Commodore Brunch: Searching for offense

Poor passing attack, tough night in the trenches doomed Vandy in home opener.

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Commodore Brunch: Searching for offense

Max Schneider, Sports Editor

This was never going to be an ideal first week for Vanderbilt football. The minute Georgia popped up as the week one opponent on the schedule, that became clear. After three consecutive touchdown drives from the Bulldogs and a majority Georgia crowd echoing chants through the night, disaster of the worst form looked to be just on the horizon.

The Commodores thwarted that disaster. The game didn’t become a drubbing like it first seemed it would be. Vanderbilt came out in the second half looking more poised defensively, and the 30-6 final score that hovered right around the Vegas line for the bulk of the game likely kept the few Vanderbilt fans still in attendance sane.

Still, the Commodores are a disappointing 0-1 with a lot of unanswered questions, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. They’ll need to find answers to those burning questions quickly if they want to right the ship next week against Purdue.

Here is your Commodore Brunch menu for Week One:

Neal looks unimpressive at the helm

We knew coming into this season that there was going to be a sizable drop-off at quarterback. We just didn’t know exactly how sizable that drop-off would be. Suffice it to say, Vanderbilt fans missed Kyle Shurmur Saturday night in the worst way.

After a summer of secrecy amidst a quarterback battle where Riley Neal was always the favorite, it was indeed Neal that trotted out with the first team offense on the opening possession, and right away, new Offensive Coordinator Gerry Gdowski’s game plan seemed clear: do not put the game in Neal’s hands. It was a run-heavy attack early with intermittent screens and short passes. There was never an attempt to let Neal loose in the passing attack. He finished 14 of 25 passing for just 85 yards.

Later in the game, we saw just why that was the gameplan. Neal was flat on virtually all of his downfield throws. He was behind receivers, he would miss his initial reads often, he was late when his receivers came out of breaks, and he was miles short on his first deep ball and miles long on his other one. Derek Mason seemed to notice that uneasiness in the pocket.

“There were a couple times with Riley — I mean, he did a great job with his feet getting out of the pocket, but there were times he had to climb the pocket as well,” Mason said.

It’s perhaps worth noting that Deuce Wallace took the field for Vanderbilt’s final possession of the game and drove the Commodores down to the Georgia 18, thanks to a couple darts to Cam Johnson and Chris Pierce. It was against Georgia’s second-string defense in a meaningless moment, but his 16-yard toss to Pierce was Vanderbilt’s longest pass play of the night. Maybe he earned himself some reps going forward.

Overmatched in the trenches

Football begins and ends at the line of scrimmage. Whoever consistently wins the battle in the trenches will usually come out on top, and that was the Georgia Bulldogs from the word go. Georgia was running Vanderbilt’s defensive front out of plays, routinely pushing Drew Birchmeier and Cameron Tidd three to five yards off the line of scrimmage.

Georgia’s offensive line was just bigger and stronger, and that was never going to change. This is likely the best offensive line in college football, and it was on full display Saturday night. If you’re looking for some sort of perspective as to just how brutish this line is, the average NFL lineman weighs 314 lbs. Georgia’s average offensive lineman weighs 328 lbs, and it showed. The first three drives were an absolute clinic in how to win at the line of scrimmage. Linemen were even getting into the second level to put blocks on linebackers and safeties. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this was a Vanderbilt problem, especially because Defensive Coordinator Jason Tarver made the necessary adjustments in the second half. Vanderbilt won’t face a front like Georgia’s for the rest of the season.

The other side of the ball had the exact opposite effect. Vanderbilt’s offensive line got no push, and it was frankly remarkable that Ke’Shawn Vaughn was able to eat up yardage at all. Put him behind Georgia’s offensive line and he could have piled up 200 yards. Starting offensive linemen Devin Cochran and Saige Young were late scratches with day-to-day injuries, which thrust some inexperienced guys into action, so things are looking up for the Commodores going forward. Grant Miller had an especially tough day. His snaps were consistently high, and Neal started going through his progressions just a tad later because of it. The botched handoff to Vaughn that Georgia recovered can be chalked up to another high snap.

Defense showed grit

After three possessions, shades of the 59-0 beat down against Alabama started to rear their heads. Vanderbilt’s defense showed no signs of life. In addition to getting thrown backwards at the line of scrimmage, missed tackles and poor pursuit of the ball seemed to plague the unit early. However, after those three possessions, the Commodore defense recovered strongly. Georgia put up just nine points in nearly three full quarters to close the game, and even though Swift and the Georgia running backs were churning out yardage, Vanderbilt wasn’t allowing those gains to turn into seven points.

“Defensively, I thought we were able to battle,” Mason said. “They never gave up, and they fought. Again, you learn a lot about yourself.”

Vanderbilt recovered on two of Georgia’s bigger plays, forcing two fumbles. Tae Daley punched the ball out of Zamir White’s hands, only to see it go out of bounds, but minutes later, Feleti Afemui’s forced fumble negated a deep ball that would have given Georgia first-and-goal.

I’ve waited until my last few words to give a shoutout to Dashaun Jerkins, but I can wait no longer. Vanderbilt’s safety was thrust into a starting role when Frank Coppet was a late scratch, and Jerkins was the Commodores’ best player all night. Jerkins flew around the field, notching 14 tackles and a fumble recovery. He also carried the ball on Vanderbilt’s fake punt in the first half, helping the Commodores convert on the early trick play. Jerkins was far from a household name entering play Saturday night, but that should change for Vanderbilt fans going forward. He made a name for himself in this secondary.

We’ll see if that can continue next week, as Vanderbilt travels to Purdue looking to avoid an 0-2 start.

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