The Vanderbilt Commodores face a tough challenge this weekend as they host the #14 Florida Gators for Saturday morning’s Homecoming game.
The Gators have won four straight games since losing to Kentucky, highlighted by impressive wins the past two weeks at Mississippi State and against then fifth-ranked LSU.
At Tuesday’s press conference, head coach Derek Mason spoke about how Florida seems to be coming together as a complete football team.
“They play fast,” he said. “It looks like a typical Florida defense, but offensively it looks like they’re hitting their stride.”
This season is Florida head coach Dan Mullen’s first in Gainesville, and his impact on sophomore quarterback Feleipe Franks is evident. Franks has already thrown for more touchdowns this season than he did in his eleven appearances last season, and his yards per completion is up from 6.3 to 7.3. Franks is boosted by a defense that is third in the nation in sacks while also having a strong secondary.
Mason spoke about how those two groups work in tandem.
“What they’ve done a good job of doing is getting teams behind the chains, and when they get you behind the chains, they come,” he said.
In order to nullify the Florida pass rush, the Commodores have to do a better job of getting chunk plays on first and second down. The Commodores have just converted five of 26 third downs in SEC play so far (19.2%), and that lack of success is largely due to an inability to get into manageable third down situations.
One solution could be to eliminate the running back by committee system that the team has relied on thus far. With half of the season complete, there is a large enough sample size to make future decisions based on past results.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn has been Vanderbilt’s strongest running back so far, averaging 6.8 yards per carry while also displaying the ability to breakaway on any carry.
While Coach Mason said that he views Vaughn as the “bell-cow” of the trio of Vaughn, Khari Blasingame, and Jamauri Wakefield, last week’s game against Georgia is not indicative of that. Vaughn had only nine of Vanderbilt’s 28 carries.
While the Commodores came into the season led by Senior Quarterback Kyle Shurmur, Mason said he has confidence in the running game and would like to see more of it.
“I feel good about how we’re running the football,” he said. “We just need to run it more.”
This weekend’s game against Florida marks the start of the second half of the season, which senior linebacker Josh Smith said is an opportunity for a fresh start.
“First half of the season we went 3-3,” he said. “Not where we want to be but it’s a good start to the season. Now moving onto the second half of the season, we have to take it game by game, day by day, and go 1-0 each week.”
With three wins under their belt, Vanderbilt is in the position to reach a bowl game if they can grind out some wins against SEC competition, but so far having been outscored 78-27 in two conference games, improvement is needed for the team to reach that goal.
Offensive lineman Bruno Reagan said he believes the team is almost where it needs to be offensively.
“We’re so close,” Reagan said. “We’re unbelievably close.”
A win against Florida would be a huge confidence booster for the Commodore football team as they embark on the second half of their season. Looking ahead at the schedule, Kentucky is the only remaining game in which Vanderbilt will be a significant underdog.
While Florida is a tough challenge this week, if the Vanderbilt team that showed up against Notre Dame comes to play on Saturday, there is a chance that Vanderbilt could pull of an upset. Additionally, the return of alumni for Homecoming should bring in Vanderbilt’s largest crowd of the season, so perhaps for once there will be a home-field advantage.
As Mason said on Tuesday, the time is now for Vanderbilt to jumpstart the run that they believe they can go on.
“I think now is the time where when you look at it, we’re halfway through the season, heading into the first game on the backside of that, if you’re going to make the run you have to make the run now,” he said.