Sunday, September 19, 2010
Commodores show some of that 2008 opportunism
It's important for Vandy fans to distinguish between (1) teams we should beat, (2) teams we can beat and (3) teams we can't beat.
Some fans think we should be able to beat everybody we play. Not so.
I was disappointed this past week with the number of fans who thought that Caldwell is way out of his league and must be replaced, that all our coaches are terrible, and that our recruiting has been poor and must improve.
Why was everybody freaking out? Because we'd just lost by 24 points to A TEAM WE COULDN'T BEAT. You didn't hear all the hysteria after the first week when we lost by two points to a TEAM WE COULD (BUT SHOULDN'T) BEAT.
I just didn't get it. We have a brand-new head coach, a brand-new offensive line, a quarterback who still hasn't started a full season, and a receiving corps that we're in the process of replacing with true freshmen. And we'd just lost to LSU, a team with as much talent as any team in the nation, especially on the defensive and offensive lines. In my mind, the loss to LSU wasn't any worse than the loss to Northwestern, especially considering we avoided major injury.
Saturday, we were a double-digit underdog to Ole Miss, and we'll likely be an underdog in every game we play this year except Eastern Michigan.
Our best days are ahead of us. Our best players have never played, and you can't just throw all those guys out on the field at once.
Yes, Ole Miss was a team we could (but shouldn't) beat. We could (but probably shouldn't) beat UConn, Kentucky, Wake Forest and Tennessee. (I'm picking us to win all four, against my better judgment.) The only team we should beat is Eastern Michigan.
We probably can't beat Georgia, Arkansas, South Carolina and Florida, unless those guys get drunk the morning of the game or decide to go on a laptop-stealing spree.
We've got to be opportunistic. When a team we can (but shouldn't) beat stumbles or has a weakness, we've got to capitalize. We couldn't capitalize against Northwestern, but we capitalized beautifully against Ole Miss.
Let's face it: We stayed in the game for three quarters against LSU because they let us, just like Miss State stayed in the game for a half against LSU in Baton Rouge before the Tigers whipped them in the end.
We learned something about ourselves on Saturday, and we learned, as some of you have already pointed out, that this team bears some resemblance to the Music City Bowl champions of 2008. We learned we've got:
• A very, very young offensive line that needs time to gel. Remember we had no returning starters on the line in 2008. Nobody's mentioning that sophomore Ryan Seymour, our lineman with probably the most NFL potential, didn't start against Northwestern or LSU because he violated team rules. On Saturday, Seymour replaced Caleb Welchans at right tackle, and Welchans replaced guard Jabo Burrow, who was woefully outmatched against LSU. And for all you folks complaining about our lack of recruiting on the line, we've got five true freshmen (James Kittredge, Logan Stewart, Grant Ramsay, Chase White and Andrew Bridges). And more than any position except maybe quarterback, offensive linemen need a redshirt year to prepare for SEC play. Next year, we'll have three more true freshmen linemen (three-star prospects James Lewis and Jake Bernstein, and Spencer Pulley).
• A quarterback who can get the job done if he doesn't make mistakes. Remember how good Chris Nickson was in the red zone in 2008? Larry Smith's sweet ball fake and touchdown run in the presence of a heavy rush on Saturday was mighty encouraging. And did you notice he was below .500 passing? That's because he threw the ball away instead of taking sacks against the Rebels.
• No penalties down the stretch. Sure, we started the game with some stupid penalties, especially on punt returns. But after the first quarter, we avoided penalties and the offensive line did some good work without drawing holding penalties.
• A bend but don't break defense. Has there ever been a quieter 100-yard rushing day than the one Jeremiah Masoli had against us? With the exception of his jaw-dropping spin-move touchdown, he had a bunch of runs on second and third and long that came up short. Did you notice how much time the Rebels took in the fourth quarter just to get to the 50-yard line? Sure, our defense benefited from some dropped balls, and our pass coverage sometimes leaves something to be desired, but they totally dictated the game and even worked the clock to our favor in the end. How many third or fourth and short situations did we stuff the Rebels? A bunch.
