The defense has been bowl-worthy – and it continued to play well versus Kentucky last week. There were some miscues, however, when it came to containing Wildcat running back Boom Williams who erupted for 66 and 38-yard runs. Even on those breakdowns, some heroic plays were made. On the 38-yard run, Andrew Williamson corralled Williams at the half-yard line (he made another shoestring, touchdown-saving tackle later.) UK would not be able to punch the ball into the end zone from there. On the 66-yard run, Arnold Tarpley chased Williams down from behind. Stephen Weatherly and Darreon Herring turned in goal-line shut-downs, while defender Torren McGaster tipped a Kentucky pass to safety Oren Burks for an INT and another red zone stop. Adam Butler plugged the line of scrimmage when it mattered most and Zach Cunningham turned in another double-digit tackle night. Coming into this season, few gave the Commodore defense much respect – as the campaign winds down, it is likely that Cunningham, Weatherly, McGaster and Adam Butler will receive some kind of SEC recognition.
The Wildcats also did the Vandy defense the favor of revealing a flaw – our edge rushes left the middle vulnerable to QB draws all day. If A&M’s fleet qb Kyler Murray plays Saturday – the Aggies’ QB situation remains unresolved – that weakness needs to be fixed. Certainly, the following weekend -if we hope to contain Tennessee qb Josh Dobbs - resolving that glitch will be essential. The defense had some mix-ups versus Kentucky – but it also scored the pivotal swing score on Oren Burks’ pick-six. Along the way, Burks became the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Week.
On offense, we mixed in some wildcat, a bit of misdirection and even play action. All were steps in the right direction. But there were some flies in the ointment. A 40-yard wildcat run was erased on a peripheral holding call. An early jet sweep out of the wildcat ran to the side where QB Kyle Shurmur was the key blocker (why?). But there was enough mystery to keep the Wildcats at bay – at least in the first half when Vanderbilt scored all of its points.
The play action first-and-goal TD pass from Shurmur to Anderton was a perfectly executed red zone call. The “Sneaky Pete” TD toss to Caleb Scott was a rare glimpse of brazen deception by the offense – it caught the Wildcats without pants. Several offensive players made big strides in this game – qb Kyle Shurmur chief among them. Shurmur seemed in command throughout and made good reads all day, even as Kentucky brought more pressure in the second half and abandoned zone coverage. Scott made a beautiful over the shoulder grab to go with his trick-play TD. Ralph Webb gained 98 yards in the second half alone. Dallas Rivers had a fine running day, too.
In the first half, much like versus South Carolina and Missouri, we opened the playbook a bit and it worked. In fact, we scored our first opening quarter touchdown since last year’s Florida game. Just the same, we did stiffen into conservatism in the second half. The "run, run, pass" motif led to four straight failed second half drives as we let the defense hang on for dear life. We won in the end – but it seemed that we stopped ourselves a bit here, too. Special praise goes to the o-line which offered up its best protection of the year. Of course, keeping Kentucky away from the pocket is not the same as trying to handle Florida. Still, the protection was very good and Shurmur flourished behind it. He had time to throw deep and showed he could do it – which kept the Kentucky defenders honest on the shorter patterns.
Special teams continue to haunt. UK was close to busting the opening kick-off for a TD. Coverage got better as the game progressed – but our own returners lost several balls, one setting UK up on a first and goal before McGaster’s heroics. We did block a punt – and almost got to another. Coverage is a major concern, however, as Vandy faces frightening Aggie return man Cristian Kirk this week.
A&M has been enigmatic this season. At 7-3, 3-3, the Aggies are a poster child for the tough SEC West. There just are not enough wins to go around – and some excellent teams have fallen prey to this dilemma. A&M is one of them – and malaise has, at times, seemed to set in. There is a qb controversy in full force – but both Kyler Murray (more mobile) and Kyle Allen (more experienced) are good options. A&M’s stable of dangerous receivers - including Kirk, Josh Reynolds, Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil - cause defensive coordinators heartburn.
On defense, A&M has been extremely good against the pass – but is challenged versus the run. Last season in an LSU-Wisconsin, Chavis-Ludwig coordinator match-up, Chavis seemed quite content to stuff the box and force Ludwig to prove his squad could throw. This could be very interesting – because Vandy can throw, but we have problems with the type of pressure Chaves tends to bring. Trent Sherfield and Darrius Sims may get the chance to bust a slant.
A&M has yet to score a TD outside of Texas this year. Their offense effectively was shut-down in their one true road game so far – a 23-3 drubbing in Oxford. But never doubt that A&M is a very talented opponent. Unless our offense figures out a way to break 20, expect enough big plays from A&M to spoil senior night. Pick: A&M 23, Vandy 10.
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Many of our SEC brethren play win-padding cupcakes this week Alabama should easily dispatch Charleston Southern. Pick: Bama 51-6. Auburn will continue its hot streak while hosting Idaho. Pick: Auburn 52-14. Kentucky should record its fifth win versus Charlotte. Pick: UK 45-17. South Carolina will dispatch The Citadel. Pick: Carolina 47-10. Florida has sown up the East and tunes up for FSU with Florida Atlantic. Pick: Florida 31-16. When Georgia perused its schedule in August, it probably expected a cakewalk versus Georgia Southern – but this could be tougher than it appears. Pick: Georgia 37-24
The Conference games this week include several intriguing match-ups. Arkansas is fresh off wins versus LSU and Ole Miss. Much credit here goes to qb Brandon Allen who has suddenly awakened to give the Razorbacks a passing attack to complement the already dangerous rushing game. MSU is a solid opponent – but the post-Bama slump comes into play here for the Bulldogs. Pick: Arkansas 35-20.
Ole Miss is favored by 6 ½ over stumbling LSU. There is even talk that Les Miles – undefeated two weeks ago – is coaching for his job. Ole Miss at home is a tough assignment – and the Rebels are coming off a bye to boot. Just the same, I think LSU let Bama beat them a second time last week. With the hangover game behind them, expect LSU to deliver its best shot in Oxford. For LSU to win, qb Brandon Harris will need to take a bit of the pressure off Leonard Fournette. Ole Miss is allowing almost 250 passing yards per game. Pick: LSU 27-24.
Tennessee seemed to treat last week's North Texas game like a church social, subduing the 1-9 Mean Green 24-0. The Vols are much better than Missouri, but they face a team that is perilously close to righting the ship. This will be Missouri Coach Gary Pinkel's last home game – and Mizzou needs the win for bowl-eligibility. Mizzou's rugged d-line and blitz capabilities make this a dangerous match-up for the Vols this particular week-end. But Mizzou will need to score in the 20's to have any chance to win – and the Tigers have only done that once in an SEC game all season. Pick: UT 31-16.
The A&M match-up looked like a prayer in early September – but suddenly it seems like a game in which we are genuinely expected to compete by Vegas. Our chances improve mightily if we can manage to win the turnover battle - and our defense has been forcing turnovers in droves lately. Vegas lists the 7-3 Aggies as only 6 ½ point favorites - and their only road performance this year should plant at least a seed of concern. If we can keep the game close early – that doubt may start to grow. If Kevin Sumlin trots out the heralded freshman qb, Murray, Coach Mason's penchant for crossing up rookies will also be in play. It would sure be nice to send our departing seniors out with a win in their last home game.