The Vanderbilt Commodores were embarrassed on Saturday, losing to the Georgia Bulldogs 43-0 in Athens. Georgia debuted its new mascot, a Bulldog named UGA VIII, but it was the Commodores that played like dogs for the better part of three hours. The Commodore offense mustered just 140 total yards and was shutout for the first time since 2003.
Following each game this season, VandySports.com publishers Chris Lee and Jesse Johnson will present a series of questions to recap both the offensive and defensive performances.
1. A lot of things went wrong with the offense on Saturday, but what was the biggest reason for the miserable performance?
Chris: As I've said from preseason practice on, I was very concerned about the state of the offensive line. It wasn't good last year, it wasn't returning any full-time starters, and it had almost no experienced depth. There have been bright spots here and there (Wes Johnson, for instance) but the fundamental state of things there isn't any better now than it was on Sept. 4, and it's not likely to get better from here on, as the odds are (not just for VU, but for any team) that at some point, one or two starters are going to get hurt and miss time.
I know this sounds elementary, but the math is simple: almost half of your offensive unit is on the line. When that goes bad, it's just hard to be good offensively. You've see flashes of respectability from the offense from time to time, but it's when the line's not been out-manned (Northwestern, Ole Miss, EMU). But when that's not been the case, you see what happens.
Jesse: I'm not sure what was the reason exactly but I think the offense's horrible day was a result of the defense's horrible day. I know that sounds odd since its been the defense that has set things up for the offense in years past, but I feel like play-calling adjusted when it was clear that the Commodores were going to have an incredibly tough time stopping the Georgia offense. Vanderbilt's offense started the game with some momentum, picking up a big first down on the second play of the game and driving the ball into Bulldog territory. After the drive stalled and the punting team failed to pin Georgia deep, the very first play by Georgia was a near 60-yard pass play and the Bulldogs eventually got three points.
After the next series failed due to a couple of drop passes including a wide open trick play from John Cole to Branden Barden and a clear third down conversion to Mason Johnston that was dropped, or rather fumbled, it seemed like the Commodores changed up their play-calling and tried some more basic plays. When Joey Bailey went down with an injury on the next series and Vanderbilt brought in true freshman Logan Stewart to play center, the offense looked completely different with Smith under center and the entire offense looked unorganized. That continued on the next possession when Bailey returned and sailed a snap over Smith's head for the resulting safety.
On the other end, Georgia couldn't be stopped. Vanderbilt's defense was giving up huge chunks of yards and touchdowns. It just seemed like the offense changed from some option based play calls to some standard passes and belly draws. Some would work for a few yards but nothing that was going to make Georgia's 3-4 defense pay. Basically, it felt like to me that Vanderbilt tried to go ball control, though they couldn't pick up a first down or convert a third down, so it was just three and out repeatedly. It felt like the offense was trying to slow the game down so the defense could catch it's breath but it couldn't gain a first down to actually do so.
The offensive line is the source of failing to generate first downs, of the unit failing to open up inside lanes or provide enough pass protection for the Commodores to complete a pass. Still, the play-calling seemed to be so stripped down after the first couple of series of the game, so I'm not sure if better line play would've provided different results. I feel like Vanderbilt played into Georgia's hands the entire game, in all three phases.
2. What do you do to fix things?
Chris: See my previous answer: it's going to be tough. I still maintain that you have to get the ball to your play-makers in space. That would mean more of the option game with Norman and Stacy, at a minimum, but VU really had problems blocking the edge and so that makes it tough.
My guess is that you'd try to run more two-back sets, maybe using Wesley Tate a bit more since he's a bigger back and maybe can get a body on someone with a little more effectiveness. Perhaps some of last year's mis-direction plays with receivers (Jonathan Krause?) taking handoffs would help as well.
But these are going to be small fixes, as I just don't think you can fix what's fundamentally wrong here.
Jesse: It's pretty simple to me: execute the plays you call and call better plays. Execution means all 11 men do their jobs. Calling better plays means put the players in the position to be successful when they do their jobs. Is the offensive line going to dominate SEC opponents, probably not. Is Vanderbilt's receivers going to win one-on-one matchups against every defensive back in this league, probably not. But there are plenty over-matched teams out there that find a way to draw up the plays that will suit its strength and create an advantage against more talented teams. That's the art of play-calling and football competition in general. The players need to buy in and need to actually make the plays, but the system has to put them in the position to be successful as well.
3. What did you take from Larry Smith's outing today?
Not much; the guy didn't really stand much of a chance. I do think he's showing that he's learned to handle adversity well: get rid of the ball when the rush is coming, don't pitch the ball in a position to put your running back in a bad place, etc. That's an improvement, because Smith last year would do things that just added fuel to the fire when things went bad.
Other than that, I'd have to give him an "incomplete." He didn't have a chance to do anything really good, but he wasn't the problem, either.
Jesse: Nothing really. Smith didn't do anything to put Vanderbilt in position to lose the game but the Commodore offense never made a serious challenge to even score past the first series of the game. Does that all fall on Smith's shoulders? Not in my opinion. As I said earlier, I felt like a few series, the players around Smith let him and the offense down and then I felt like the plays called from the sideline didn't do much for the offense to progress forward either. Vanderbilt never really put the ball in his hands and asked him to challenge Georgia's secondary 30 yards down field and any sweeps, fake hand-offs or QB option passes seemed to go away after the first quarter as well. This never seemed like a game to me where the Vanderbilt staff put the game at Smith's feet, so I can't really say that I took much from Smith's performance.
He did complete a few big pass plays to start the game and made some good decisions to not force things that weren't there later. Some of his throws did go for incompletions on third down however and his numbers weren't good at the end of the game, but I never felt like those plays were going to be successful to begin with. He did attempt a screen pass that resulted in a interception, so that's a negative but even that play would've just resulted in lost yardage had it been completed anyway.
Chris said it was incomplete, and I guess I'd either agree with that or say it was an "absence" since I felt like the quarterback wasn't allowed to have much of a day past the first quarter overall.
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