Vanderbilt lost 17-14 to Missouri on Saturday at Faurot Field. (Vanderbilt Athletics) (Vanderbilt Athletics)
Vanderbilt lost 17-14 to Missouri on Saturday at Faurot Field. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Vanderbilt Athletics

Commodore Brunch Week Eight: Teardrops on my Keyboard

Vanderbilt couldn't snap their 25 game SEC losing streak on Saturday despite Missouri's best efforts to help them do so.

October 23, 2022

In honor of Taylor Swift’s 10th studio album “Midnight” released this weekend, I’ve turned to the Nashville pop star to offer me some respite after Vanderbilt football’s latest meltdown, a 17-14 loss to Missouri. Per usual, Taylor was spot on in illuminating my feelings this morning with her 2006 hit “Teardrops on my Guitar”: 

He’s the reason for the teardrops on my guitar

The only thing that keeps me wishing on a wishing star

He’s the song in the car I keep singing

Don’t know why I do

I don’t know why I do either, Taylor. 

Continue to put myself through this, that is. 

This game was drunk and stumbling, and there were no Nashville police to stop it.”

I’m running out of words to describe Vanderbilt football. I suppose I’ll turn to numbers instead. 

In my four years on West End, Vanderbilt football has compiled a record of 8-33. They are 1-29 in SEC play and have lost their last 25 league games. There have been three head coaches, four offensive coordinators and four defensive coordinators in that time. 

Vanderbilt had a legitimate chance (err, about seven of them) to end their SEC losing streak on Saturday against Missouri, and yet, they were unable to do so. Whether it be bad play calling, poor execution, untimely turnovers, undisciplined penalties or unfortunate refereeing, Vanderbilt found pretty much every way possible to lose this one. That’s a shame because Vanderbilt’s defense outplayed Missouri for the entirety of the second half and should have won this game if not for the myriad of mistakes that plagued Joey Lynch’s offense on Saturday. 

“Obviously, we’re disappointed (about) falling short,” Clark Lea said after the game. “I thought we just didn’t do enough offensively tonight to have the opportunity to win the game there late. I think there’s also going to be plays that we want where we have a chance to win a one-on-one or a chance to go up and get the ball, and we’ve gotta capitalize on those opportunities.”

Those opportunities were plentiful. For as bad as Vanderbilt played in the first half and offensively, Missouri was equally incompetent on Saturday. This game was drunk and stumbling, and there were no Nashville police to stop it. 

The second half alone included a successful fake punt, a defensive touchdown, a kickoff that was never picked up resulting in a turnover, the longest touchdown pass for Vanderbilt since 2004, two missed field goals inside 30 yards, two turnovers and a last-minute fourth-and-inches play to decide the game. 

I’m running out of words to describe Vanderbilt football.”

This week’s Brunch menu is sour, and it is salty. Because despite having every opportunity to win against a team trying their hardest to hand Vanderbilt the game, the Commodores lost. That refrain is getting old. 

Wake Up Call

Vanderbilt slept through the opening stages of this one and it ultimately cost them the game despite scurrying back into the contest in the fourth quarter. After an initial surge on the opening possession put Missouri in a 3rd-and-16 situation, an offsides from freshman BJ Diakete unraveled the Commodores. 

Tiger quarterback Brady Cook found a wide-open Barrett Banister for a 29-yard gain on 3rd-and-11 following the penalty. One play later, Cook found Luther Burden who ran 38 yards through the Commodore defense for the score to put Mizzou up 7-0 just under three minutes into the game. 

A nice Vanderbilt opening drive resulted in a missed field goal from Joey Bulovas to keep the Commodores off the board. Windy or not, Bulovas had probably his worst game as a Commodore on Saturday, missing two field goals, including a 27-yarder. Vanderbilt, of course, lost the game by three points. 

Vanderbilt was unable to do anything with a gift of interception from Cook on the next drive, which set them up in plus field position. Cook was pretty atrocious on Saturday but racked up 193 yards and a touchdown against Nick Howell’s unit in the first half. 

As two of the SEC’s worst traded punts for the remainder of the opening stanza, Vanderbilt found themselves in a 14-0 hole just six plays into the second quarter after another Burden touchdown. 

Two punts later, a long Vanderbilt drive got within the Missouri red zone. That’s when quarterback AJ Swann had his biggest freshman moment of the year—lofting a floating duck into the endzone off his backfoot for an easy Mizzou interception. The pass was intended for Will Sheppard, who was targeted 12 times in the first half (more on that later). Missouri punched in a quick field goal to put themselves up 17-0 heading into halftime. 

Some will point to AJ Swann’s performance as a culprit of the offensive woes but—and this may be the Chicago Bears fan in me speaking—I have him pretty low on the list of reasons that Vanderbilt lost this game.”

“I challenged the defense at halftime,” Lea said. “It was 17-0. We had a 10-point swing there at the end of the first half. It was a disappointing moment for our program, but I challenged our defense to keep it to 17, and the offense to keep battling and to stay in the fight.” 

To his credit, Vanderbilt came out with a better plan of attack in the second half, particularly on defense. Led by Anfernee Orji and Jaylen Mahoney (12 tackles each), Vanderbilt’s D scored a touchdown and gave up just 76 yards and zero points in the second half. Frankly put, it kept this game from being a blowout against the second-worst team in the conference. 

But evidently, Vanderbilt is not yet good enough to overcome 17-point deficits on the road. As Missouri tried repeatedly to hand the game to the Commodores, that hole loomed large and was ultimately too much to overcome, especially with a sputtering offense. Vanderbilt needed a wake-up call to keep this one close in the first half. In what was probably their best shot at an SEC win (and a 3 p.m. kickoff nonetheless), that’s disappointing. 

