Commodore Brunch Week 12: Get Out of My Swamp
Vanderbilt played role-reversal in a win over Florida on Saturday, setting up a monumental showdown against Tennessee next week to gain bowl eligibility.
November 20, 2022
For the first 1,168 days in my time as a Vanderbilt student, the Commodores won one (1) SEC football game.
They’ve now won two in the last seven days.
In a gutsy, riveting home performance, Vanderbilt pulled out a 31-24 victory over Florida on Saturday afternoon. It is just the third time they have beaten the Gators since 1988 and the first time they have beaten them in Nashville since then.
The Commodores outclassed first-year coach Billy Napier and Florida on Saturday, as Napier became one of many Gators to leave Nashville with Sunday scaries. The Gators committed seven penalties on Saturday, including multiple back-breaking personal fouls that both stalled Florida drives and extended Vanderbilt ones. The Commodores also rushed for 175 yards on the Gators, picking up 19 first downs in the process.
“We needed the South Carolina game to get to the Kentucky game, and we needed the Kentucky game to get to the Florida game here at home,” Clark Lea said after the game. “Do we want to get to a point as a program where we’re not having to learn those painful lessons? Sure. But that’s just a part of our journey right now.”
If Kentucky was a glimmer of light at the end of that journey, Florida was a beaming ray of sunshine that that odyssey is well on its way.
Simply put, Vanderbilt was the better football team on Saturday in all three facets of the game. To do that against Kentucky in a cold, rainy game in Lexington is one thing. To do it against one of the conference’s blue bloods on a perfectly sunny day in Nashville is another.
Save for an initial slow start in the first quarter, Vanderbilt led this game for nearly 48 minutes, holding onto a two-score lead for much of the second half. For reference, the Commodores lost last year’s contest against Florida 42-0 in Gainesville. That statistic, in and of itself, is an indicator of the significant progress that Lea has made in his tenure in just his second year as head coach. But, consider the ramifications on the season’s progress as a whole as well.
Vanderbilt won three of their non-conference games. They have won three road games. They broke their 26-game SEC losing streak. They have won back-to-back conference games. They beat Florida. They will have a chance to make a bowl with a win against Tennessee next Saturday.
Big picture, 2022 is a resounding success in the Vanderbilt football program rebuild. Despite a bleak outlook following the South Carolina loss, the Commodores have rallied to play their best football of the season in late November and have shown tangible signs of growth throughout the year.
Heading into the final week of the regular season, Vanderbilt will have a chance to become bowl-eligible if they can top rival Tennessee at FirstBank Stadium. Whether or not the season is extended, Lea and his staff will hit the road in December selling not just a vision of a new Vanderbilt football program to recruits but a blueprint and rendering as well.
Vanderbilt football has as much positive momentum right now as it has had in a number of years. Just two weeks removed from a 26-game SEC losing streak, that sentence feels like a fever dream to write.
That calls for some gator for breakfast this morning. On to Brunch.
Bread and Butter
For the second week in a row, it was perhaps more impressive the fashion in which Vanderbilt won than the actual win itself.
On Saturday, Vanderbilt continued to build on an identity that won them the game against Kentucky and gave Florida fits all day. They ran the ball 46 times, mixing in three different rushers. They played solid team defense, disrupting the line of scrimmage with a mix of blitz packages. And they controlled the clock, winning the time of possession battle 33:26 to Florida’s 26:34.
That formula is now a proven commodity for Vanderbilt, especially with Mike Wright under center. It’s a wonderful way for the Commodores to let their intangible competitive advantages—discipline, toughness, and a next-man-up mentality—shine.
Wright once again played the role at an Academy Award-winning level, providing everything that the Commodores needed under center. Aside from one interception, Wright was nearly perfect with his throws on Saturday going 10-for-16 for 108 yards and three touchdown passes, amassing a rating of 168.6. Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson—who was easily the best player on the field for Florida and carried the Gator offense all day–finished with a rating of 158.3.
