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Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: Stanford 2021




The Commodores faced Stanford. The game was tied at 14 and Stanford hit an FG 1:53 to play until halftime. When the Vanderbilt attack took the field, many fans must have felt unexpectedly hopeful. Stanford had just thrashed mighty USC so hard that Clay Helton had 2 games in his 7 . shote season. Now, after a last-minute win over Colorado State and a 20-point loss to ETSU, the Commodores looked to either tie the game or take the lead en route to halftime before kicking off the second half.

Rather than take the opportunity, Ken Seals threw an interception. Then the defense allowed a TD on 2 plays. The offense came back and went 3-and-out fast enough that a 48-yard punt return combined with a penalty for an illegal formation allowed Stanford to cross 3 more runs at the end of the half. Stanford’s lead had gone from 17-14 to 27-14 and there was never really any doubt about the game in the second half.

This game represented the last time for probably 4 weeks that Vanderbilt fans can learn too much unless it’s extremely positive or catastrophically bad. Georgia and Florida appear to be national title contenders, especially with the Gators losing only 2 to Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The best we can do in those games is look for individuals who do things very well or very badly, unless of course the extremely positive scenario kicks in and both games are competitive at all. Between the two, UConn is, according to Bill Connellys SP+, the 2nd worst team ever. So if we don’t do to them what Georgia does to us, we’re in for a catastrophic situation.

Lessons we know well

It might be an overreaction, but I’m going to lower the certainty on the offensive line as they may be improved. Nothing is more striking than being set in stone. This section is empty for now.

Lessons we learn

That said, the offensive line did surprisingly well. We were told Stanford’s defense line was suspect, but they’re still better than the Colorado State or ETSU up front. The Vanderbilts offensive line delivered by far the best performance of the season. The Cardinal only managed 3 TFLs, including a 9-yard bag of seals. Seals was also rushed 4 times. An allowable sack percentage of just 2.6% would be fantastic IF they did that every week. Press speeds are not readily available, but Seals was only credited with being pressurized on 13% of the dropbacks. If they can remotely replicate this feat against Georgia, that would be huge cause for optimism. The concern is that the sack came after a play where Tyler Steen completely ignored the defensive end on his side while doubling down on a move that was a deep shot. As you can guess, the DE has been unloaded on seals.

A major factor in slowing down the pass rush was the use of the read option and some RPOs. I intend to explain the huge difference in those two concepts that some Vanderbilt fans don’t seem to be able to distinguish. Until then, you should know that RPOs don’t mean using Ken Seals as a pending threat, real or imaginary. However, the threat of a run or pass can help deter linebackers and defensive backs from ramping up run support. Meanwhile, the read option (or play designed to look like a read option) works to freeze defensive targets and outside linebackers. Of Griffin and Davis’ big runs, at least 2 were on read option or imitated read option where the DE froze. Basically, it turns Seals into a blocker when the DE/OLB crashes. Oh, and Seals had carrys for 8 and 11. One was on a roll-out scramble, but the other was a punishing, aggressive keep. I love it even if you always cringe with every impact on your starting QB.

Defensively, Vanderbilt is just trying to get the simple things right. They put some pressure, but haven’t had much success getting to the QBs, even though the defensive line has had several passes tipped or knocked down. The problem at the moment is mainly to allow explosive play. At review, none of the allowed big games were situations where the defense had completely imploded. Instead, a man misses his assignment, leaving just enough room for a long run. Up to that point, Stanford’s top 4 rushers had their longest carry accounts for 69%, 53%, 41% and 76% of their total distance. The defense also gets better as the games come into the second half. Colorado State was held to less than 70 yards of offense in the second half for their 50ish yard scoring drive to tie the game. Stanford divided their yardage at 248 and 174. It is promising that they can adapt. The hope is that they can grow in the schedule and game plans to come out strong as well.

