Commodore Brunch Week One: The Bank is Open
Vanderbilt avoided a bad loss on Saturday night behind the play of Mike Wright. There's both good and bad to take from that.
September 4, 2022
Every coach will say there is no such thing as moral victories. I disagree with that philosophy to an extent. In football, there are good wins and there are bad wins. And there are good losses and bad losses.
Vanderbilt avoided a bad loss on Saturday night against Elon, but this was not a good win in the inaugural game at FirstBank Stadium. The Commodores were outgained 495–424 by the Phoenix, who finished third in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) last season, a league in the FCS. They were outplayed by Elon for much of the second half, forcing the Phoenix offense into just one punt while sending Matt Hayball onto the field four times themselves over the course of the second stanza. And they needed two 4th-down stops at the conclusion of the fourth quarter to keep Elon from making it a one-score game. That’s certainly a bit of a step back after last week.
But in the end, Vanderbilt is 2-0 for the first time since 2018. I’m certainly not going to take a September FCS win for granted after last year’s debacle against ETSU. This one ended up being as simple as this: Vanderbilt had Mike Wright and Elon did not.
The junior was flat-out special on Saturday night and turned in a seriously impressive performance to start the 2022 season. Wright became the first player in Vanderbilt history with six touchdowns in a game after throwing for four and adding two with his legs against the Phoenix.
“He’s a play-maker,” Clark Lea said after the contest. “I want him to find more consistency. There’s more on the field for him, and it’s about capitalizing on all the plays that are out there. But we love that he’s on our side. As he goes, we go on offense. I thought there were times when he was magnificent.”
While Wright was really not a culprit of this flaw in my opinion; finding more consistency is a theme of this week’s Brunch. Lea talked about it ad nauseam in his post-game presser and he’s right—Vanderbilt needs to be better for four quarters if they want to find more wins on the schedule. On Saturday, they were not; but it is much nicer to make those adjustments after a win than a bad loss. That in itself is an improvement for this program. On to this week’s menu.
Lots of leftovers
It’s not that Vanderbilt didn’t have any good moments in Saturday’s win over Elon—far from that. The Commodores completely controlled the pace of the game for a little over two quarters, racing out to a 35-10 lead just under three minutes into the second half. They once again established the run well with both Wright (84 yards) and lead back Ray Davis (95 yards) nearing the century mark on the ground. They found better success through the air as Wright threw four touchdown passes en route to a 178.6 passer rating. The defense was stout to open the contest, allowing just 153 yards of total offense—half of which came on one play, a long touchdown pass to Chandler Brayboy on a broken coverage.
The issue was that Vanderbilt really struggled to close this one out and were completely gassed by the middle of the third quarter. That’s not a good sign against an FCS team, and it won’t matter how well they play in the first half if it happens against an SEC team.
Lea: "I think we wore down. We had some breakdowns—the margin for us is so small. We're not good enough yet to make mistakes and not pay for them"
— Vandy Hustler Sports (@vuhustlersports) September 4, 2022
Lea alluded to a myriad of reasons for that breakdown. Fatigue coming off an emotional trip to Hawaii in Week 0 is probably reason No. 1 and the biggest of the issues. Teams have the option to take two bye weeks after taking a trip to Honolulu and Vanderbilt elected to wait until October to cash in on that offer when they have the first of their two byes after a trip to Tuscaloosa.
For that reason, this game was always going to be one where legs were tired and preventing injury was likely going to be as important as securing the outcome of the game. To that end, Vanderbilt held out both Rocko Griffin and Quincy Skinner Jr. in this contest, two supposed starters who seemed on track to play this week. In a game where Vanderbilt didn’t need their best 11 on either side of the ball to secure the win (even if it was more stressful than necessary at times), I’m fine with that decision.
But in tandem with the ongoing, mysterious suspensions facing prominent young backups like Patrick Smith, Trudell Berry and Yillian Outtara, the Commodores were prone to run out of gas a little earlier than anticipated. Like clockwork, running back, cornerback and defensive line were three position groups that struggled mightily as the game wore on. Lea felt that, in particular, the secondary was an area that could have been better rotated to keep guys fresh.
“What I want to see is that rotation happen ahead of time,” Lea added after the game. “I expressed that disappointment to our staff. We’ve got a lot of good young players on our team. Particularly that defense has a lot of guys that are ready to contribute, and it just felt to me like in the early going and in the middle—right at those points where we could have separated—we kind of defaulted to leaving our starters in a little long, and I think we wore down.”
To make matters worse, a humid and wet night on West End left several players including Davis, Anfernee Orji, Darren Agu and BJ Diakete on the turf with injury. Luckily, all four walked off under their own power and Lea didn’t mention any as having serious enough issues to keep them out of next week’s matchup against Wake Forest.
One of the best developments thus far in 2022 has been watching the infusion of exciting young talent be nurtured along instead of thrown into the fire. In the second half against Elon, a lot of that talent was either unavailable or indeed in the fire. That’s a problem that Vanderbilt has dealt with far too frequently in the past and—hint—it is not a recipe for success. The Commodores will need to get lots of reserves healthy and ready before Wake Forest to not leave so many leftovers on the field next week.
