Here are three observations, two questions and one prediction following Vanderbilt's 14-7 victory over Kansas State.
1. The secondary won the Kansas State game.
I was unable to watch Saturday’s game from the stadium due to a family wedding in Denver, and I always lose some powers of observation when you can’t watch live. One was the ability to watch pass coverage where the TV frame cuts off. Had I a flux capacitor and a little plutonium, I’d go back in time to Dudley Field and watch JoeJuan Williams, Tre Herndon, Ryan White, Arnold Tarpley and LaDarius Wiley from the press box with binoculars and see exactly how they managed to blanket Kansas State receivers.
But those things are expensive and not in the VandySports budget this year. But Kansas State quarterback Jesse Ertz is a smart quarterback who’s had plenty of success. And when I watched Ertz evading pass rushers and scrambling in the backfield after four, five, maybe six seconds, scanning the field with his eyes, and he still wasn’t throwing the ball after that, it told me most of what I needed to know.
At season’s beginning, I felt this bunch was a group of solid guys, with Williams and White having potential to show up on some post-season All-Southeastern Conference teams, albeit maybe of the second- and third-team variety. Both deserve that at a minimum right now. Wiley, who really came on the second half of last year, was just named the SEC’s co-Defensive Player of the Week. Herndon has been excellent, and Tarpley has also.
Ertz finished 10-of-28 for 76 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions on Saturday. Nobody in their right mind expected those numbers.
This is a secondary that’s playing at an elite level right now, and one that’s been exceptionally well-coached by Derek Mason, too.
2. Unless there's a specific circumstance that calls for it, the rugby punt needs to be put on the shelf for now.
I wrote of Vanderbilt's statistical woes in last week’s notebook. They were a footnote at the time; I hadn’t thought anything about them until I noticed how far Vanderbilt lagged behind even the No. 13 team in the SEC’s punting rankings.
And as I processed that, I saw no reason to worry. Some of those numbers were held down by field position, Sam Loy’s a competent punter, and it was a two-game sample size.
Saturday was time to worry. As I watched the game in the fourth quarter, I kept thinking one thing: Kansas State can’t move the ball, and isn’t going to win this game unless Vanderbilt provides a crack of opportunity. Every time the Commodores punted, I wondered if VU was about to leave the door open.
The biggest benefit of the rugby punt is to limit returns at the expense of gross yardage. Right now, the gross yardage totals are awful, and VU is giving up long returns; MTSU’s Richie James had one in Week 1, and K-State’s D.J. Reed had a touchdown called back on a blatantly-obvious block in the back that frankly, I’m not convinced affected the play.
If the Commodores can work out the kinks here and there during the season, then great, bring the rugby punt back in appropriate doses. I think Loy is capable of being an effective traditional punter, and if he’s not, Reed Nelson can suffice.
Sometimes, coaching staffs over-think things and get too cute for their own good. The constant rugby punts are starting to seem like one of those situations, and that’s not the kind of ticking time bomb you want with Alabama coming to town.
3. Derek Mason and this team are a brand that Vanderbilt should heavily promote.
At halftime, this was not a game I felt Vanderbilt was going to win. Ertz had been a containment nightmare, Vandy’s running game was getting nothing done. On the other sideline sat Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, a Hall of Fame coach who knows a thing or two about winning games like this. If the Commodores were going to win, they needed some margin for error already, and with the score tied, it didn’t look good.
And then I started thinking about all the games Mason’s won over the last year where things didn’t look so hot.
There was the game at Western Kentucky where Vanderbilt couldn’t get a receiver open for three quarters, but hung in there until quarterback Kyle Shurmur found a way to drive 80 yards in the last two minutes of regulation and tie the game, where the defense helped win it in overtime.
There was the Georgia game last year where the offense was non-existent, but Darrius Sims and Zach Cunningham were superb enough to help VU win a nail-biter against a better team on the road.
There was the Ole Miss game last season, after the Rebels has just won at Texas A&M, then, jumped on Vandy early in the first quarter. Vanderbilt whipped the Rebels so badly from that point on that I bet most of you reading this forgot the game began that way.
Then, there was the Tennessee contest last season, where the Vols also jumped on VU early. The defense couldn’t seem to get a stop, but Shurmur showed out through the air for the second-straight week and the running game bludgeoned the Vols in the fourth quarter.
Suddenly things didn’t seem as dim for Vanderbilt—and guess what, they weren’t.
Mason has used the “relentless-toughness-intelligence” mantra for a couple of years now. If there are three better words to describe how this team plays, I’m not sure what they’d be.
Mason the man is unique also. There’s one part Defensive Rain-man, another part, the intense motivator who does it without the drill-sergeant caustic-ness, and the other, the likable, almost Andy Griffith-like authenticity and approachability that ties it all together and draws people to him.
A former VU assistant once told me that you get the pay-off from a good season two signing classes later. Mason got that bounce after 2016’s strong finish; the 2018 class has, by VU standards, terrific rankings and is filled with kids who fit Mason’s system both on and off the field. I would be surprised if, five years from now, it hasn't over-perform expectations.
And going forward, think of the bounce that VU could get from, say, a trip to Atlanta?
Nashville is a town that’s always a half-step away from a great sports cause. The tidal wave of support behind the Predators’ playoff run was the talk of the NHL last year. The amount of gear you saw in and around town during the James Franklin years, as well as the phenomenal turnout at dilapidated Legion Field for a bowl game that VU fans didn’t want, were things that screamed just how much support was out there for the taking.
