Film Room: Solving the Secondary

Vanderbilt’s passing defense is getting shredded every week. What’s to blame, and how can the Commodores improve?

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Miguel Beristain

Vanderbilt defense blocks Ole Miss drive, captured on Oct. 8, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Miguel Beristain)

Brandon Karp, Lead Sports Analyst

After an impressive 3-1 start, the Vanderbilt Commodores have surrendered four straight games and are comfortably in last place in the SEC. Losses to some of the nation’s top teams like Alabama, Georgia and Ole Miss were expected, but the ‘Dores most recent loss to a bumbling Missouri team was a huge missed opportunity.

 Vanderbilt’s offense was incapable of generating any momentum against the Tigers—the unit’s only score came on an 80-yard catch-and-run by Gamarion Carter. 

But there’s been plenty of talk about the offense on Film Room, so this week we’re covering the defense. There’s certainly room for improvement on that end as well: Vanderbilt’s defense is giving up 470 yards and 36.6 points per game, worse than any other team in the SEC. 

The passing defense has been particularly awful and has been torched in the Commodores’ last four defeats.With 317.8 passing yards allowed per game, Vanderbilt’s passing defense allows more air yardage than any other team in Division 1 football besides the University of Ohio. The Commodores are also in the bottom 10 in the nation in yards allowed per completion (13.45), opponent passing touchdowns (21) and opponent completions (189). It isn’t a stretch to suggest that Vanderbilt is worse at defending the pass than any other team in college football.

This week, Vanderbilt will face what is probably their last beatable opponent in the SEC this season. Less than two weeks ago, South Carolina debuted on the AP poll at No. 25 after a surprising 5-2 start to the season, including wins over Kentucky and Texas A&M. But in last week’s 23-10 loss to Missouri, the Gamecocks looked utterly disjointed, mustering just 203 yards of total offense against one of the worst teams in the SEC. If South Carolina puts forth a similar effort at FirstBank Stadium this weekend, the Commodores will have a real chance to halt their losing streak. 

South Carolina’s streaky offense is led by headline-grabbing quarterback Spencer Rattler. He was once ranked the No. 1 high school quarterback in the country and considered a potential top draft pick; yet, he has been one of the worst starters in college football this year. He’s currently averaging just 204 passing yards per game and has thrown 5 touchdowns to 9 interceptions. Although his poor play has often hampered South Carolina, Rattler has occasionally flashed signs of the talent that made him such a highly-touted recruit. 

Will Vanderbilt’s passing defense bounce back and regain confidence against a mistake-prone quarterback in Rattler? Or will the once-heralded quarterback start his comeback campaign against one of the most forgiving secondaries in college football? Let’s see what the film tells us. 

Passing defense woes

Throughout the season, failure to understand or execute zone coverage assignments has rendered Vanderbilt’s defense helpless against the pass. One of the most critical defensive lapses against Missouri comes under such circumstances, when a miscommunication leaves Tauski Dove wide open for a 45-yard reception. Missouri ultimately scores a touchdown on this drive to go up 14-0, a lead which proves too steep for Vanderbilt to overcome. 

Poor tackling on pass plays in conjunction with those blown assignments directly translate to two touchdowns for the Tigers. On Missouri’s first drive of the day, a screen pass that should have gone for 4 or 5 yards turns into a 35-yard touchdown after two Vanderbilt defensive backs put in abysmal tackling effort. On Missouri’s second and final touchdown of the day, four Vanderbilt defenders whif on tackles to give up an easy score. 

Ole Miss was another winnable game for Vanderbilt that was undone almost entirely by backbreaking mistakes in pass coverage. Early in the second quarter, when Vanderbilt led 13-3, a blown assignment leaves Ole Miss wide receiver Jordan Watkins wide open for the easiest 61-yard passing touchdown of Jaxson Dart’s career. With Vanderbilt still hanging around in the third quarter, another miscommunication between cornerback and safety leads to a 71-yard touchdown to make the score 38-20 and effectively put the game out of Vanderbilt’s reach. 

The combination of repeatedly blown coverage assignments and weak tackling has defined Vanderbilt’s pass defense this season. Not only have these mistakes left Vanderbilt one of the statistically worst defenses in the nation, they’ve directly contributed to losses in otherwise winnable games.  

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Fortunately for Vanderbilt’s defense, the South Carolina’s passing offense could cut them a much-needed break. A matchup with Rattler, who has thrown nearly twice as many interceptions than touchdowns this season, could be just what the doctor ordered for Vanderbilt’s struggling secondary.

After watching some of Rattler’s interceptions this season, it’s fair to wonder how he was ever considered the top quarterback prospect in his class. His underthrown interception against Kentucky is a remarkably bad pass to a player who was completely covered for the entirety of his route. Trailing by 13 in the fourth quarter against Missouri, Rattler throws another horrible interception to seal the game. Despite having plenty of time in the pocket, he forces a throw to a double-covered receiver, and the result is not pretty. 

For all of his head-scratching decisions, Rattler has still shown flashes of being a capable passer this season. In South Carolina’s back-to-back wins against No. 13 Kentucky and Texas A&M, Rattler completes a number of difficult passes to give his team opportunities to score. 

The last throw in the sequence is a prime example of the potential that Rattler still oozes throughout games. After escaping pressure, Rattler unleashes a perfectly-placed bomb that travels close to 60 yards in the air, though his receiver fails to make the catch. When Rattler shows up, South Carolina is capable of hanging around with the best of the SEC. When he overvalues his arm talent and tries to play the hero on contested passes, South Carolina’s offense grinds to a halt. 

Defensive potential

Although the criticism of Vanderbilt’s passing defense is warranted, it’s worth noting that the secondary has made some crucial plays in Vanderbilt’s biggest games. Against Ole Miss, safety Derickey Wright does a great job reading the quarterback and adjusting his coverage to snag an interception. The ensuing drive results in a field goal for Vanderbilt that extends their lead to 13-3. Later in the game, Wright makes another sharp adjustment to pick off Ole Miss for the second time of the game. On the season, Wright leads the team with 3 interceptions, the second most of any player in the SEC. 

The last play is the clear high-point of Vanderbilt’s loss to Missouri and probably the coolest Vanderbilt play all season. I can’t remember a Commodore defensive highlight as jaw-dropping as CJ Taylor launching himself over a blocker to complete the unprecedented hurdle, strip sack, touchdown trifecta. This play also underscores the oft-overlooked athleticism of Vanderbilt’s secondary. The passing defense isn’t getting beaten because of personnel inferiority; there simply is an issue with the defensive scheme itself or player adherence to that scheme. 

Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Nick Howell must find a way to maximize the talent he has at his disposal. It is foolish to expect a different outcome without any substantive change, whether it be a scheme or rotation adjustment. South Carolina’s lackluster passing offense provides a great opportunity for Vanderbilt’s defense to experiment with some new looks in the passing game. If the Commodores can force a few turnovers out of Rattler, a victory against the Gamecocks should be well within reach. 

Vanderbilt will host South Carolina on Saturday, Nov. 5 at 6:30 p.m. CDT at FirstBank Stadium.