I have been in sports isolation, instead choosing to immerse myself in politics, news, and (believe it or not) work. Until today I have not had the stomach to read the newspaper articles. I have not listened to sports talk radio since last Thursday. I have mostly avoided the public VandyMania boards. Simply put, that was a hard one to take. It was a bitter pill to swallow for all VU fans, but especially us locals. Now that I have reemerged back into the sports world, here are my observations and opinions on the events of last Thursday.
Deja Vu: It was uncannily similar. Vandy is opening the season with an evening game against a non-conference opponent we are supposed to beat. Our opponent features an impressive offense, but serious deficiencies on the other side of the ball. Vandy is without two key players. Hope is running high. These are the parallels between the 2000 opener against the Miami Redskin/hawks and 2001's first game against the MTSU Blue Raiders. If these similarities weren't enough, we also had a strong, but brief, rain shower move through approximately one half hour before kickoff for both events. The only difference was this year two rainbows appeared immediately afterward. Unfortunately, the rain, not the rainbows, was an omen of things to come. The parallels did not stop at the pregame weather patterns or the anticipated match-ups. Just as the Miami game, Vanderbilt's defense played soft, failing to make the proper adjustments to stop a relentless short passing and running game. Meanwhile, the offense was as effective as billed, but made too many mistakes to compensate for the defensive shortcomings. The final similarity is a team and fanbase left looking for answers. With apologies to Yogi Berra, does it ever feel like deja vu all over again.
Post Game Roster Thoughts: A lot of the talk around town centered around MTSU's talent level versus Vanderbilt's talent level. Folks wondered if the talent of a mid-major team with a winning record could compare with that of a SEC with a losing record. In my pregame analysis I stated that Vanderbilt had an edge in talent and skill at four positions (QB, OL, DL, and DB), while I thought MTSU had and edge in two (RB & Special) and two positions were even (LB and WR). After the seeing the players go head to head I think no differently about the talent evaluations. Here's how I thought it shook out:
|Quarterback||Vanderbilt||Zolman was superb, and showed that he has mastered a wider variety of throws and skills than Counts. Counts racked up big numbers, but was not forced to stretch his abilities. Zolman's night could have been even bigger with some more help from his receivers.|
|Running Backs||MTSU||This gap is closer than I originally believed, as Lew Thomas had a very fine outing for only 7 carries (10.1 ypc). However, Hicks' numbers and power cannot be denied. He is a workhorse in the truest sense, though he lacks breakaway speed. He brings to mind Rudi Johnson.|
|Wide Receivers||Even||MTSU's receivers caught most everything (I counted just 2 drops), and they made tacklers miss. The scheme made it difficult to assess their true level of skill, as most of the passes were of the same variety. VU's receivers, despite the drops, had a decent game. They showed big play ability against MTSU's defense. They were making tougher catches, but also dropping passes. The passing games basically equaled out due to MTSU consistency and VU big plays.|
|Offensive Line||Vanderbilt||Our OL was superb, not allowing a sack while allowing the runners to pile up a 7.1 yards per carry average. Due to the scheme, MTSU's line was not asked to hold back the rush for long periods. When they did, VU was able to get some pressure and a couple of sacks. MTSU did an adequate job run blocking.|
|Defensive Line||Vanderbilt||The defensive line was more effective than MTSU's at run stopping, pass rushing, and maintaining containment. MTSU's line was a total non-factor in the game, but VU's was certainly not dominating. They were just good enough to top MTSU's line.|
|Linebackers||Even||Both groups were equally bad. Neither did a good job at stopping runners or doing the job in pass coverage. MTSU's LB's did tackle more consistently, but VU's were able to get a couple of sacks.|
|Secondary||Vanderbilt||While the MTSU offense passed for over 300 yards, VU DB's only allowed about 11 yards per catch. MTSU's allowed a more than 23 yards per catch average and 2 touchdowns.|
|Special Teams||MTSU||Both squads had significant foul-ups. MTSU fielded a kickoff out of bounds, and missed a short field goal. VU managed to top the short miss by failing to even get a potential FG in the air. VU was also inconsistent in kickoff returns. Returnable kicks went for returns as low as 15 yards and as high as 34. The failure to get the FG off, is the difference.|
|Intangibles||MTSU||This is where MTSU really won the game. MTSU had them in spades and VU was in short supply. MTSU's fans were much more vocal from the beginning of the game, but the team appeared to be even-keeled until the end.|
How'd it Happen?: So if VU had the overall talent edge, how did they lose to a Sun Belt team at home? Here are my thoughts in order of priority:
1) Lack of Defensive Adjustments Vanderbilt allowed MTSU to do the same things the entire game. Everything that worked in the first half for MTSU offensively continued to be successful the entire game. The knock on Counts is arm strength. Soft coverages allowed for quick hitting passes that were virtually non-defensible for the VU DB's asked to play that style. This strategy exposed poor tackling, and ultimately allowed MTSU's receivers easy catches, plentiful first downs, and enabled them to maintain a game-long rhythm. This made defending a tough runner like Hicks even more difficult. MTSU never had to attempt to beat us down field, and that did not allow us to apply pressure to Counts or to expose his weakness. The lack of adjustments was the major factor behind MTSU's nearly forty minutes of possession and an astounding 88 offensive plays.
2) Poor Tackling Difficulty tackling Hicks is somewhat understandable at times, but the total inability to tackle Hicks and receivers on the first hit was suicide in our defensive gameplan. The coaching staff calculated approximately 25 missed tackles, almost one third of MTSU's total plays. This additional yardage allowed drives to continue, and kept the defense on its heels.
3) Dropped Passes Just as poor tackling allowed MTSU drives to continue, dropped passes spelled the end to at least 4 Vanderbilt drives. On at least four occasions a third down pass of sufficient length to continue the drive was dropped. This does not even account for drops earlier in possessions, that eventually led to stalling drives. The offense got everything they wanted in terms of the ability to run and get passes to open receivers. Had we caught catchable passes, MTSU would not have been able to stop the offense.
4) Penalties Vanderbilt has been one of the least penalized teams in the SEC over the past two seasons, but you would not have known it last Thursday night. Vanderbilt committed 11 penalties for 83 yards. However, the timing of the penalties was even more damaging. Six, more than half, of those penalties resulted in MTSU first downs. Two of the resulted in a renewed set of downs inside the red zone, while another (whatever you may think about the call) bailed MTSU out of a 3rd and 30 deep in their own territory. None of MTSU's 9 penalties resulted in a VU first down.
What Went Right: Yes, even losses as tough as this one have some bright spots.
1) Zolman Progresses Zolman is demonstrated the value of being a fifth year quarterback and a starter for most of his career. While his completion percentage (41%) was not impressive, that number was skewed by nine dropped passes. He could have conceivably been close to 70%. He showed tremendous accuracy on all of his throws, including the deep pass, which had been a weakness. His decision-making was superb as well. I can only recall a couple of plays where an obvious receiver was missed or a poor decision to throw was made. He showed tremendous poise and intelligence. If Zolman can continue to perform like this in SEC play, he could contend for All-SEC honors.
2) Big Plays Three of the four touchdowns were of the big play variety (20+ yards). Lew Thomas broke a 26 yard touchdown run. Dan Stricker and M.J. Garrett each hauled in long touchdown receptions of 48 and 73 yards respectively. Garrett also added a 40 yard reception.
3) No Turnovers Vanderbilt fumbled twice, but recovered both. Zolman almost suffered an interception on the last play of the game, a meaningless long throw (except for statistics). The interception was dropped.