Ole Miss-Vandy: Six plays that made the difference

Ole Miss and Vanderbilt battled for over three hours on Saturday with Vanderbilt coming away the victor. VandyMania's Hal Peiser breaks down six selected Commodore offensive plays during the game, and opines on what went right and what went wrong during the action.

Since Vanderbilt isn't playing a Division I-A team this weekend, I cannot give an official pick on the game. My unofficial look at the statistics and comparative scores has Vandy favored by 31 points with an unofficial predicted score of 48-17.

Let's take a look back at last week's game. After getting a chance to see the tape of the game, I saw several plays that I could dissect. The television directors like to vary what they show rather than show what someone trying to scout the game would see. Several times, I could not see where our receivers went after the snap. Other times, I could not see the numbers of the key players. Yet, other times, I could not see how the Rebel defense aligned exactly.

With those limitations, I have chosen six plays to show what happened. The first three did not succeed, while the last three worked as planned.

Let's take a look at these six diagrammed plays. Refer to the number of each diagram.

(1.) The situation was 1st & 10 at the Vandy 20. The opening offensive play was this simple tailback iso play. It lost one yard. Ryan King, Chris Williams, Trey Holloway, and Josh Eames carried out their assignment to near perfection, with Holloway scraping off the double-team block to push away the weak-side linebacker. Dustin Dunning gained an advantageous angle for his block and pushed the strong linebacker away from the point of attack. Zach Logan held up the middle linebacker. Jay Cutler handed to Jeff Jennings, who had a developing hole that would have allowed him to get five yards or so. One missed assignment, by our best offensive lineman Brian Stamper, allowed a crashing defensive end to stop the play for a loss. Upstairs in the booth, our coaches probably took note of the crashing DE. It would be exploited later in the game.

(2.) The situation was 1st & 10 at the Vandy 30. The offense aligned in this shotgun spread formation with flexed ends and trips to the right. The inside slot receiver went into motion, and Ole Miss reacted by widening their cornerback out with the motion man; this revealed to Cutler that the Rebels were playing zone coverage. The alignment revealed a double zone more than likely (known as 2-deep and 5-underneath or Cover 2 by many teams). That gave Cutler some pre-snap ideas about which seams in the zone might be open. On the snap, Ole Miss executed a defensive line slant to their right. Our offensive line picked this up and handled it with no problem, giving Cutler time to pass.

The motion man (my tape was not crisp enough to see the number) ran a slant inside into the seam. Cutler threw a sharp pass toward the hook zone, but it was covered by the linebacker. The pass was incomplete. What the conference's top QB failed to see was the wide open receiver on the opposite side. The two wide outs ran streak patterns deep, taking the cornerback, safety, and outside linebacker well back off the line. Our single back in that formation, Cassen Jackson-Garrison, ran a flare route and found himself wide open in the flat. A pass to him would have given Jackson-Garrison a good 10-15 yards of running before crossing the path of a Rebel defender. With decent downfield blocking, it could have been a long-gainer.

(3.) The situation was 2nd & 10 at the Vandy 30. This was either a determined keeper by Cutler or a read play where Cutler could have given the ball to the back or could have kept it based on what the defensive end did. Dunning released and occupied the safeties. Stamper cut off the defensive end and took him well away from the point of attack. Eames and Holloway doubled on the defensive tackle, eliminating him from the play. Williams handled the defensive tackle aligned over him. King had the assignment of pulling and leading Cutler through the hole, taking out the linebacker. The block didn't materialize, and Cutler was stopped for one yard. A successful block would have sprung Cutler into the secondary, where he more than likely would have picked up the first down and then some.

(4.) The situation was 3rd & 9 at the Vandy 31. Ole Miss is now in a nickel package, with three down linemen and three linebackers. On the snap, the three linebackers blitzed (a red dog in old football terminology). Jennings and King picked up the blitzing inside linebacker, who could have ruined the play if he had recovered. The other two linebackers removed themselves from the play and were of no consequence. Williams took the defensive end inside, leaving a nice hole for Cutler to run inside King for 14 yards. The play-side blocking was magnificent, and Cutler cut exactly where he needed to for maximum gain.