Lessons for further study

When/will Ken Seals and the passing game find any consistency? They found moments against both Colorado State and Stanford. The problem is rolling success from one drive to another. Seals was 16/37 for a paltry 120 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT. The interception was the turning point in the game and his play. Until then, 18-9 for 78 yards. No, those numbers aren’t that impressive, but three of the omissions were bad drops. One was a jump ball for Pierce that was thrown well and defended well. He also had a perfect pass under pressure to Devin Boddie Jr for the second Commodore TD. To reach his peak, Seals must go his own way. He has shown a tendency to get upset, which didn’t seem to be the case last season. Tomorrow will be a daunting test of his mental state. Even if he plays spectacularly, the Georgia defense will hold us back a lot and force him to make mistakes just because of how good they are. If he can roll with the punches and keep fighting, that will be a big step forward.

Is Rocko Griffin ready for the feature to be back? The loss of ReMahn Davis was a blow the Commodores didn’t need in a thin position. Rocko was great against Stanford after stepping in as the main ball carrier. He contributed 19 times for 107 yards. He lost yardage twice for 4 yards total. Griffin surprised me a bit with his big 36-meter carry because I didn’t think he had the speed for that type of run. He reminds me athletically of Zac Stacy. Both backs are rugged runners who do their best to find seams to avoid direct hits and falling forward. Neither has elite speed, but they love the open field and can make some serious yards. Until that point, Twitter account SEC StatCat has Rocko as 4e in the SEC in Yards After Contact Average at 4.39. Incredibly, only 7.52% of his yards are won BEFORE contact. Griffin gains 92.48% of his yardage AFTER a defender catches him. He will have to be that strong or stronger from contact with the Bulldogs.

How will Patrick Smith and James Ziglor III fare in bigger roles? Smith has had just 4 runs for 17 yards and 1 run for 4 yards this season against Stanford. Ziglor saw his first rush attempts last Saturday, lugging the rock twice 8 yards. Smith is probably the new #2, so his role will increase significantly. Getting your first big action against Georgia will be a trial by fire. Whoever has the ball should just take what he can get and not try too much. Consistent short wins will be more useful (and likely) than trying to hit home runs, especially by bouncing out.

Can the special teams please get it together? Harrison Smith didn’t get his usual hangtime, and the coverage did poorly to curb Stanford returnees. The kick-off is meaningless unless Pierson Cooke is injured. He is a guaranteed touchback. Bulovas was not. There’s no reason to get tricks at kick-off. We don’t have the athlete depth in our units of coverage to turn the risk-reward equation in our favor. Bulovas should have the leg to force a touchback every time. If he gives the returnees from Georgia a chance, they’ll set us on fire. I was also confused by how short the Bulovass 52-yard FG attempt was. I don’t remember the wind being that strong, and it has a mark of 53. The audio and video of the broadcast made it sound and it looked like it got too far under the ball, but I’m no expert at kicking of elongated balls.

Has this team grown mentally stronger since ETSU? i know the 2nd half against Stanford was not impressive, but the defense held up very strong. The offense just sputtered. They never seemed trampled or stunned like the opener. They just couldn’t perform. Yes, I said Seals struggled with confidence, but that’s significantly different from shell shock against an FCS foe. Neither he nor his teammates lost their composure. Georgia is probably going to test that mental determination. Pushing back strongly (no dirty stuff or fighting) and grinding to the finish will bode well for Clark Leas’ culture-building.

What will Mike Wright’s role be? It’s been a question every week, but the answer keeps changing in such a way that nothing can be pinned down. He played full series against ETSU and then did not appear in Colorado State due to injury. Against Stanford, Wright’s lone outing led the final stage of the game. Vanderbilts’ offense lit up Stanfords’ backups and scored an impressive TD. Pump the brakes though. Wright should have been picked in the game before the TD, and the TD throw was one that gets picked more often than not. Dropping the ball over the center against your roll is a recipe for disaster. It worked due to a complete coverage failure. Vanderbilt has to use Wright, but it’s a pain to put in a second QB if the first one doesn’t come on schedule. Then, on the few rides where the violation IS is rolling, there’s no need to risk disrupting it. If Seals can find his consistency, it becomes easier and more comfortable to use the weapon that Wright’s athletic ability can be.

This game is important not for the scoreboard or the stats, but because it will test the team in every way. Nothing will be easy. Even with backups in play, Georgia will still be rolling out elite talent. The Commodores, individually and collectively, must show their full mental and physical growth. For the fans who will be there, be loud. We know the likely result. The players are going to do their best, so we give them the best of ourselves.




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