Commodore Brunch Week Three: Burrowed

The Commodores' tough opening stretch is over, but there's a lot to tackle if they want to resurrect this season.

September 22, 2019

Vanderbilt has officially run the gauntlet. The Commodores have finally completed the torturous three-game slate to open the season, and while they may be battered, they’re out the other side and still alive to see another day.

Brent Szlaruk
(Photo by Brent Szklaruk)

The third leg came to an end on Saturday afternoon with a 66-38 loss at the hands of the fourth-ranked LSU Tigers, and while the game was certainly more high-scoring than most people likely anticipated, the result was the same. Save for the opening five minutes, that result was never in doubt. LSU put on an offensive clinic for four quarters, running the Commodores out of the building with an unstoppable air attack.

Hunter Long
(Photo by Hunter Long)

Derek Mason and his team now sit at 0-3. They’ll need to win six of their remaining nine games to qualify for a bowl game. The expectations start now. Vanderbilt can no longer look at the ranking next to its opponent as an excuse. These are games the Commodores are going to have to win if they want to be playing in December. But first, they have a lot on their plate that they need to address:

Here’s this week’s Commodore Brunch menu:

Historically Bad Defensive Effort

Vanderbilt has had its struggles the past couple of years on the defensive side of the ball. Despite star talent like Oren Burks and JoeJuan Williams, those defenses haven’t fared very well against some of the better offenses in the SEC. This year, Vanderbilt doesn’t have those star players to fall back on, which means that this defensive unit might be its worst yet.

The Commodores are giving up an average of 46 points per game thus far, fourth worst in college football and worst amongst Power Five schools. LSU likely would have put up an 80-burger this Saturday if Head Coach Ed Orgeron didn’t take out Joe Burrow and replace him with backup quarterback Myles Brennan. Burrow threw for 398 yards and six touchdowns, breaking the school’s single-game touchdown record in the process.

It’s no secret that the secondary is the weak point of this defense. For the second straight week, they gave up more than 400 yards through the air. For the second straight week, they allowed a single receiver to catch 10+ balls for 200+ yards. For the second straight week, they looked utterly helpless. It’s the way that these receivers are torching Vanderbilt’s secondary, though, that is perhaps more concerning than the numbers themselves. Almost all of LSU’s yardage in the passing game came from short-to-intermediate throws over the middle that turned into big plays because of poor initial coverage and worse tackling. In the postgame presser, Mason couldn’t find enough ways to say his team couldn’t tackle on Saturday.

“Now what we got to do is clean up the things that are on the table, like tackling.”

“Defensively again we just struggled at times to tackle at the point of attack.”

“We have given up yards, a lot of those were explosive in terms of tackling.”

“Every one of those, you saw a tackle or two or three missed just because of poor angles.”

“We were in position to make some tackles and we didn’t.”

“We just got to tackle better.”

The secondary getting burned is one thing. Getting burned and then compounding that mistake by missing tackles and exacerbating big plays is another. If Vanderbilt is going to clean up its effort defensively, limiting gains by making the necessary tackles will be of the utmost importance.

Vaughn Breaks Free

Running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn has been everything Vanderbilt fans could have asked for through three games. The first couple of weeks, that wasn’t showing up in the box score. Grinding out yardage behind a makeshift offensive line didn’t lead to much statistical production, but the effort was there. This Saturday, we saw the back that singlehandedly dominated Baylor in the Texas Bowl. He took the first play from scrimmage and ran 41 yards into LSU territory. A few plays later he was in the end zone, somehow keeping his feet and continuing to push the pile for the score.

The holes weren’t easy to spot, but he found them, and this game should serve as proof to NFL scouts that they’re watching a legitimate NFL back. He showed off his speed, his strength, his agility and his vision en route to 130 yards and two scores. Most notably, Vaughn ran away from LSU’s secondary on his 52-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, a secondary that features two potential first-round picks.

Give some credit for Vaughn’s big day to his offensive line. Left tackle Devin Cochran didn’t suit up again, but the Commodores seemingly felt comfortable anyway. Increased repetitions together have made them more cohesive as a unit, and they were able to win at the line of scrimmage significantly more than in the past few weeks. Pushing Vaughn into the end zone on a play where he looked to be stopped short was a bright spot for the guys up front.

Don’t Panic Yet

The Commodores have had the toughest start to the season of any team in the country. They’re the only team to face two top five opponents in their first three games. Coming into this season, 0-3 looked like the most likely outcome. 1-2 would have been a blessing. For the most part, the Commodores are right where we thought they’d be. So please don’t hit the panic button, at least not yet. Take solace in the fact that Vanderbilt’s offense has gotten lightyears better with each week. Six points in Week One turned into 24 in Week Two. 24 in Week Two turned into 38 this week. The defense will likely fare better against the middle-tier of the SEC.

Vanderbilt is at home next week with another 11 a.m. kickoff. This time it will be against Northern Illinois, a far cry from the Georgias and LSUs of the world. If Vanderbilt loses next week, then smash that panic button. But for now, it’s important to contextualize these first three games, because for Vanderbilt, the road to a bowl game starts next week.

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