College football season is almost halfway over. Can you believe that? It’s right around the time when the weather cools off at last and teachers start handing out piles of homework. Ah, autumn. We’re about to see which football teams are the contenders and which are exposed as pretenders. We’re about to find out who’s gonna put themselves in a good position to go bowling, and who’s going to be staying home this winter. How have the Commodores fared through Week 6?
First, let’s get one thing out of the way: The 2014 Vanderbilt Commodores were absolutely terrible. They were bad in every phase of the game: offense, defense, winning, and most any metric you can think of in Derek Mason’s first year. After that disaster, the only thing I (and many others) wanted to see was improvement. I can say that in the first 5 games that we’ve played this year, we have been competitive, and we even got a few wins. I’ve had the fortune to be able to see every game we’ve played thus far in person, and I can say that the play and the demeanor of the team has been much improved. We’ve been resilient. We’ve fought and clawed and improved—however, we have made some mistakes. Below are my remarks on each game, as well as some concluding remarks on the team’s overall performance.
Game 1: WKU at Vanderbilt
This was a pretty good opener, compared to last year. But like the past three Thursday night games I’ve been a part of, it was a loss. I figured it would be a pretty close game, and that turned out being the case. But there were four reasons why we didn’t win this game. 1) Johnny McCrary’s interception in the end zone. 2) Missed field goal. 3) Johnny McCrary’s second interception in the end zone. 4) Failed 2-point conversion on what was essentially the last and game-sealing play of the game. It was tough because of what could have been, but we also learned through holding WKU’s prolific offense to 14 points that Derek Mason’s hiring of Derek Mason as defensive coordinator was a brilliant move.
Game 2: Georgia
This was a great opening game. Many wished it wasn’t so early in the season, but we were also able tohold the Chubbs Bulldogs to only 17 points of offense. Unfortunately, they also missed two field goals, got a pick 6, and a punt return for a touchdown. That makes things pretty difficult to determine how to take a proper evaluation of the game. There were some other key issues in this game. One was a missed interception in the second quarter that led to a Georgia touchdown on the next play. The second was three straight drops by Scheu to end a really nice rally attempt at the end of the first half, punctuated by a missed field goal. The third was the pick 6 that iced a comeback attempt in the fourth quarter when we were in the Georgia red zone and only down by 10. Still, against a top-10-at-the-time-which-means-nothing Georgia squad, the game was competitive, which was much more than what could have been said last year.
Game 3: Austin Peay
Essentially an unloseable game, but we had a super slow start in the first quarter, only netting a field goal. Then, when we muffed a punt return and gave Peay the ball on our 20-yard line. A minute later, we were down 7-3. Vandy fans were almost ready to throw in the towel, but then the offense decided to get their act together and score some points—mostly on the back of Trent Sherfield, who set a new record for receiving yards in a game. We were finally able to cruise into a 47-7 win, which was nice and necessary. We saw a little bit of Wade Freebeck in the game, and after that brief showing we all prayed that McCrary would not get injured this year.
Game 4: at Ole Miss
It was cruel of the schedule gods to give us two of the best SEC teams to start the league slate followed by one home game in 7 weeks. But that’s exactly what they did, starting with Ole Miss. This was my first Vandy football game without being with the band, and it was quite fun. I couldn’t resist singing Dynamite after every score, as well as doing the standard first down cheers and such. Ole Miss fans in my vicinity grew to hate me quickly. Also, go to the Grove. It’s quite the experience, and makes me wish that Vandy had more tailgating space near the stadium.
As for the play on the field, the Dores played better than we could have hoped. We were the first team to actually take a lead over Ole Miss this season, and certainly gave them their toughest home game to date. However, we fell behind in the 4th quarter and our rally ended after a fourth down stop with around 4 minutes left on the clock. The biggest signs of improvement in this game were the two interceptions of Chad Kelly the secondary made. This was the first game in Mason’s career where we won the turnover battle. The offense continued to move the ball well, until we got into the red zone and had to settle for too many field goals. The best moment of the game was, similar to last year, when the defense stopped Ole Miss from running the ball into the end zone for about 7 straight plays (thanks, refs), and was able to do so. If we played like this to the at-the-time-#3 team on the road, who couldn’t we beat on the rest of the schedule?