The junior made his best throws of the game when Vanderbilt needed it most. The Commodores picked up a number of third-down conversions (7-for-13 on the day) through the air. Wright’s best throws on the day came on a 12-yard third-down pickup to Quincy Skinner Jr. and on touchdown passes to tight ends Gavin Schnoewald and Ben Breshnahan.
On a day that Vanderbilt and Turner’s Heroes honored former tight end Turner Cockrell, those touchdowns proved especially meaningful.
Lea: Great moment for Turner's Heroes and his family getting two tight end touchdowns on the day we honored him
— Bryce Smith (@BryceSmith_27) November 19, 2022
Ray Davis carried the Commodore rushing attack, marking his third straight game with over 100 rushing yards as he galloped for 122 yards on 30 carries. The senior bellcow is just 18 yards from becoming Vanderbilt’s 7th-ever 1,000-yard rusher and has emerged as Vanderbilt’s best offensive player this season. Patrick Smith added 40 rushing yards on eight attempts as the Commodores piled up 175 yards of rushing.
Vanderbilt complemented that effort with a defense that has gotten increasingly better since the Missouri game, aside from a hiccup against South Carolina. After the Gamecocks hung 63 points on Tennessee last night though, that blunder is looking more forgivable.
Nick Howell’s group completely took away Florida’s ground attack on Saturday, holding the Gators to just 45 yards of rushing total. Featuring a two-headed attack of Trevor Etienne and Montrell Johnson Jr., Florida averaged over 220 yards of rushing coming into the contest.
“We have great leadership on that side of the ball, and that starts with Nick Howell,” Lea said after the game. “I can’t say enough about the way he has built identity into that group. What I’ve known week-in and week-out is that that group is going to show up, they’re going to show up focused and they’re gonna show up ready to fight. That’s a statement to Nick Howell’s leadership and to what he has done with that group insofar as developing an identity on that side of the ball.”
The spirited group was led by CJ Taylor, who has emerged as a bonafide star on Howell’s defense. The sophomore was everywhere on Saturday, racking up 10 tackles, a pass breakup and 0.5 tackles for loss. He also disrupted the Gators on each of their two point conversations, single-handedly causing failed attempts on both. Lea called him “a perfect representation of Vanderbilt football” after the win.
Alongside stalwart linebacker Anfernee Orji, freshman Ja’Dais Richard deserves a shout-out as well. After the first-quarter ejection of cornerback BJ Anderson, the youngster stepped in admirably for the Commodores, notching a pass breakup and a QB hit. That the infusion of youth has been so fruitful on the defensive side of the ball is especially promising for the future of Lea’s program.
Football is, objectively, a game that involves skill and strategy, but also luck. The game is played with an oblong pigskin ball complete with laces on one side. A football is bound to take some funky bounces in any given contest. Vanderbilt has often been on the wrong end of those bounces and that luck. I likely don’t have to recount the many unfortunate deflections and tips and fumbles that haven’t gone the Commodores’ way in years past.
My favorite blogger, Robert from IlliniBoard, invented a neat way to describe this phenomenon. He calls it the “Turnover Fairy.” I’ll let him describe:
“Some turnovers are skill. The safety notices that the quarterback, on third down, usually locks in on his intended receiver. That safety makes a read, jumps a route, boom, we’re going the other way. The Turnover Fairy had nothing to do with that interception. 100% skill.
But there are other turnovers. A defensive lineman gets a hand on a pass and it deflects straight up in the air. At that point, it’s completely up to the Turnover Fairy as to who catches it. Sometimes it falls harmlessly to the turf. Sometimes it deflects directly to a linebacker.
Same with fumbles. Yes, it’s a skill to punch the ball out. But once it’s out, it’s just bouncing around on the turf and it’s mostly luck as to who recovers it. All teams do go through drills on how to recover fumbles. Disciplined teams fall on the ball while undisciplined teams try to scoop it up. But for the most part, once it’s out, lucky teams recover it and unlucky teams lose possession. It’s an oblong ball bouncing on a flat surface. Over 10 years, most teams recover about half of the fumbles. But one year it can be 80% and the next year 20%.
But once that ball is in the air or on the turf, it’s pretty much up to the Turnover Fairy as to who gets it.”
