The Kentucky Wildcats needed less than 30 minutes of game action to put away the Vanderbilt Commodores on Saturday night in Nashville. In less than a single half, the Wildcats tallied 31 points—more than Vanderbilt has scored in a single game all season—and more than enough to help them down the Commodores, 34-17.
What went wrong in the first half? The better question would be what didn’t go wrong for Vanderbilt.
Kentucky outgained Vanderbilt 278 to 105 in the game’s first half and used six Commodore penalties to put together four scoring drives. The Wildcats took a point-blank Ken Seals interception to the house for one of their four first-half touchdowns and needed only 13 minutes of possession to kill the Commodores’ hopes of victory. Vanderbilt captain Daevion Davis left the game with a lower body injury and Seals took three sacks, one of which left him with an injured left leg as well.
So, yeah, it was a rough half.
“We weren’t able, on defense, to get wins on first and second down. We knew that was going to be a big deal coming in, and some of that is going to be execution-based,” head coach Clark Lea said after the game. “In terms of the offense, again, I think maybe we showed a little bit of rust coming out. We lost that disciplined play that had kind of defined our offensive success when we’ve had it this season.”
Despite the “Blackout” and the return of “Star V” helmets, a lack of offensive discipline, a questionable coaching decision to leave Seals in the game and a few senior day standouts are all that’s on today’s Brunch menu. But even if you are still hungry after this loss, don’t worry: you can look forward to one giant facilities-themed feast that is now on the horizon.
One Wright Answer
Who should start next weekend in Oxford? There’s only one correct answer. And that answer is Mike Wright.
I have sat on a fence for about as long as I possibly could on this debate. For most of his Vanderbilt career, I have favored Seals over Wright at the starting quarterback position. I valued his ability to spray it across the field and respected what he brought via rollouts and play action passing. However, at this point, with this roster, there is no reason that Wright should not be next week’s starter. But Lea is not ready to place the starting tag on either of his sophomores.
“Ken [Seals] earned the starting job out of camp. Ken came out this week and had a great week of practice. Mike [Wright] has done well in that role also, and I’m proud of Mike for that,” Lea said. “Ken got hurt in the first half of this game. We have to get a feel for the extent of the injury, and so I don’t feel it’s necessary right now to project who will be starting next week.”
The past few weeks Commodore fans have witnessed the differences in play style between an offense run by Wright—an explosive running quarterback—and Seals—a traditional pocket passer. Wright filled in for Seals for three straight games while the Texas native recovered from a hand injury and each game, Wright and the Commodore offensive approach improved drastically.
Then, yesterday, Seals took the starting job back and the offense looked completely disoriented. Not only did Seals loft an egregious second-quarter interception, but by inserting Seals into the game, Lea asked his offense to play a completely different style than they had played the previous three weeks.
He asked his line to block read option plays for a quarterback that isn’t a runner. He asked his receivers to run deeper and more timing-focused routes and he told Wright to sit on the bench despite him starting the Commodores’ two most impressive SEC performances.
Seals was brutally sacked multiple times and certainly deserves props for hanging in a difficult ballgame. Eventually, those sacks caught up to him and he had to exit the game with a left leg injury.
Wright promptly entered the game and life seemed to immediately be pumped into the Commodore offense. Pocket passers need to rely on their receivers to get open and their line to provide time. Runners can make something out of nothing and right now, Vanderbilt’s offensive line is a group that is struggling.
The Commodores outscored Kentucky 14-3 in the second half with Wright leading a pair of 10-plus play touchdown drives.
Vanderbilt has now scored nine touchdowns this season when Wright is on the field. Vanderbilt has scored eight touchdowns with Seals on the field. Yet, Seals has started seven of Vanderbilt’s 10 games this season.
Regardless of which quarterback is the long-term option, Wright hides this team’s deficiencies more than Seals does. And at this point, Vanderbilt is better off hiding deficiencies than chasing perfect execution.
“I’m very proud of the way Mike Wright prepared himself,” Lea said. “Mike’s a guy who has done a really nice job for us and didn’t play in the first half and came out in the second half and strengthened the other 10 players on the field and did a nice job leading the offense. So I think that’s where I would focus right now: just being pleased with the way Mike finished the game.”
Senior Send Off
Chris Pierce Jr. played in his 39th game for Vanderbilt on Saturday. To say the senior wideout has seen it all at Vanderbilt would certainly be an understatement.
