If you’ve held on to your black and gold panic button since the Mizzou game last season, now might be a good time to dust it off.
After Vanderbilt emerged from a rough four-game stretch of ranked opponents, the prevailing opinion was that the team would improve simply by playing worse opponents.
Instead, Vanderbilt looked like the Cleveland Browns and the Ole Miss Rebels looked like a Madden fantasy team (with “force trades” on, I should add).
This 57-35 loss to Ole Miss raises many, many red flags, and throws a lot of doubt into just how much Vanderbilt can do the rest of the season. It’s time for a reality check.
Here is your Commodore Brunch menu for this week.
The End of the Line(s)
Let’s stop with the excuses for these offensive and defensive lines. No more “the offensive line is young and inexperienced.” No more “this defensive line is missing Zach Cunningham and Adam Butler.”
Stop it. The offensive line is not good. The defensive line is bad (at least against the run). No reason to sugarcoat it seven games into the season.
On offense, the line allowed SEVEN sacks to a defense that had just four through the previous six games. That is absolutely inexcusable. Throughout the season, Kyle Shurmur has been put on his back too many times, but hasn’t been sacked all that much, which was good.
But this performance defies all logic.
Allowing that many sacks to a bad defensive line is inexcusable, and it’s not entirely the players’ fault. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has had seven games to find the right combination of players to best protect Shurmur, and has failed to do so. Perhaps a week off could do the trick.
At least for the offense, Shurmur and Ralph Webb are good enough to withstand the pressure (more on that later). On defense, it’s a different story.
To the defense’s credit, they have been excellent at getting to quarterbacks this season. Against the run, however, they were absolutely abysmal on Saturday.
Ole Miss is the worst rushing offense in the SEC. They run the ball less than any team in the SEC. Yet on Saturday, the Commodores made Jordan Wilkins and Eric Swinney look like Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith.
The defense has been the backbone of this team, and they are failing to make the grade. Allowing 252 rushing yards to that team would be a fireable offense for many defensive coordinators around the SEC in certain scenarios (that won’t happen here, of course).
Given how the offense has been able to perform under adverse conditions with the offensive line, the run defense has to be the biggest cause for concern on this team. Poor tackling, busted coverages and all of these problems that Vanderbilt is having are basic fundamental defensive issues that can be fixed.
It’s not complex schemes or strange rushing patterns that are giving Vanderbilt trouble. It’s the basic tenets of football, and that’s what’s most concerning.
The good news is that head coach Derek Mason is taking the right attitude with this team going forward. He said after this game that every position is up for grabs, except for Shurmur and Webb’s. Given how abysmal everyone else has been, this is the right attitude to have. Good on him for recognizing where major overhauls might be necessary.
Now, Mason and Ludwig need to follow through, bench ineffective players, and make any and all changes to make sure this performance doesn’t happen again.
Kyle and Ralph Deserve Better
On behalf of the entire student body, I would like to apologize to Kyle Shurmur and Ralph Webb, because they deserve much better than what they got on Saturday.
Despite getting taken down seven times, Shurmur still managed to throw for 174 yards and two touchdowns. In addition, Webb finally found his game, rushing for 163 yards and two touchdowns. Their ability to have a solid game despite how poor the rest of the offense played just shows how good those two are individually.
Give plenty of credit to the wide receivers as well, those guys are playmakers and did a phenomenal job given the circumstances.
If I were Shurmur or Webb right now, I would be making the entire offensive line do my laundry, buy me dinner and scrub my feet because the line owes the two of them for keeping this game remotely close.
Shurmur and Webb deserve a better offense than they’re getting right now, and Mason should be thankful that the two of them have balled out. As one former Hustler sports editor told me this week, this offense with last year’s offensive line would be dominant.
Something’s Got to Give
Let’s preface this by saying no one on Vanderbilt’s staff is on the hot seat right now, and that’s how it should be. Calls for Ludwig or Mason’s jobs are completely premature.
However, it doesn’t mean those things haven’t crossed people’s minds.
Headed into the bye week, now is the time for Mason and especially Ludwig to make sure their seats stay cool. They’re not on the hot seat yet, but in order to stay off the hot seat, they will need to make adjustments and prove that they can fix what ails Vanderbilt right now.
No matter what happens the rest of the season, it’s extremely difficult to see Mason not returning to the sideline next season. In fact, regardless of the team’s final record, firing Mason would be a huge mistake. However, if things continue to fall apart for the offense, Ludwig may face some heat going into the offseason.
Again, no one should be calling for pink slips just yet. Mason and Ludwig will have the opportunity to fix things, and if last season was any indication, they can (see Tigers, Mizzou). When the Commodores hit the field in Columbia in two weeks, even if they don’t come away with a win, they need to show that the defense can stop the run and that the offensive line can protect Shurmur.
They need to show progress, because if they don’t, the six-win mark may be out of reach.
Enjoy the bye week, y’all.
Photos by Claire Barnett // The Vanderbilt Hustler