• A punter who can consistently land the ball inside the 20-yard line. Richard Kent — and the guys covering his punts — came up huge Saturday. Ole Miss had terrible field position, which greatly helped our defense and our offense.
• An offense that, while still struggling to move the ball, can at least get a couple of first downs and help our field position. Remember how Nickson would move us 20 or 30 yards so that Upson could boot the opposition into a hole? Larry was doing that on Saturday.
• A team capable of winning the turnover battle. We finally recovered a big fumble and had a pick-six. And Casey Hayward held onto an interception. Meanwhile, Larry Smith avoided game-killing mistakes. Still, Warren Norman's got to curb his tendency to stretch out with the ball for extra yardage.
• Confidence and character. Eddie Foster's gamble on the pick-six and Larry's third-down pass to Brandon Barden out of the end zone — that began a 96-yard TD drive — lifted the team and made them believe they could win. And let's not forget who downed one of Richard Kent's punts inside the 10-yard line — it was walk-on David Giller, who had just snapped the ball to Kent. Meanwhile, Ole Miss's thug quarterback-for-hire racked up big statistics but lacked the passion and leadership in the face of opposition that the Rebels needed.
• Speed. Sure, we miss D.J. Moore, but we're even faster now than we were in 2008. Even counting the first two games, our defense has demonstrated big-time speed on the corners. Tim Fugger ran down Masoli just like he ran down Dan Persa; the guy's got some wheels. Chris Marve was all over the field, even when playing hurt. And our young DBs — Foster, Trey Wilson, Eric Samuels, Kenny Ladler — were all over Masoli and the other Rebels when they tried to turn the corner. And on offense, let's not forget Zac Stacy and Warren Norman. When's the last time a Commodore running back went 80 yards without getting tackled against an SEC defense? Um, it was Zealand Thigpen against LSU... in 1948. Vandy's longest run from scrimmage remains punter Bill Marinangel's 81 yard fake against Bama in 1996.
• Big plays. We had woefully few big plays on offense last season. And while our 5.5 rushing average on 41 plays sounds good, we averaged 2.2 yards on 37 carries. The remaining four carries? An 80-yard TD by Warren, a 35-yard TD by Zac, a 15-yard TD by
Larry and a 13-yard run by Wesley Tate. We'll take it.
• Statistics when we need them. We converted on third down only three times on Saturday. And all of them came on the 96-yard drive in the second quarter. When Ole Miss scored 14 unanswered points to tie the game, Warren broke his 80-yard TD run. When we were forced to punt the ball away in the fourth quarter, we got it back on a fumble and Larry faked and sprinted into the end zone.
• Guys who step up when others get injured. If you'd told me T.J. Greenstone would leave the game for good during the first series, I'd have told you we were toast. But Rob Lohr, Colt Nichter, Josh Jelesky and Taylor Loftley were stout. Jay Fullam missed the game but there was absolutely no drop-off with true freshman Kenny Ladler. Wilson, Samuels and Foster have almost made us forget Jamie Graham, who should be ready to go against UConn.
What remains a concern? Well, we still depend on the other team to help us beat them. We need to play even better than we did Saturday — and take advantage of more opponent's mistakes — to beat UConn in two weeks. And we'll need a whole lot of help to even be in the ballpark with South Carolina and Arkansas, or even Georgia, which has already lost to both the Gamecocks and Razorbacks.
But you never know. At the start of 2008, Auburn was a team we couldn't beat. Except they stumbled and we capitalized.
In summary, the Ole Miss game was mighty, mighty encouraging. Just remember that this Vandy team, while talented, is very much a work in progress and won't hit its stride for at least a year. (And that firing our coaching staff will seriously break that stride.) In the meantime, let's steal some more ballgames!