This is where the season gets interesting.
The Vanderbilt Commodores entered Saturday’s tilt against Northern Illinois with a disappointing, yet salvageable 0-3 record. Nashville’s team had a rough start the season, outscored by opponents to the tune of 138-68, but a rocky start was to be expected. After all, two of their first three matchups were against top-five teams in the nation.
The Commodores struggled to get through the toughest part of their schedule, but finally, they’ve reached the light at the end of the tunnel: a home matchup against the Northern Illinois Huskies.
For the first time all year, the Commodores were favorites to win the game.
And surely enough, for the first time all year, they were able to put a tally in the win column.
Sure, Vanderbilt’s 24-18 win over the Huskies was promising, but before they head to Oxford, Mississippi, for another conference clash against the Ole Miss Rebels, there’s plenty on the Commodores’ plate to digest.
After the game, head coach Derek Mason urged Commodore faithful to “call it what it is, it’s a victory for the Commodores, and we’ll get back to work tomorrow.”
He’s right. A win is a win, and the goal of this piece is not to make readers think otherwise. However, in this week’s Commodore Brunch, we take a deeper dive into what could’ve–what should’ve– been a blowout win.
Here’s this week’s menu, selected from a buffet of pertinent topics:
Who’s Calling the Plays?
Vanderbilt’s former offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig is off to the University of Utah. Kyle Shurmur, statistically the best quarterback in Vanderbilt history, is gone, too. That leaves newly-promoted offensive coordinator Gerry Gdowski under immense pressure to build an effective offense.
On Saturday, there were highs and lows in Gdowski’s offense — his play calling reached peaks when a designed flea flicker opened up a hole for quarterback Riley Neal to connect with wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb on a 38-yard touchdown pass. But conversely, it reached questionable lows when the play calling was nothing short of confusing.
Running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn had an incredibly efficient game on the ground, tallying 17 carries for 138 yards and a touchdown. While many fans were calling for Vaughn to receive more carries, Derek Mason provided a perfectly reasonable justification as to why Vaughn didn’t get more touches.
Mason said, “I’m really proud of what I saw from Ke’Shawn Vaughn today. He was a little sore, a little dinged up, but he’s a warrior. I definitely appreciate his mentality. Last night his son was born at around seven, so that young man stayed at the hospital last night with his newborn son… I appreciate him for the warrior he is.”
So in conclusion, it makes sense that Vaughn wasn’t overworked. For fans that think he should’ve been awarded more carries, give the new father a break.
But what’s the explanation for a lack of downfield, vertical passes?
In the first quarter, as Vanderbilt drove down the field and scored back to back touchdowns, the Northern Illinois secondary looked severely outmatched. Every pass was completed with ease, as Riley Neal began the game completing his first nine passing attempts. Each Commodore receiver would even give plays a second life by dragging a defender along with him for five more yards after making the catch.
It was an incredible defensive mismatch, the likes of which the 2019 Commodores haven’t seen before. But after those first two touchdown drives, Gerry Gdowski’s play calling reverted to its conservative Week One form: short, three-to-five yard pass attempts. So I asked Mason why the Commodores play calling grew so conservative.
“It was not the full game plan,” he began.
That’s worrisome, no? What exactly was the game plan?
“I thought for us we were going to take some shots, but it got a little loose at times on a couple of key down and distance situations where we wound up taking sacks. We had some protection breakdowns. And here’s the deal, penalties didn’t help in this deal.”
The Commodores stopped trying downfield passes. They didn’t even attempt them because of their own mistakes; lapses in protection and penalties (oh, don’t worry — we’ll get to that) got the most of the Commodores. I’m confident that this will change by the time they travel to Ole Miss next week, but it goes without saying: the Commodores must stick to their game plan and not let trivial mistakes get in the way.
Flag on the Plate
Commodore fans have grown a bit too accustomed to hearing the referees echo into the microphone, “flag on the play.”
Against Northern Illinois, the trend continued to haunt Vanderbilt on both sides of the ball. The Commodores may not have matched their abysmal 13 penalties that cost them 100 yards in Week Two’s road trip to Purdue, but they sure came close.
On Saturday, they committed nine penalties. Improvement, right?
Well, when considering the fact that the penalties amassed 97 free yards for the Huskies, it’s a bit unclear as to whether or not they truly improved. On offense, the penalty woes manifested itself in the form of a pair of false starts and a pair of holding calls. On defense, Vanderbilt was flagged for illegal hands to the face thrice (twice on behalf of linebacker Dimitri Moore).
Northern Illinois failed to capitalize on the free yardage, as to be expected from a mid-major team playing an SEC program on the road. However, if these penalties continue to pile up in conference matchups, Vanderbilt could be in trouble against SEC opponents.
Secondary is Served
While the scoreboard may not show it, the Commodores’ secondary was served on Saturday by the lowly Mid-American Conference opponent.
The game started off worry-free for Vanderbilt — on both sides of the ball. The offense quickly earned a pair of touchdowns and raced out to an ideal double-digit lead, made possible by a shutout defensive effort. While the offense eventually slowed down, the first half didn’t turn out all that bad for the home team. The Commodores allowed just two chunk plays through the air for 20 and 18 yards, respectively.
The second half, however, was quite a different story. Vanderbilt’s secondary blew some significant coverages, leaving gaping holes through which the Husky offense was able to thread a needle. In the second half alone, the Commodores allowed seven chunk plays (gains of 15+ yards) for an average of 28 yards per completion. Clearly, the Northern Illinois offense began to show signs of life, while the Vanderbilt secondary showed a lack thereof.
“Our defense showed improvement,” Coach Mason said after the game. He then continued to acknowledge their lackluster second half, claiming they “let the lid off a little bit late in that ball game, but that happens.”
Perhaps “that happens” as a result of injuries, as safety Tae Daley sat out the duration of Saturday’s game and cornerback Dontye Carriere-Williams went down with an injury of his own. But regardless of the injury report, allowing nine chunk plays through the air against an objectively unimpressive offense leaves plenty of room for concern.
Consider this: Northern Illinois is just 1-3 on the season, with their lone 24-10 win coming over Illinois State University. In that game, the Huskies’ offense managed just six pass completions for 15+ yards.
And then they put up nine against an SEC opponent on the road.
Sure, they didn’t come away with a win in the Music City, but their offense walks away with a moral victory, while Vanderbilt’s secondary marches into Ole Miss in serious need of help.