We have reached a stage under Coach Franklin where a 17 point road win over a MAC opponent has caused a mini-meltdown among the fan-base because we expected to win by more. Progress, maybe.
On the bright side, after we have fielded two solid bowl teams in a row, our fans now expect convincing wins. This is the kind of attitude adjustment many Vandy faithful have longed for in the past. On the negative side, inflated expectations have a way of crashing down on a team – and this team, since the heart-breaking Ole Miss loss, has not looked entirely focused. To be sure, our players are dealing with very difficult and demoralizing off-the-field distractions. Our body language in Gillette Stadium was not good. Even celebrating touchdowns seemed off – and, in particular, out of unison. Our coaches need to try to re-instill some joy – in addition to making x's and o's adjustments this week.
The UMass victory was a better win than it appeared. UMass played hard and switched out of their normal 3-4 alignment to confuse us. Their quarterback is good (and our soft coverage let him gain confidence early.) In the end, our lines dominated – and our margin was comfortable, if not impressive. The game did reveal several offensive and defensive tendencies that need to be fixed.
First, when you have a bona fide NFL receiver like Jordan Matthews, it is easy for a young QB to lock in on him. Austyn Carta-Samuels is, understandably, staring down his principal weapon – and defenders are double and triple teaming Matthews. Jonathon Krause had a big game versus UMass – but aside from Krause and Matthews, no other receiver caught more than two balls. Our tight ends had one catch; our RBs managed three catches. We have to improve on this. In fact, the TV telecast deserves credit for providing aerial shots that showed no safety valve and no open receivers on several occasions. We need to put a speed threat – perhaps an elusive RB – in the slot more often, or run a two back set with one back running a route.
Our running game is also flawed, but getting better. The wildcat has been frustrating – we have frequently had great success with it, only to quit cold turkey before scoring. We also seem determined to run between the tackles, but both Seymour and Kimbrow do better in open spaces where we seem unable or unwilling to get them the ball. While Tate and Seymour did not catch the ball often versus UMass, they both showed they could be dangerous receivers if permitted to do so.
Teams have been punishing us with misdirection, but we have been reluctant to run wide ourselves (which could be a function of the speed we face against SEC defenses?) We did, however, pull out a few successful trick plays versus UMass. Our first down play-calling was also much more creative. We gained over 400 yards, which is nothing to hang our heads about. But it was not flashy, and it did not come easily. We also lost the turnover battle yet again – and had another red zone turnover. Still, we punted only once in the whole game, which is usually a good sign.
Our defense is perhaps the most frustrating part of the equation. We have given enormous cushions at the corners, and our zone coverage has been very soft underneath. Teams have thrown against us with ease – stringing together long drives that tire our D, and steal the flow from our offense. UMass had a 17-play drive in the second half. SC and Ole Miss toyed with this bend-but-don't-break philosophy, both running over 80 offensive plays by voraciously taking what we gave them.
Against UMass, especially in the second half, we blitzed at will. That was a positive, but I would like to see us disguise our blitzes more effectively: for example, show blitz, and drop into the short passing lanes opposing QBs are feasting upon. At the same time, if we showed tight coverage, and then dropped into loose coverage, at least we might confuse the opposing signal-caller. It is possible the explanation behind our vanilla scheme is that our defensive braintrust is worried about confusing our own players. Part of our problem is we played UMass minus two starting LBs. The good news is two young LBs, Herring and Sealand, led us in tackles. Another new starter, Adam Butler, also had an excellent game. Mainstays Kenny Ladler, Kyle Woestmann, Andre Hal and Javon Marshall looked solid too. Our D-line and blitzers continue to have trouble wrapping up, but it is hard to complain about holding an opponent to single-digit scoring. At the same time, keep in mind, UMass averages single-digit scoring.
The major difficulty we have faced in starting games slowly is also tied directly to the risk-averse defensive scheme. We allow the UMass’ of the world to gain confidence, and the SC's to feel invincible. Hopefully we can shake things up against UAB – a team that scored 52 points last week against Northwestern State, but gave up 56 to LSU earlier in the year. UAB is probably more "dangerous" than UMass – they return a 1,000 yard-rusher, Darrin Reeves, and have put significant points on the board through the air. Their D, however, has some injuries, especially at safety, and our offense should exceed 24 points this week. The Blazers are currently 118th in the nation at scoring defense, allowing over 39 points per game. Notably, in 2012 UAB was 0-8 in games they trailed at the end of the first quarter (this did not include a 29-15 loss to Ohio State where they led early) – this is all the more reason a solid start is imperative. A truly strong opening quarter for Vandy would be our first one of the season.
Around the conference, we have several barn-burners scheduled. Most of the attention is focused on Athens where Georgia takes on LSU. The Dawgs were sluggish last week and still scored 45 points. LSU has been rock solid, but Aaron Murray & Co. get the nod at home. Georgia is favored by 3 – which means Vegas thinks this is a dead heat on a neutral site. LSU's defense, however, has not really been tested yet – and Georgia has a truly dominant offense. The success of LSU's O-line may be the key here. LSU's offense needs to eat up the clock and keep Murray off the field in order to have a chance to win. Meanwhile, Ole Miss arrives in Tuscaloosa on a roll. Despite Vegas' odds, I expect Ole Miss' spread offense to give Bama's inconsistent defense trouble. Bama, at home, is likely to out-score Ole Miss, but I would not be shocked if the Crimson Tide loses its grip on its No. 1 ranking after this duel. The 16½ point spread seems high, and Oregon continues to crush everyone in their path.
Cupcake match-ups this week include UT (South Alabama) and Missouri (Arkansas State). SC travels to face a dangerous UCF squad that beat Penn State in their last outing. The spread here is SC minus 7, which seems a tad low. Florida continues to struggle – with the loss of QB Jeff Driskel last week, UK is just what the doctor ordered. Arkansas fell short at Rutgers, and will continue falling against Texas A&M. The line here, inexplicably, is only Texas A&M by 3 points –A&M seems highly likely to cover that margin. Mississippi State and Auburn have byes.
A huge match-up looms with Missouri next week – and we need to get our house in order going into that one. This team is not playing with confidence yet – that needs to change fast.