Commodore Brunch Week Seven: Moral victory

Ken Seals and the Vanderbilt offense scored 20 points on the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs, but the defense was unable to overcome Georgia’s ferocious rushing attack.
Tyson Russell and CJ Taylor celebrating against Georgia on Oct. 14, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics)
Tyson Russell and CJ Taylor celebrating against Georgia on Oct. 14, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics)
Vanderbilt Athletics

Clark Lea debunked the notion of a “moral victory” after Vanderbilt’s 17-point loss to the reigning National Champion Georgia Bulldogs.

“No,” Lea said when asked if he views Vanderbilt’s competitive showing against Georgia as a moral victory. “We’re here to win, and that’s the end of that statement.”

Lea added that he does not believe in moral victories. Of course, he can’t really say otherwise, because then he would be complacent with losing. At the same time, Vanderbilt had its best performance all season against the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs, beating them in the turnover battle and putting up a strong fight against the two-time defending champions. If the Commodores played like they did against the Bulldogs in games against UNLV and Wake Forest, their season would look a lot different. Vanderbilt fell to 2-6 but has a lot of positive moments from Saturday to build off as the Commodores head into their bye week.

The Commodores have four games remaining in their schedule. Will Lea have Seals play the final third of the season or will he look to “the future” in sophomore AJ Swann?

— Andrew Wilf

The Vanderbilt Commodores were 0-7 against the spread heading into their matchup with the Georgia Bulldogs. They were a 32.5-point underdog to the Bulldogs and ultimately came nowhere near losing by that much. The Commodores, instead, put up a valiant effort and were a two-point conversion away from being eight points behind the Bulldogs in the final four minutes of play. Vanderbilt lost to the Bulldogs by a combined score of 117-0 in their 2021 and 2022 meetings combined. This year, Vanderbilt gave Georgia more of a sweat.

On Saturday, Vanderbilt scored 20+ points against Georgia for the first time since 2013. Other than a costly interception late in the second quarter, Ken Seals showed poise in the pocket. The senior threw for 201 yards, two touchdowns, completed 66% of his passes and had a 139.6 quarterback rating. 

“Outside the interception, there were some positive things that we can build on,” Lea said 

Although Seals had a respectable performance, the elephant in the room during the bye week will be the QB1 dilemma. The Commodores have four games remaining in their schedule. Will Lea have Seals play the final third of the season or will he look to “the future” in sophomore AJ Swann?

“I think he [Ken Seals] did a great job managing the game today,” Lea said. “We’ll take the bye week and reassess [the quarterback situation] and see what’s best for us through the finish.”

Before speculating who the starting quarterback in Vanderbilt’s game against the Ole Miss Rebels, let’s take a look at the sugar-coated brunch menu.

Runny eggs

On Saturday, Vanderbilt allowed its opponent 500+ yards of total offense for the third consecutive game. This season, the Commodores have allowed an SEC-worst 437.5 yards per game to their opponents and rank 116th of the 130 FBS teams in yards allowed per game.

Georgia scored points on seven of its 10 drives on Saturday. One of those scoreless drives ended with the Bulldogs having the ball on the Vanderbilt 12-yard line as time expired. The other two scoreless drives came at the hands of an excellent strip-sack fumble in Georgia’s first drive and an interception by CJ Taylor that was run back to the Georgia one-yard line midway through the fourth quarter. While Matthew Hayball had four punts on Saturday, Georgia’s Brett Thorson never punted, enjoying Nashville from the sidelines.

Georgia dominated in possession time (37:19), thanks to keeping drives alive and going 11-16 on third-down conversions and 1-1 on fourth-down conversions. Kirby Smart looked to the old reliable in the running game all day. Georgia had 281 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns on Saturday. While Vanderbilt had just 1.2 yards per rush, the Bulldogs had a whopping 7.2 yards per rush. Vanderbilt’s rush defense was exposed on the ground once again, but there are encouraging signs of progress.

Instead of Vanderbilt electing to run the ball on 34% of its offense plays, Lynch and Co. should aim to cultivate a marriage between the run and the pass.

Vanderbilt’s defensive line also showed promise when putting pressure on Georgia’s Carson Beck. Although Beck often had a clean pocket and a lot of time to find open receivers, the Commodores sacked him twice and had four tackles for loss. The Georgia quarterback went 29-of-39 on his pass attempts and threw for 261 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

The Commodores’ pressure on the quarterback was accomplished without star defenders Kane Patterson and De’Rickey Wright. After the bye week, the Commodores will have many preseason starters coming back from injury and will hope to make pass rush one of their strong suits. 

Ground meat

Vanderbilt’s rushing attack has been nothing short of putrid the past five games. The Commodores have not had a game with 100 rushing yards in that span. As weak as the Vanderbilt offensive line was on Saturday, Sedrick Alexander and the running backs were not given enough rushing opportunities. The Bulldogs enforced their dominance through a “ground and pound” technique, which included 282 yards on the ground on 32 rushes.

Vanderbilt, on the other hand, ran the ball 15 times. The Commodores had 44 offensive plays; to run the ball for just over a third of the offensive opportunities does not result in wins.

Although Vanderbilt was playing catch-up for most of the game, offensive coordinator Joey Lynch needs to stay committed to the run game to open up play-action opportunities. Moving forward, the Commodores will also need to stay more committed to the run game to keep their opponents’ high-flying offenses off the field for as long as possible. Instead of Vanderbilt electing to run the ball on 34% of its offense plays, Lynch and Co. should aim to marry the run and the pass.

Rest time

The Commodores have played eight consecutive games without a weekend break and will benefit from a much-needed bye week. Several student-athlete injuries have hindered Vanderbilt, especially in the secondary. Lea hopes for defenders De’Rickey Wright and CJ Taylor to be healthy to play in the Ole Miss game on Oct. 28.

Jayden McGowan breaking a tackle against Georgia on Oct. 14, 2023. (Courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics)

“We need to get as recovered physically as we can,” Lea said. “The focus will be on recovering. Our guys are just getting through midterms. It’s fall break next week, so there is a mental recovery, a physical recovery and an emotional recovery that needs to happen.”

The Commodores will return to action after their bye week with a clash against the No. 13 Ole Miss Rebels. Then, Vanderbilt will host Auburn for the last game at FirstBank Satdium in 2023. To conclude the season, Vanderbilt will go on the road to play the No. 17 Tennessee Volunteers and the South Carolina Gamecocks. Vanderbilt’s bowl aspirations are nearly evaporated, but the final four games can be a testing ground for what’s to come.

Lynch will need to use the last four games to save his job for the 2024 season with strong play from the Vanderbilt offense. Lynch’s play-calling has been highly scrutinized this season, and Lea may go a different direction if Vanderbilt finishes its season with a 2-10 record. These next four games can also be a proving ground for Swann, as he hopes to secure his position as QB1 for 2024.

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About the Contributor
Andrew Wilf
Andrew Wilf, Former Sports Editor
Andrew Wilf (’24) is Sports Editor for The Vanderbilt Hustler. He is from Livingston, N.J., and is majoring in history and minoring in business. He joined the sports staff his freshman year, previously serving as a Staff Writer, Assistant Sports Editor and Deputy Sports Editor. Beyond writing for The Hustler, he is also the host of Anchor Analysis, Commodore Clash and Live From West End. In his free time, Andrew enjoys watching the NFL and playing golf. He can be reached at [email protected].
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