Mike Wright: Main course
To say that Saturday night’s effort from Wright was the best performance I have seen from a Vanderbilt quarterback in my four years on campus would be an understatement. In the post-Kyle Shurmur era, things have been more ugly than competent under center for the Commodores.
Not only was Wright competent on Saturday, but he was the best player on the field on either team. By a damn lot.
The Georgia native is simply electric with the ball in his hands, and, against Elon, he tallied 84 yards on 11 carries, adding two touchdowns. His ability to keep defenses guessing on Vanderbilt’s zone-read, triple-option hybrid attack is a flat-out weapon and Elon had no answer when the Commodore offense was clicking.
Another one! 'Dores strike first in the second half after a 44-yard scamper from Mike Wright for the TD
3Q | 12:26 pic.twitter.com/GWkDvu77p4
— Vandy Hustler Sports (@vuhustlersports) September 4, 2022
Perhaps more impressive (if you can believe that) than Wright’s dynamic running though is his visible improvement as a passer.
Through two games this season, Wright is 31-50 with 391 passing yards and six touchdowns with zero interceptions. That last line is the most significant, and I think earmarks where Wright has so improved this season. He’s learned how to not make a mistake that will cost his team and has an awareness of how he can be best effective given his skillset.
So far, Wright has shown the ability to not only create massive plays for his offense but also keep them on the field by limiting his bad decisions to a minimum. In addition to keeping the ball safe through the air, he has yet to take a legal, big hit this season, showing improved ability and awareness to slide down when trouble emerges. Elon had two personal fouls on the Commodore quarterback, one of which was a late hit on a slide attempt that Wright was able to pop right up from.
No play better exemplifies the jump Wright has made as a complete quarterback than his 75-yard touchdown pass to freshman sensation Jayden McGowan. Elon’s defensive line jumped on the snap, creating a free play for Vanderbilt. Wright—attempting his best Aaron Rodgers impression—noticed the error immediately and lofted a perfect pass down the sideline to the speedster McGowan for a fantastic touchdown.
TOUCHDOWN 'DORES. Mike Wright hits Jayden McGowan on a deep ball for the score
1Q | 6:48 pic.twitter.com/TWjMs0PAjK
— Vandy Hustler Sports (@vuhustlersports) September 3, 2022
For the most part, Joey Lynch has schemed open looks for Wright to fit the ball into and not have to do too much as a pocket passer. But as Wright continues to improve in that area, another aspect of this offense can be unlocked over the course of the season. Keep in mind that after taking over the job midway through last season, Elon is just the seventh start Wright has made at Vanderbilt. His improvement in that short of a time span is frankly remarkable and perhaps the brightest shining light at the end of the tunnel for this team—and program—as the season goes on.
Wake on deck
Despite all of the turbulence in outlasting Elon, Vanderbilt is right where it wants to be: 2-0. With Wake Forest and SEC Nation coming to town, Lea has built considerable momentum for Week 2 in his second year at the helm. The matchup will likely be Vanderbilt’s most anticipated home game since the 2019 opener against Georgia.
“We’re happy to be 2-0, to have a chance to play this game,” Lea said in the postgame presser. “I’m excited for our team. Wake Forest has become a standard-bearer for winning through differentiation. Dave Clawson, who is a friend of mine and I’ve got a ton of respect for, has built a great program there. It’s gonna be a fun team to compete against, and I know our guys are going to be excited for that. We’ve gotta get healthy. We’ve gotta see how many guys we can get ready to play, and then we gotta grow a lot from tonight too, because there’s too much that we left on that field that certainly Wake will be set up to make us pay for that. But it’ll be an exciting week for this program, and we’re excited to play that game in our stadium.”
Agreed 100%, Coach.
The Commodores will have to get healthy and clean up their act to compete with a Wake Forest team that, as Lea said, has become a formidable force over the last couple of years. Last season, the Demon Deacons posted an 11-win campaign that included a trip to the ACC championship game and a Gator Bowl victory over Rutgers.
Clawson has changed the program’s fortunes through a revolutionary offensive scheme predicated on a “slow mesh” concept. It is an RPO-based model that, as the name suggests, slows down the point of decision, leaving defenses in disarray. Last season, the Demon Deacons averaged over 44 points a game.
Slow mesh glance pic.twitter.com/tcEGjZn8Gr
— SyedSchemes (@syedschemes) November 10, 2021
Unfortunately, Wake’s star quarterback Sam Hartman was diagnosed with a non-football condition that will likely keep him from competing against Vanderbilt. Even still, Lea and newly-minted defensive coordinator Nick Howell will have to use their chops to try to slow down the Wake Forest attack.
But with a defense that hasn’t quite caught up to the Demon Deacons’ prolific offense (read: 31 points per game allowed in 2021), there will be opportunities for the Commodores to strike themselves. Sticking to a run-first, time of possession identity will be ever-important. And with a few days of rest and Wright’s continued progression, Vanderbilt will be poised to put some points on the board. The strength of that Commodore punch, in front of a home crowd ready to erupt at a potential 3-0 start, will tell us more about this team than anything we’ve seen so far.
I’m certainly excited.