(5.) The situation was 1st & 10 at the Ole Miss 40. Earl Bennett went into motion and took a handoff on a reverse. Cutler faked to the lone back, who drew the tackles and linebackers inside for a brief moment. That was all that was needed. Erik Davis personally took care of the two perimeter defenders on this play. He suckered the cornerback inside where he could not reach Bennett, and then he walled off the linebacker, allowing Bennett to race by for 12 yards.

(6.) The situation was 1st & 10 at the Ole Miss 24. This little seven-yard gain on a typical off-tackle power play set the stage for the rest of the day. Ole Miss gambled with an inside pinch, and Jackson-Garrison ran into the secondary. The fact that the Rebels thought they had to gamble just 24 yards from their goal line revealed the coaches didn't believe they could stop Vandy playing straight up. This play could have gone the distance if King's block against the outside linebacker had prevented the defender from reaching in at the last minute. Kudos must go to Williams and Holloway for picking up the slanting defenders and preventing them from penetrating into the backfield. As an aside, figuring the Rebels wouldn't slant inside again for several plays, Offensive Coach Ted Cain called for consecutive inside runs that punished the Rebels and led to a touchdown.

After this play, there was no doubting that Vanderbilt held the upper hand. The Rebels came back in the second half at a time when our starters were showing signs of fatigue. If it had been any warmer last week, that fatigue could have been the deciding factor in a loss.

I am impressed with the overall improvement with our interior line. Even with the losses of Brian Kovolisky and Justin Geisinger, this line looks quicker and more effective. Having a new offensive philosophy that spreads defenses both horizontally and vertically, this places even more emphasis on offensive line quickness. They deserve a lot of the credit for making this year's offense go.

Give Cutler his due. While his arm is responsible for about two or three extra passes per game being completed, the effect on opposing defenses is much more. Linebackers have to hesitate not sure whether to stay in their pass zones or prepare to stop his scrambling.

Credit both Cutler and our wide receivers for making the running game work better. Cutler hit a double-covered White for a 17-yard gain on 3rd & long. He threaded the needle on a finesse throw to Dunning. He delivered the ball to Davis through five Rebels for a 14-yard completion. Seven men had to concentrate on stopping the pass, leaving our blockers with a 5-4 advantage in the box.

Can Vanderbilt continue to surrender 400 total yards a week and win ball games? There is precedent for this success. Most of the time when a team has won most of their games while giving up 400+ total yards per game, they had a future NFL quarterback leading their offense to 450+ yards and 30+ points per game.

For example, look at Boston College in 1984 with Doug Flutie piloting the Eagles. BC's defense surrendered well more than four yards per rush and more than 200 rushing yards per game. They gave up close to 200 yards passing per game and 25 points per game. They went 10-2 including a Cotton Bowl win because they averaged more than 300 passing yards per game while rushing for about 4.7 yards per play and scoring 37 points per game.

In both of Vanderbilt's most recent bowl seasons, top-rated offenses outscored opponents. The 1974 team set several Commodore records for total yardage and averaged 28 points per game in the regular season. The 1982 team set multiple SEC passing yardage marks. While the defense gave up a lot of yards (not being able to stop to many opponents' rushing games), the takeaway/giveaway ratio was tops in the league.

Watching the success of our offensive line reminds me of a great story told by legendary Nashville Banner sportswriter Fred Russell. In one of his classic humor books, Funny Things About Sports, Russell wrote about a football practice lecture at the University of Iowa. Then coach, Dr. Eddie Anderson, gave his tackles a lecture on the importance of their positions. "Most games are decided at the tackles," he proclaimed, then went on to tell why. In the midst of the lecture, Anderson fixed his eye on an inattentive athlete and asked: "Jim, where are the most games lost?"

Came the reply: "Right here at Iowa, Coach."

That story reminds me of something else that may remind Vandy fans of another school. Dr. Anderson's first team at Iowa in 1939 went 6-1-1 with Heisman Trophy winner Nile Kinnick leading the way. The surprising Hawkeyes were picked at the bottom of the Western Conference (not known as the Big 10 until 1953) after going 1-6-1 and 1-7-0 the previous two years. Those two teams played several close games losing to teams because they didn't have enough depth. 1939 turned out to be a miracle season, as all the close games went in favor of the Hawkeyes. They edged Indiana by three. Wisconsin went down by six. Two safeties beat Purdue 4-0. Then came a big upset over Notre Dame 7-6. Minnesota, who would win the national title in 1940 and 1941, was defeated 13-9.

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