Vanderbilt got a visit from the Turnover Fairy on Saturday, and it changed the complexion of this game.
First off, there was the muffed punt from Jason Marshall Jr. that pushed Vanderbilt out to a 14-6 lead near the end of the second quarter. Marshall Jr., trotting backward, trying to call for a fair catch, attempting to catch the ball over his head and, looking into the sun, made a terribly non-fundamental play that cost his team greatly.
The Turnover Fairy smiled upon the Commodores as the ball trickled into the endzone before making its way into the hands of Vanderbilt long snapper Wesley Schelling.
WESLEY. SCHELLING. LONG SNAPPER. TOUCHDOWN!#AnchorDown | #SCTop10 pic.twitter.com/bOxpe0YlMY
— Vanderbilt Football (@VandyFootball) November 19, 2022
Point being: Florida made a stupid mistake (common theme on Saturday), but the fact that Vanderbilt’s long snapper was the one who made them pay for it was a nice little gift from the Turnover Fairy.
The other biggest inflection point of the game came on Jaylen Mahoney’s third-quarter interception of Anthony Richardson. Vanderbilt’s defense stymied the Gators forcing a 3rd and 10 just two plays into their drive. As the Commodore front line converged on Richardson, he stepped up in the pocket and lofted a weak throw over to Thai Chiaokhiao-Bowman. Instead of catching the ball and falling or letting the ball hit the ground, Chiaokhiao-Bowman somehow projected the ball off his hands and into the air. Mahoney made a fantastic play to catch the fluttering football before it could hit the ground, resulting in an interception for Vanderbilt that set them up in the red zone. The Commodores scored a touchdown one play later.
Wild INT in the Vandy-Florida game: The ball bounces off the Florida receiver's arm and Jaylen Mahoney comes down with it for the INT! pic.twitter.com/6pPSGaFQqj
— 𝗙𝗢𝗟𝗟𝗢𝗪 @𝗙𝗧𝗕𝗲𝗮𝗿𝗱𝟳 (@FTBeard7) November 19, 2022
All of this is not to say that the Commodores weren’t opportunistic on Florida’s two biggest boneheaded plays of the game, because, evidently, they were. Vanderbilt’s sound special teams discipline and feisty defensive presence put them in a position to make these plays on Saturday.
But like a swift wind blowing some magic over Memorial Gymnasium onto FirstBank Stadium, the Turnover Fairy never hurt anybody. It’s about time she visited FirstBank Stadium, and, for Vanderbilt fans’ sake, the Commodores should hope she decides to stay for one more weekend.
All to Play For
Speaking of next weekend, Vanderbilt now finds itself in a monumental showdown with their bitter rival: the Tennessee Volunteers.
The Vols will head west for this year’s game as the Commodores host their senior day. The two teams could not be coming into the game at more different points in their seasons.
After trudging to a 3-6 start, Vanderbilt is now 5-6 with a chance to earn bowl eligibility if they can muster a third win in a row. The young Commodores will be playing with nothing to lose and everything to win.
Tennessee, on the other hand, saw their College Football Playoff hopes dashed in a 63-38 thrashing at the hands of South Carolina this weekend. Unfortunately, they lost Heisman-hopeful Hendon Hooker (how’s that for alliteration) in the process to what looked to be a serious knee injury. The Volunteers have lost two of their last three after sprinting out to an 8-0 start. It is worth noting that Tennessee beat Florida by a score of 38-33 earlier in the season.
And so it comes down to the final week with bowl eligibility on the line.
Vanderbilt vs. Tennessee. Clark Lea vs. Josh Heupel. Us vs. them.
In what will be a great weekend of college football action post-Thanksgiving, it’s nice for Vanderbilt to have a seat at the relevant table again. As for whether the Commodores have been vanquished from the kids table and have turned the corner as a program, I’ll let Clark Lea take us out:
“Time will tell. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. I think we’ve strung together a couple of good performances, but we’ll do a big-picture review of the season once the season is done. Right now, it’s going to be ‘let’s shift focus, let’s celebrate today, let’s shift focus to our final game and let’s fight to extend this season,” Lea said.