vandy’s defense turned Florida away over and over, forcing four turnovers and making goal line stands in the process. The Gators were held to minus-18 yards in the third quarter, and only 57 yards in the second half. Zach Cunningham continued to flash all-SEC credentials with 10 tackles, a sack and two fumble recoveries. Torren McGaster had another big performance and Andrew Williamson turned in his best game of the year. Caleb Azubike, Landon Stokes and Jay Woods forced fumbles. Ryan White grabbed an INT.
Our defense gave an inspired effort: it was a clinic in crisp, hard-hitting, sure-tackling football. By the end, Gator QB, Treon Harris (who saw various confusing looks) did not know which end was up. Yet the defense’s performance was not quite enough to secure a win.
It would be easy to point fingers at the offense for this loss, but the offense played to win time of possession and play count – and it did. The truth is: we have scored only 27 points total in our last four games – literally less than seven points per game. Florida’s defense is filled with future NFL players – and the Gators make a lot of offenses look inept. The offense did not turn the ball over – and Ralph Webb’s second quarter 74 yard burst nearly held up.
Our play-calling took “conservative” to a new level. And, again, it almost worked. Our decision to limit our passing game made sense – especially given that Trent Sherfield was out in the second half. Our depleted receiving corps could gain no separation all afternoon and we completed only 3 of 14 tosses for 30 yards against the Gators’ shutdown secondary. Our refusal to throw to our backs was puzzling. We threw one pass to a back, ran one option play and one jet sweep. All three plays worked – but we never went back to them. It seems that we are determined to stick to the North/South/Pocket mantra – which is frustrating. Second down play calls were particularly vanilla – mostly runs into the pile and no short or mid-range passes. Given our conservative play calling, the decision to “go for it” on fourth down at our own 27 yard line while nursing a one-point lead in the third quarter was particularly perplexing. The move was so out of character, perhaps it was expected that Florida would assume it was simply a ploy to draw them off-sides? When the snap came, however, we whiffed on a blitzer who had Ralph Webb dead to rights three yards deep in the backfield – but Webb made a heroic (and coach-saving) spin move to pick up the first down. Of course, we punted three plays later. The risk-reward ratio here made no sense at all.
Webb had an excellent game. The Gainesville native had 129 yards – and his 74 yard scamper will undoubtedly make the top five plays of the year (even if we did get a blocking assist from the umpire.) Last year, Florida was Webb’s worst game – this year he was the clear offensive star against the home-town school. Vandy gained 175 yards on 62 plays for the entire game. Take away Webb’s 74 yard TD and Sherfield’s lone jet sweep for 17 yards and we gained 84 yards on the other 60 plays. That is 1.3 yards per play – which is heinous. McCrary was not given many options to run or complete easy, confidence-building passes – left in the pocket, with no one open, he took a lot of hits. Yet, again, it almost worked – even with 11 negative plays (not counting illegal formation penalties.)
Special teams truly failed us in this game. And coaching decisions relating to special teams seemed to be stuck in quicksand. If the 71 yard opening kick-off did not give us a heads up to kick the ball away from Florida’s tandem of talented returners, the early, near miss punt returns of Antonio Callaway should have. Florida averaged returns of 13.8 yards per punt (that includes fair catches.) We fell asleep for our third fake kick first down of the year (although the runner fumbled.) The shanked punt at crunch time stands out, but our wedge defenders looked like they were ordering appetizers while the punter was being rushed – a mistake that also cost us the Ole Miss game. This lethargy let Florida hurry our punter (who had been roughed earlier in the game) with fatal results. Add to this list of mistakes a fair catch at our own five yard line and an 11½ yard kickoff return average and our special team’s braintrust should be embarrassed. Special mention is deserved for LaDarius Wiley – who made several special teams stops that prevented even bigger returns.
