Let’s be honest, if you sat down to watch Vanderbilt take on No. 12 Ole Miss on Saturday night, you did not expect to be entertained for long.
The Rebels entered the Week 12 matchup as 35.5-point favorites. They were coming off of a convincing win over No. 11 Texas A&M and their average of 522 total yards per game was sure to be a bad matchup for a Commodore defense that gives up the 12th-most yards per game in the FBS.
But thankfully—or egregiously, because why would the SEC ever schedule a basketball game and a football game for basically the same time—the Vanderbilt men’s basketball team was on Saturday night to drown your sorrows as they claimed an easy victory over Winthrop.
However, much to fans’ surprise, if you did switch back to the football game after the basketball win, you were treated to—yes, another loss, 31-17—but a loss that demonstrated exactly what head coach Clark Lea has prioritized all season long: being competitive late in games.
Right until the final whistle, Vanderbilt competed. Mike Wright got the nod at quarterback and led the Commodores down the field with under five minutes left, nearly cutting the end result to a one-score affair. In total, the Commodores put together their most complete football game of the season. In the words of Lea, they played “complementary football” for most of the evening. They just ran into a better opponent.
Vanderbilt was able to generate its best offensive performance of the 2021 season, posting six drives of 50-plus yards en route to a season-high 454 total yards. Defensively, they held a more-than-potent Rebel offense to (just) 470 yards—their third-lowest total of the season. Plus, Heisman Trophy candidate Matt Corral didn’t completely rein in the Commodore defense—a unit that remained opportunistic with an interception and four tackles for loss.
Lea made it clear following the game that there are no moral victories and there is still much growth needed. But Vanderbilt has just two actual victories in 728 days. So we are counting this one as a big, big positive.
To that end, we have a healthy portion on the Brunch menu this week. And, because Lea finally started Wright over Ken Seals, we also have a Brunch cameo from the president of the Mike Wright fan club and deputy sports editor Bryce Smith. More from him later.
“I want to see 40-point blowout losses turn into two-score games—no matter if Vanderbilt falls far behind early.”
In a September football mailbag, this is what I stated as one of the key markers of success in Lea’s first season on West End. And that’s exactly what happened last night, as the Rebels were tested until the very end.
For years before Lea arrived, Vanderbilt fans suffered through meaningless blowout losses to just about every SEC foe. So many games never even felt like a game, and the result felt inevitable before opening kickoff. While the end result might have been inevitable yesterday, the game was entertaining.
The Commodores have now lost three games by two scores or less—something they did just three times in the last two seasons. For his entire tenure on West End, Lea has talked about fighting for every blade of grass on the field and putting pressure on opponents deep into games. Vanderbilt did that and put together arguably their most complementary performance since a 17-12 loss to ranked Texas A&M last year.
Yes, as I predicted in that mailbag, the Commodores did find themselves trailing 10-0 less than five minutes into the contest. That has been a recurring issue for this squad—and Lea acknowledged that after the game. But in weeks past, from that point, Vanderbilt has often folded. Deficits to Stanford, Georgia and Florida turned into routes, but that wasn’t to be in Oxford.
Vanderbilt was outscored just 21-17 the rest of the way and actually beat the Rebels 8-7 in the second half after besting Kentucky in the second half last week, 14-3. For the second straight week, Lea’s squad found a way to regroup from adversity, adjust and have success.
“We want to be in a position to apply pressure, and I think for this team it’s learning how to get to that moment where we can break through,” Lea said. “Let’s put the ball in the end zone there on that 2-minute drive and let’s get the onside kick and let’s really put some pressure. Again, this team is designed to fight. They have a deep respect and appreciation for each other. That shows up in the way they play.”
The Commodores shoved aside a deficit and truly just focused on their own efforts. They controlled time of possession, ran 93 plays to Ole Miss’ 65 and held the Rebels to just 1 of8 on third downs.
They were opportunistic and made plays deep into the game, such as an impressive interception from Ethan Barr as Ole Miss was prepared to punch another score in. They even notched a tackle for loss with less than two minutes remaining and the game firmly out of hand. Those are the kind of plays that demonstrate what Lea’s culture is all about.
“This team has gotten better through the course of the year in tangible ways, and then in ways that are internal,” Lea said. “Ways that are in our locker room that the team knows, but maybe no one else does. It’s a high-character team. It’s a team with a lot of fight in it.”
Saturday’s showing was a performance worth building upon. And although the ideal result might not have come through, the Commodores deserve praise for fighting the way they did.
The Wright Factor
This thing on?
I’m Bryce Smith and I’m here to talk about Mike Wright. Again. And today I’m feeling especially vindicated.
I commented on the Hustler Sports 30 podcast earlier this week that not starting Wright over Ken Seals this week would have been malpractice from the coaching staff. Well, Clark Lea must have tuned in (on whatever service he uses to listen to podcasts!) because for the first time all season it was indeed Wright getting the QB1 nod over an at least somewhat healthy Ken Seals. And as some of us have been saying for a while that was the—oh boy, I can’t help myself—Wright call.
Having the sophomore signal caller play out an entire four quarters changed the complexion of this game and frankly kept Vanderbilt in it for a lot longer than anyone thought they would hang around. I’ve argued Wright’s value to the offense this season as being threefold: he opens up the run offense, he has big play ability and he possesses a certain “it” factor that raises the spirits of this offense and this team. On Saturday night, he did all of those things and also relieved the pass protection with consistent elusiveness and helped Vanderbilt dominate time of possession. That shifted the paradigm of this offense from being contingent on explosive plays and huge chunk gains in the past to one that was thoroughly effective for four quarters.
