2020 Lessons in Vanderbilt Football: South Carolina

I really dropped the ball this week, so we are learning on Saturday morning. Vanderbilt does not play today due to COVID, so I had to make sure memories of South Carolina could ruin two weekends. Be warned that, like last week, this feels oddly like an attempt to ungunk the sunshine pump, there are real, logical reasons to think this game is not indicative of how good or not the Commodores are. Before you all stop reading, let’s get to what could be learned by a destruction by a middling SEC East opponent.

Note: Feel free to use this as today’s open thread since I guess we do not have a Saturday Tailgate.

Lessons We Know Well

Ken Seals is a very talented quarterback, but it is very difficult for a true freshman quarterback to be successful in the SEC. He has a great arm and knows how to run the offense. Seals does need to adjust how he handles pressure in the SEC versus in college. His reaction is sometimes to go horizontal or backwards. He is somewhat athletic, but the speed of defenders in this conference is much too high for him to be able to create time and space that way. I am sure that is one of the things Todd Fitch is working with Seals on with both today and next Saturday open. With that said, he was 17/24 for 148 yards and a TD. Seals avoided throwing an interception. However, sometimes it is time to a risk. The example of that was on the 4th down attempt from the SC 3. On a sprint out, Seals had either Amir Abdur-Rahman or Keyon Henry-Brooks as options. To be fair, Rahman stopped his route in the back of the end zone, but Seals needs to recognize that on 4th down he needs to fire the ball in there OR tuck it and lower a shoulder. He chose to keep running horizontal and was finally chased down. It is a learning process, and he is so talented and has shown so much maturity that no one’s confidence should be wavering.

Lessons We Are Learning

Amir Abdur-Rahman and Cam Johnson are forming an interesting tandem. Cam has 9 catches for 127 yards while Amir has 8 catches for 122 yards. They do it in different ways though. Johnson makes most of his catches on underneath or intermediate throws then makes plays with the ball in his hands. Abdur-Rahman is primarily a downfield threat who can make excellent plays over the defense. This was put on display with Amir making a 33-yard catch on a deep pass down the sideline that he just went up over a CB to pull from the sky. Johnson had 4 catches, all made 6 to 8 yards downfield, and turned one of them into a 22-yard TD with nifty moves after the catch.

They need another player to complement them on their presence on the outside. The man in the middle is going to be Ben Bresnahan. Bresnahan has already topped his reception total from last season with 11 as compared to 7. His 97 receiving yards are 8 short of his 2019 total. The most important factor has been his ability to make catches with contact. On 2 of his 5 catches, he got nailed right as he caught the ball and held on to both. His only “drop” was on a deep pass down the right side where he went full extension while twisting in the air and had the ball just graze off his fingertips. At 6’4” and 244 pounds, he is very athletic for his size and is more than willing to lay out and sacrifice his body to give Seals a reliable target over the middle and up the seam. He should be used on the same side as Amir Abdur-Rahman to put safeties in conflict or force defenses to roll coverage that way and open more space for Johnson for yards after the catch.

Weirdly, the sputtering offense seems to have plenty of options as evidenced by Keyon Henry-Brooks coming back and racking up 72 yards on 13 carries. He showed that his explosiveness is by far the best of the top 3 running backs, but he never quite got the crease he needed to get more than 17 yards. He only lost yards on one carry, but it was clearly a missed blocking assignment. Henry-Brooks also added 21 yards on 4 receptions. The dynamic element he brings means he and Marlow should be the main tandem when Marlow can return. They should each get 10-15 touches with Wakefield getting a small handful. I just hope Wakefield is not used as a pure bruiser because, while he does have the strength for it, being that predictable with a questionable offensive line will not be productive.

Defensively, Ted Roof is using a defense the is especially reliant on the play of his safeties. Watching, and especially re-watching, the game showed how massive the losses of Donovan Kaufman, Dashaun Jerkins, and Frank Coppet were to this game. Yes, it would have been nice to have Tae Daley and possibly Tre Douglas (though I think he probably was further down the depth chart) who transferred, but those players almost certainly chose to leave based on the depth chart and trying to convince them that hoping for injuries or a COVID outbreak within the team was a smart decision for them personally is laughable. I am not picking on true freshman Chase Lloyd because he likely has had only a couple of plays with the first team defense all fall. However, he missed his assignment on both the 25-yard and 88-yard TD runs by Kevin Harris. He also allowed a 29-yard reception by Nick Muse to convert 3rd and 6 on a drive that ended in a Collin Hill TD run to make the game 24-7. The coverage was just a bit slow to react then, caught out of position originally, he was juked while trying to make a play full tilt. They were mistakes that Kaufman or Jerkins almost certainly do not make or at least minimize. If the starting safety pairing is not cleared or ready to play on October 31st against Ole Miss, Roof may have to be a little less aggressive schematically to protect the inexperienced back end of his defense.