Nearly beating highly-ranked Florida in Gainesville is not a bad day at the office – but we do need to stop beating ourselves. This week we face a Kentucky squad that is reeling after four consecutive SEC beat-downs. The last three have been by 24 points or more. The Wildcat defense has been soft – and established qb Patrick Towles has had such problems that back-up Drew Barker may see action this week. Boom Williams, Mikel Horton and Jojo Kemp are legitimate backfield threats and the receiving corps is decent – but as a whole the Wildcats are slumping badly. Their defense is 95th against the run and they have not given up fewer than 27 points since the Missouri game back in September.
If we bring back the wide-open game plan from the first half at South Carolina – I think we win this game by over a touchdown. But if we focus on our pocket passing, it will be more difficult. There is talk that Kyle Shurmur may return at qb after McCrary’s 3-14 performance at Florida. Here is a scenario: a vulnerable UK defense arrives hemorrhaging points. We throw an inexperienced rookie at them with a correspondingly minimized playbook. We put him in the pocket and never move the pocket – letting Kentucky’s challenged defense pin back its ears and dial up blitzes all day. This may sound familiar?
That is exactly how we let a Kentucky defense that allowed 36 or more points seven times in 2014, shut out our offense last year. We lost 17-7 with our only points coming on a defensive score. I hope we have learned something since that terrible 2014 performance. My fear: our offensive braintrust can be pretty stubborn. Pick: Vandy 20, UK 17.
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The potential let-down for Bama and LSU after their high stakes match up last week must loom large to their fan bases. LSU has the luxury of being at home, while the Tide travels to Starkville. Mississippi State has played well this season and stands at 7-2. Even with a Tide let-down, MSU’s one weakness is its run defense. Sadly for MSU, the running game happens to be Bama’s strength. Pick: Bama 34, MSU 20.
Last year Arkansas rose from a long-term losing streak to crush Ole Miss and LSU. Last week the Razorbacks broke the Rebels’ hearts again. It is hard to know how LSU will respond to its sub-par performance on the national stage in Tuscaloosa. No doubt the Tigers recall that Arkansas shut them out 17-0 last year. Arkansas’ defense is a bit more challenged this year – but I am picking the upset anyway. Call it an Alabama hangover. Pick: Arkansas 31, LSU 29.
Auburn and Georgia collide with both teams coming off wins. Kentucky was the remedy for Georgia’s stagnant offense last week – but Auburn is one SEC team that is getting markedly better as the season progresses. In August, this looked like a game with huge SEC Championship implications. In November, not so much. Auburn is favored by 1½ points – but the Tigers have not beaten the spread at home all year. Still, I will take peaking over playing out the string every time. Pick: Auburn 31, Georgia 17
Interim Coach Shawn Elliott has re-awakened South Carolina football. He is coaching for his job – and Carolina’s energy level has been high since he took over from Steve Spurrier. Moreover, last week Vandy provided the Gamecocks a pretty good blueprint for handling the Gator offense. In another noon game for the Gators, the Gamecocks should be a handful – the 7½ point spread is tempting, but the Gator defense is just too good. Pick: Florida 17, Carolina 13.
We could talk all day about events at Missouri this past two weeks. Is the team divided, tighter than ever, distracted? For sure, the Tigers have been bad prior to recent events. This week’s out-of-conference foe, BYU, is 7-2, but the Cougars strike me as over-rated (particularly coming off a 17-16 win at San Jose State.) The Cougars are favored by 6½. The line started at 3 – so the public thinks the political turmoil could be a distraction. I think Missouri’s offense will be happy to play a non-SEC defense. Pick: BYU 24, Mizzou 23.
Rounding out the SEC schedule are two cupcake games. Texas A&M faces 6-3 Western Carolina, while Tennessee hosts 1-8 North Texas. The Vols will feast – and it will be interesting to see how many points they try to score as 41 point favorites. Pick: Tennessee 56, North Texas 9. Texas A&M heads to Nashville next week – and this Saturday’s tune up should be over early. Pick: A&M 49, Western Carolina 14.
The upcoming home match-up with Kentucky is the biggest game of Coach Mason’s tenure. We won three games in a very disappointing campaign last year: the bottom line is, we need more than three wins in 2015 to establish tangible progress. Will we play to our potential and open our playbook – or will we find a way to stub our toe and stop ourselves? It is a really important test.