The ensuing 2014 season, along with the other behind-the-scenes stuff that led to the current on-or-off-campus-stadium debacle, took all that away. But the crowd at VU on Thursday, even if there was a heavy purple presence, was by all accounts loud and passionate, is a reminder that those days perhaps aren’t that far gone.
Vanderbilt blew it in every conceivable fashion on the heels of the Franklin success. What’s markedly different this time is that it has a coach who buys in to everything that the school calls he and his players to be.
And Maosn's brand—the blue-collar work ethic complete with the work shirts and the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches—resonate with a portion of the fan base that never fully embraced Franklin because they sensed that there was at least something of a phony deep down.
Barring injury to Shurmur or some unforeseen disaster, the Commodores sure look like a team heading for a historic year. This is the perfect time to promote an off-the-charts likable coach and kids who represent the school perfectly. Instead of tackling everything with the K-Mart-like-cheapness that’s marked the school’s efforts since Franklin left, it’s time for Vanderbilt to devote some resources to marketing a team and especially a coach who will do nothing but better its public image.
1. What does it take to jump-start the run game?
Fans are rightfully excited about where the season may be headed, and rightfully so.
But answer this question: what would the upside for this team be if VU could just cobble together a semi-respectable running attack, something just in the ballpark of what we expected before the season began?
I don’t pretend do know all the issues behind the running game, but I know one thing: teams get consistent penetration between the tackles on almost every single running snap. And, while I hate to say it out loud, some have questioned whether some of Ralph Webb’s carries might be better allocated to Khari Blasingame as well.
To the untrained eye, there’s a third element that’s magnifying all the issues, and that’s offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s dogged insistence that VU can run over its guards and center right now despite overwhelming evidence that it can’t.
What’s the answer? Well, I didn’t throw the question out there because I necessarily know the answers, but I would be insightful to know what Ludwig has against running outside the tackles, or perhaps mixing in the occasional screen pass. At this point, practically anything besides what’s been consistently tried has to at least be considered as a possible improvement.
2. What is this defense lacking?
Mason’s defenses have always been effective in keeping points off the board, but I thought this season might be the year the dam burst there. VU allowed too many yards a year ago, plus, lost two players in Adam Butler and Zach Cunningham who are now playing a lot in the NFL.
It was further concern to me that VU just couldn’t consistently force turnovers or get after the passer, and I didn’t see obvious better answers there in our limited August viewing periods.
The Commodores have since taken the things they were great at consistently doing well—third-down and red-zone defense—and somehow gotten better. And in what was a shock to all of us who saw practice, they’re now not just passable, but genuinely looking elite, in their ability to get to the passer and create turnovers.
There was also the matter of whether this team would develop a star on defense. I’d say that Charles Wright and Williams are on the verge of superstardom, and a bunch of players—White, Emmanuel Smith and Nifae Lealao, at a minimum, are just below.
But what about a guy you can pick on? Could defenses sense something there—maybe throw away from Williams and towards Herndon—and pound away at that until Vanderbilt could stop it? Through three games, other than the mobile quarterback issue (which Vandy stopped in the second half) you haven’t seen a team able to really successfully attack this defense any one way with any real success.
This might sound like hyperbole, but I can't find the one thing that's lacking here. Perhaps Alabama will expose it this week, or maybe it's all for real.
And if you don't believe me, check out the stat sheet. The Commodores rank first of the nation's 130 FBS teams in scoring defense (4.3) and total defense (198.3).
This could be the biggest weekend in Vanderbilt sports history.
I'm not predicting a win over Alabama, but it's not as impossible as it once seemed. Yes, the Commodores are 19-point underdogs, but, given that Vanderbilt has given up just 13 points in three entire games, there's an argument to be made that Alabama's been spotted too many points.
Supposing this is a close game in the 17-13 range, which it could well be, those games come down to a play or two. Given that the Commodores rarely turn the ball over, and that its defense is capable of forcing a miscue or two, and its easier to envision a "here's how" scenario.
And if you're going to get the Crimson Tide, it seems easier to do it earlier in the season--that's how Ole Mis did it, twice--than later, when coach Nick Saban has had time to work his magic and get what's often a young team to gain experience and gel.
Again, I'm not saying it's likely, but I am saying it's not impossible to see how. And if the Commodores pulled it off, it would be the biggest victory for Vnaderilb tit its entire football history.
They're also friends who've talked of playing together. Both seem to value the unique things that Vanderbilt seems to offer. And though it would be a dream scenario for Vanderbilt fans if the Commodores were to land both, that very script isn't a dream, it's a very real possibility.
The commitment of either Garland or Langford would be two of the biggest sports stories in recent VU history. The commitment of both would register a pretty big number on college basketball's Richter scale.
Note: If it happened, it probably wouldn't happen that way; I'd be surprised if either Garland or Langford committed on the spot. If either committed, it would probably be closer to National Signing Day. It's also possible that VU gets neither and loses to Alabama.
But I think it's better than likely that at least one of the three happens. Any one alone would be monumental for Vanderbilt, and if two or more happen, an entire nation of VU fans would wake up the next morning checking their computers to see if what just happened was something they dreamt in their sleep.