Game 5: at MTSU
The last game before the bye week took place just a few miles down the road in Murfreesboro, TN. MTSU fans loved to remind Vandy that they won the last three meeting between the schools, and it’s likely that the season would have all but fallen apart had we lost this game. Frankly, it looked like that’s what was going to happen for the first 53 minutes of this game. Matching the wet, rainy environment, both offenses played sloppily throughout the first half, with us losing 6-3 going into the fourth. The defense had a couple of nice moments, including a 4th and 2 stop on the goal line to keep the score close in the second quarter. Johnny McCrazy reared his head again, tossing a couple of picks ending nice marches down the field. McCrary continues to make 6 great decisions followed by one absolutely terrible one. If we can get rid of the terrible ones, he’ll be great for us. It’s not for lack of arm power; it just seems to be mental decision making. Once MTSU finally broke through with a touchdown early with 12:26 left in the game, the game looked all but lost. And then the football gods looked upon Vanderbilt football, said it was good, and then suddenly all of the success happened.
With 6:14 left in the game Johnny McCrary scrambled for a 31 yard touchdown scramble to make the game 10-13, and suddenly we were in business. The defense did its job and stopped MTSU from scoring; we got the ball back with 3:13 left on the clock. Could we do it? Could we send this into overtime? To answer the question, McCrary made three great throws (14, 20, 12 yards) to keep the chains moving and slow the clock, and then Webb had the moment that Vandy fans had been waiting on all year: a 39-yard scamper to take the lead with 1:14 left on the clock. The defense held on and got the stop, and we got the come from behind win. I still find it hard to believe that we pulled it off. But to come back and get the win, especially on the road (Mason’s first), was a huge moment for the team and the fans. It was a moment that showed moxie and faith in the coaching staff, and that this unit is really on the same page.
The Commodorers have shown flashes of brilliance, but moments of ineptitude as well. Some offensive-side individuals many expected to be leaders and high-performers, such as Scheu and Webb, have not been as impressive as many hoped that they would be. Contrarily, defense and everyone on it have been fantastic (shoutout to former hallmate Stephen Weatherly, #45). Another thing that has been disappointing has been Tommy Openshaw’s missed field goals—he’s missed one every game. If we’d had that against WKU, we’d be looking at a 3-2 Vandy squad with a different perspective of the season. (Though I understand that on the first field goal, the long snapper and holder were brand new and didn’t place the ball in the right spot for Openshaw.) Some stats, courtesy of The Tennessean and Football Insiders:
- Vanderbilt is currently averaging 412.4 yards of total offense per game, the second-highest mark in recorded program history.
- Unfortunately, we’re only averaging around 20 points a game because of ineffectiveness in the red zone (we’re ranked 126… out of 127 total FBS teams). We haven’t scored any touchdowns in the first half of a game against anyone who isn’t Austin Peay, which is inexcusable.
- McCrary is second in the conference in total offense at 282.2 yards/game, but has a terrible 5/7 TD/INT ratio.
- We’ve got the 26th-best defense in the country, and 5th in the SEC by S/P+ metrics.
- We’ve held each of our opponents to their worst or second-worst offensive games of their seasons
Basically, we’re not terrible; but there are some key things that need to be tweaked if we want to be successful. Forcing more turnovers and scoring more touchdowns—especially once we get into the red zone—would be a way to get much better very quickly. We’re almost there.
With that said, can we go bowling this year? It would require a lot of upsets, but many people may not have been predicting a bowl after being 2-4 back in 2012 either. The most likely SEC wins look like South Carolina, Mizzou, and Kentucky. But that would still only net us 5 wins. Houston, our last out of conference game on 31 October may have to be it. But with they way they’re playing (they have a 5-0 record) could be really tough. Granted, they haven’t played anyone difficult other than @Louiville (who, frankly has been bad this year): Tennessee Tech, Texas State, Tulsa, and SMU is not exactly murder’s row. They’re also 8th in the nation in points per game, but WKU is 17th and we held them to 14. Without their low-output showing against us, they’re averaging 48.4 points a game, so I’m not too worried about if Mason will be able to slow down Houston for long enough for us to score some points.
The good news is that Vanderbilt football is competitive and improving. We just need the points and the wins to show for it. We’re almost halfway there—there’s still a lot left to achieve.