Good Eggs 

Despite Vanderbilt’s shortcomings on the offensive side of the ball, it would be impossible to talk about this game without acknowledging some of the incredible individual efforts on the defense for the Commodores. 

It all starts with Orji, who turned in an SEC Player of the Week-worthy performance on Saturday. The senior has emerged as the heart and soul of this defense and did his best to single-handedly win Vanderbilt this football game. Orji had 12 tackles (7 solo), 2.5 tackles for loss (TFL), an interception, a sack and a forced fumble. It was the greatest single-game effort I’ve seen from a defender in my four years at Vanderbilt and a continuation of a season that will ensure Orji a spot on an NFL training camp roster come July.

Fellow senior Jaylen Mahoney played one of his best games in a Vanderbilt uniform on Saturday as well. The defensive back finished with 12 tackles (11 solo), a sack and a whopping five TFLs. Mahoney made plays for the Commodores from the very first snap, disrupting Missouri’s screen game all day. 

Sophomore CJ Taylor somehow made a play even more impressive than either Orji or Mahoney was able to—one that earned him the No.1 spot on Sportscenter’s Top 10. On 3rd-and-10 from inside their own red zone, Missouri quarterback Brady Cook dropped back only to see a hurdling Taylor coming right at his face. With Orji in pursuit as well, Vanderbilt forced a fumble and Taylor landed from his jump and scooped it up for an easy touchdown. It was the Tennessee native’s second touchdown of the season after he scored against Hawaii in the opener. 

As a collective unit, it was the defense’s most impressive showing since Hawaii. The second-half adjustments and ability to create havoc and turnovers were progress from first-year defensive coordinator Nick Howell, whose seat was reaching an increasingly warm temperature after two quarters in Columbia. 

Seat Warming 

Howell’s colleague, offensive coordinator Joey Lynch, was not as fortunate on Saturday. After an encouraging start to the season, Lynch’s group has significantly regressed and a decent part of that has to be chalked up to his play-calling. 

Across two different quarterbacks, Vanderbilt seemingly lacked a coherent plan on offense against Missouri. Some will point to AJ Swann’s performance as a culprit of the offensive woes but—and this may be the Chicago Bears fan in me speaking—I have him pretty low on the list of reasons that Vanderbilt lost this game. 

Across two quarterbacks, this game plan was meant to ‘not lose’ rather than to win.”

This game was easily Swann’s worst performance of the year (13-30, 1 INT), but did we expect the freshman quarterback to never…play like a freshman at any point? Part of the issue was Swann’s inability to get past his first read, which time and time again was Will Sheppard. Sheppard also had probably his worst game of the season struggling with drops and double teams all day. 

Though the Swann-Sheppard connection has proved fruitful so far this season, it is a pretty porous strategy to target one receiver all game and hope your offense benefits from it. Just ask Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp and the Los Angeles Rams, who, after reaching the Super Bowl last season, rank No. 25 in scoring offense in the NFL this season. 

Lynch’s inability to scheme up plays with Jayden McGowan, Quincy Skinner or Gamarrion Carter is reflective of his overall lack of creativity and intentionality on Saturday. Against a Missouri defense that came into the contest No. 58 in scoring defense, Vanderbilt’s offense scored seven points and went 0-for-2 in the red zone. That’s inexcusable. 

Things got no better when Mike Wright took over in the second half after a mysterious injury kept Swann sidelined. This news, however, was not apparent to Lynch, who called the game as if Swann was still manning the shotgun for the Commodores. Wright, notably more effective with his legs than Swann, finished with one rushing attempt for two yards. To his credit, he made some nice plays to keep Vanderbilt alive late in this game, but it felt like anything but a game plan tailored to his strength. 

Speaking of shotgun, Lynch’s most egregious error came at the most important time for Vanderbilt—on 4th and inches with the game on the line. After the referees moved a Ben Bresnahan catch back from their initial first down call, the Commodores lined up for a play before a Missouri timeout. 

Vanderbilt came out in shotgun with Ray Davis, the eventual ball carrier, standing six yards behind the line of scrimmage. Davis, who turned in a valiant effort playing through injury, was almost tripping over himself on the snap as he tried to reduce his needed gain to five yards. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where the ball was going. 

Wright faked the snap, causing a Missouri defender to jump over the line of scrimmage, but Vanderbilt failed to snap the ball and gain the offsides penalty. On the second “hike” call, Wright turned around and handed off to Davis who plunged ahead into a wall of Missouri defenders. The officiating crew wrongly announced that he had lost yardage, but it wouldn’t have mattered either way as Davis was nowhere near the line to gain. 

Another aspect of the final play call was McGowan, who rushed the ball zero times on Saturday, coming in motion prior to the snap. Had Lynch not gone with the most generic version of this play, McGowan could have taken the ball on a jet sweep with a lot of room to run. Alas, Lynch felt it better to let his offensive line create a six-yard hole on an obvious run situation. Because that usually works for Vanderbilt. 

Overall, the output was a representation of Lynch’s increasingly worrying ability to successfully lead this offense. Across two quarterbacks, this game plan was meant to “not lose” rather than to win. With a bye week on deck before a matchup with a frisky South Carolina side, Lynch and this offense officially are on notice. If there aren’t improvements made—and soon—Clark Lea will have no choice but to make major changes on the offensive side of the ball. 

Or at least I’d hope so. 

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