Take for example Vanderbilt’s offense in their loss against South Carolina. The Commodores scoring chances were mostly due to massive plays stemming from Wright’s scrambling ability. Out of Wright’s 206 passing yards, 185 of them came on five plays. That’s not to say that it was a bad offensive performance or that big plays are a bad way to quantify an offense, but last night’s effort against Ole Miss wasn’t that.
This was an offense picking up 23 first downs on the No. 12 team in the country on the road. This was an offense going toe to toe with one of the best offenses in the nation for 60 minutes, tallying a season-high 454 yards. An offense that put up over 200 rushing yards and controlled the ball for nearly 40 minutes of game time. This wasn’t a fluke by any means.
That represents serious progress both from Wright and from the unit as a whole. Heck, South Carolina is one of the better offensive performances to harken back to—who remembers Mississippi State or dare I say ETSU? Yes, Vanderbilt still has a ways to go in terms of finding this production consistently. But last night showed that the attack under Wright is becoming increasingly sustainable and repeatable, starting with the rushing attack.
Vanderbilt found early success on the ground with the option and RPO game. On the Commodores third drive of the game, sophomore running back Rocko Griffin found holes for gains of 14, seven and 15 yards to push the offense down the field as the Rebels struggled to keep up with both him and Wright. A (questionable) holding penalty on Chris Pierce negated an impressive third down conversion from Griffin, but the seed had been laid. From that point forward in the contest, Vanderbilt was able to get a push up front, and both Griffin and Wright wiggled and wormed their way through openings to the tune of 213 rushing yards. Griffin finished with 117 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. After missing the last two games due to injury, I thought this might have been his best game of the entire season, and he was particularly adept in the pass protection department as well. The chemistry between him, Wright and the offensive line is yet another thing to build on heading into Tennessee week and beyond.
But, the big plays were still there for the Commodores as well—Vanderbilt picked up nine third downs and three fourth downs. Perhaps Wright’s best ball of the night was a 22-yard completion on 3rd-and-4 to Ben Bresnahan. Wright rolled left away from a blitz Rebel linebacker and lofted a pass where only Bresnahan could get to it, and the tight end made a fantastic grab to come down with it. It was one of seven passing plays to go for 15-plus yards on the evening.
"Just bein' an athlete."
— Vanderbilt Football (@VandyFootball) November 21, 2021
Wright made a habit of evading any Ole Miss pressure that crept into the pocket, which really alleviated his offensive line and kept Vanderbilt moving forward on its drives. Rebel defensive end Sam Williams was a focus of the ESPN broadcast all evening and with good reason—the 6’4, 265 lb. senior has 10.5 sacks this season. And yet, Williams wasn’t ever able to get a finger on Wright, who dipped, ducked and dodged him the entire game. The one time Williams got to Wright was on an egregious facemask that was penalized. Vanderbilt scored one play later.
Wright’s ability to jump right up after that violent play and lead the team to a score was significant in my mind. To me, it was emblematic of the “it” factor he possesses and the toughness and spirit he brings to this offense and football team. Further, it was a good representation of the offense’s ability to string together plays (and drives) despite penalties or stoppages or whatever may have tried to get in their way. Interestingly, Vanderbilt has absolutely dominated the last six quarters in time of possession, which is a good thing to help out the defense. Against Ole Miss, the Commodores held the ball for nearly 39 minutes, compared to 21 for the Rebels—and, generally, keeping Matt Corral on the sideline for two-thirds of the game is a sufficient strategy. This trend stems from Wright’s improved understanding of the offense and the aforementioned benefits he brings to the run game.
Well, that’s it. My little spiel (that lasted 1000 words). Thank you Justin for letting me barge in on Brunch—I was very excited to be so Wright about the quarterback situation last night—and I got to make a shameless plug for our podcast along the way. Let’s see how this offense fares against Tennessee, I’m certainly intrigued.
One More Chance
I’m sure that won’t be the last Mike Wright rant Bryce delivers in his time at Vanderbilt. But my weekly Commodore football rants will come to an end next Saturday. The Commodores have one more shot at stopping back-to-back winless SEC seasons. And it comes against the team absolutely everybody would love to see them beat.
When the Commodores march into Neyland Stadium next Saturday, we should have expectations. They will be underdogs. They will be out-talented. But there’s absolutely no reason that Lea and his squad should back down to a beatable Tennessee team.
The Tennessee-Vanderbilt game has not mattered in years. After beating the Volunteers in three straight matchups, the Commodores have lost the Thanksgiving weekend affair by a margin of 70-27 over the last two seasons. But this year, it certainly matters.
Regardless of the result, this is a chance for Vanderbilt and Lea to show their rivals from the east that Commodore football is on the rise. It’s an important game for in-state recruiting. It’s a battle of first-year head coaches. It’s a senior sendoff for Commodore greats such as Pierce. It’s Vanderbilt’s final chance to avoid a double-digit loss season. And it’s a chance for Lea to get revenge after dropping three games to the Volunteers by a 110-33 margin during his playing career.
“This is a team that’s desperate to win and we get one chance to do that here at the end of the season,” Lea said. “We’re going to put everything on the table this week to go out and fight for that outcome that we want. Again, going back on the road in conference, which is an awesome thing. So we have a lot ahead of us for the positive and a lot to build off of, but this is going to be about how we put everything on the table to get a result this week.”
This team has improved. Improved to the point where competing with an already-bowl-eligible Tennessee team should not be out of the question. In fact, it should be the expectation.