The defensive front had another good day for the most part. It is easy to look at the 289 yards rushing allowed and feel like the rush defense was bad. It certainly had some mistakes. The front did their job for most of the game though. As pointed out, runs of 88 and 25 yards were on the safety who schematically had the right design but made the wrong fit or recognition. South Carolina’s final TD was a 49-yard reverse with 2nd and 3rd options on the DL and only 5 starters on the field, all on the opposite side the play attacked. Young players were lulled to sleep by the big lead and not expecting a team to run a trick play up 34-7. Between those 3 plays, SC gained 162 yards on the ground which is 56% of their total. We saw this last year, but the big difference is that happened with your starters all available, not in a game where 3 DBs, including starting CB Randall Haynie with the two safeties, were missing due to the COVID testing on Thursday. Inexperienced players being thrust into rolls unexpectedly on 2 days’ notice, likely without practice as the contact tracing and further testing were ongoing, are going to make mistakes.

Back to the offense, the red zone is going to be a problem. Vanderbilt is 76th of the 76 FBS teams to have played a game in red zone scoring percentage. The offense has been inside the 20 8 times and has 0 rushing TDs, 2 passing TDs, and 1 FG made. The failed drives were 2 INTs, 2 missed FGs, and a failure on 4th down. Against SC, Vanderbilt failed on 4th down and missed a FG. Tom was so right in saying this team will be like 2015. At least, it has been to this point. Even with the 2 INTs, there is hope that Seals will learn from his mistakes and earn trust as the season goes on because the biggest issue against the Game Penises was a lack of attacking the end zone. Too many plays were run targeting players well short of the goal line and trying to get yards after the catch. The only two attempts to go to the end zone were a one-route fade to Chris Pierce that the WR never found to go up to catch and the 4th down sprint out. That play has been roundly criticized, yet sprint outs are a staple of many red zone offenses. That play failed on execution, not call, as discussed earlier in reference to Seals’s maturation. The other problem is Fitch trying to be unpredictable and tricky, but the tight space and blocking issues are causing those plays to get blown up by loose defenders. Of course, if he simplifies things, fans will want his head for being “predictable” no matter what is called.

Lessons for Further Study

How does the COVID outbreak play out? The Commodores do not play until October 31st when Ole Miss is slated to come to Nashville. Protocols vary at many junctures depending on how long players still test positive along with any further positive tests and contact tracing. It is very much up in the air. The hope is, obviously, that it was contained and no further issues come from it. If that is the case, there is a good chance that most of the players will be back since it would be 23 days from the first round of positives on Thursday until the Ole Miss game.

What changes come with essentially 3 weeks to prepare for the Rebel Bear Landsharks? Ken Seals is probably where most of us are looking since Fitch now has real game tape on him and can do a lot more with the extended break than with just the week of preparation between normal games. However, that reasoning stands for every player. With so many young/inexperienced players being major contributors on offense along with Fitch being new to the team this offseason, a lot of adjustments could be coming, especially with COVID having heavily impacted the summer workouts and fall camps.

Can someone learn to make a FG in the time off? Mason has repeatedly talked about Pierson Cooke’s leg strength, but the accuracy is the issue. Maybe Javan Rice does not have the distance to go much beyond 40. If that is the case, have Rice kicking the shorter FGs while Cooke takes any longer attempts where going for it is not feasible like a 4th and 15. Keep both engaged by having them alternate PATs. Or just accept that unless it is a prohibitively long conversion attempt it is four down territory once we cross the other team’s 45.

Extra Credit

Derek Mason got a lot of heat for saying this game was just “a couple of plays” from being much better. The go-to remark is something about a 34-point play or the like. Here is the problem with that snark. Decisions and plays are not made in a vacuum. It all started with the missed FG. If Cooke makes that kick, Vanderbilt is tied 3-3 and very likely attempts another FG instead of trying the 4th down conversion. A make there leaves the game 6-3 Vanderbilt, and South Carolina’s lone first half TD came on the South Carolina drive that started after the conversion attempt failed. Even if the Game Penises score a TD on that drive with the change, it is 10-6 at halftime AND when Vanderbilt tries a fake punt after their first offensive drive of the 2nd half reaches 4th and 5 at their own 31. In a 4-point game, Derek Mason, known for typically being conservative, almost certainly does not fake the punt. All of the bad breaks or mistakes just keep building. On the flip side, getting a lead with two made FGs could have built the Commodores’ confidence and energy to prevent some mistakes. It sounds asinine, and the refrain does get old because we have heard it so many times. The problem is Mason is frustratingly and annoyingly right. However, it is on him to figure out how to make sure his program finds ways to stop making those mistakes. Granted, this game has its unique issues. You can only point to how unique a certain game’s challenges are so many times over 7 seasons though. At some point, the coach is just not good at handling adversity, even if I think THIS game IS way down the list of evidence for that assertion.

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