He witnessed a 59-0 beatdown by Alabama in 2017. He was present at Vanderbilt’s Texas Bowl loss in 2018. He largely rode the bench for a dreadful 3-9 squad in 2019. And he emerged as a playmaker last season despite the Commodores going 0-9 amidst a global pandemic.
On Saturday, he hauled in six catches for 69 yards and a touchdown in his last game at home as a Commodore, and I’d be remiss to not discuss his Vanderbilt career after his senior day.
Pierce has witnessed some of the most brutal football in FBS history. But even after doing so, he elected to come back this season and lead this squad as a fifth-year senior. Despite being tied to an era of Vanderbilt football that fans would like to soon forget, he should be remembered for helping the Commodores bridge the gap between the Derek Mason and Clark Lea eras.
He even picked up his first career interception yesterday on a Kentucky Hail Mary attempt—a well deserved sendoff for a player who has been severely underrated. And someone I suspect will play at the next level (you heard it here first).
Another senior who made quite an impact was Amir Abdur-Rahman, in place of Will Sheppard who came down with the flu this week. Let’s take a quick look back at week 1’s Commodore Brunch, shall we?
“Where on earth was Amir Abdur-Rahman—the Commodores’ second-leading receiver last season?”
Maybe I was right about this one.
Lea cited practices as the reason that Abdur-Rahman hasn’t found playing time. But regardless of how he has practiced, he didn’t miss a beat upon stepping onto the field on Saturday. He hauled in seven balls for 65 yards and a touchdown. The man simply gets open and he did just that all night long.
“Practice is important to us. We want to see the evidence of focus and execution and being in the right positions and making the plays,” Lea said when asked about Abdur-Rahman’s sparse playing time. “Amir has tightened down his preparation habits, and he has come out in really the last three weeks and been a really dynamic player on the practice field.”
He knows how to use his body, clearly has good rapport with both Seals and Wright and played with great energy all night long. His not playing has been one of the bigger question marks in year one under Clark Lea.
Lea has been particularly firm on standards since arriving on West End. From stripping his team of their jersey numbers to holding De’Rickey Wright out of several games this season due to off-the-field issues, the first-year head coach has made many players on this year’s squad into examples for future players. While this is fine and well, Abdur-Rahman has proven time and again in his four seasons that he belongs on the field. And it’s a shame that it took 10 weeks for that to come to light.
“Even our old players are still young players. They’re still early in their career. They’re still growing and evolving. They’re still growing and evolving in this program,” Lea said. “We never give up on anybody, and we’ve kept coaching Amir and Amir has kept coming out there and taking the swings, and it’s clicking into place for him. So hopefully we see a continued ascension from him, and as we do, we’ll see his continued involvement in offense.”
Let’s not let another ugly Saturday of football detract from what was truly a monumental week in the history of Vanderbilt Athletics. On Friday, athletic director Candice Lee and the University released the first set of renderings for all Vandy United projects.
“First and foremost, it gives our program what they need so they can have sustainable success. That’s what we’re looking for,” Lee told the media before Saturday’s game. “Physical investment shows what’s important and I want people to see these facilities and know that we’re serious about athletics as an extension of this university. And we want athletes to stand for the excellence that the university is known for.”
Not only were the images incredibly well done, but they show the incredible level of care and strategy that has gone into this project. When Vanderbilt released its strategic plan for athletics in Feb. 2020, I was right with many Vanderbilt fans in saying that it was vague and perhaps unnecessary. But clearly, its principles guided much of what was on display via the renderings.
One very calculated move by Lee and Vanderbilt was to close down Jess Neely Drive. Jess Neely is currently where the Commodores conduct Star Walk, but the street is always closed on game days and is a frequent pedestrian walking zone. By converting it to a green space, not only will more space be available for the new buildings in the south end zone, but it will match much of what has been done elsewhere on campus.
“If you look around some of the changes happening on campus, you see a lot more pedestrian walkways and so I think it’s important to kind of mimic some of the some of the great enhancements you see on campus,” Lee said. “The other thing is that it allows us to extend our perimeter somewhere. So when you kind of walk into the athletics districts or from a fan standpoint, it’s like once you enter that pedestrian space, you are now part of the game atmosphere.”
Lee made it clear with the media that there are a number of preliminary steps that have to happen before shovels can hit the ground on the actual facilities. Things such as drainage and power will have to be addressed in advance of any building, but that stuff is coming sooner rather than later, as Lee indicated that it would start early in 2022.
Will these renovations happen overnight? No, they won’t. But keep in mind that Vanderbilt Stadium hasn’t been renovated since 1981. You waited 40 years, Commodore fans. You can do another couple more.