It finally happened.
By Matt Zemek
The Vanderbilt Commodores, after losing 26 consecutive SEC games dating back to October of 2019, broke through and won a conference contest. Vanderbilt fell behind twice in the fourth quarter and rallied twice to stun the Kentucky Wildcats, 24-21. Kentucky’s two go-ahead scores in the fourth quarter reinforced the fear among Commodore fans that another typical gut-punch loss was coming, but this time, quarterback Mike Wright and the VU offense had answers. It was a crunch-time conquest of a familiar crucible which had been a stumbling block for the Dores for three years. Clark Lea and his players know they can do the job now; it’s not theory or an idealistic hope, but a proven reality. Vanderbilt has a chance to use that Kentucky win as a building block. The talented but erratic Florida Gators come to Nashville knowing that Vanderbilt has to be taken seriously.
Can VU upset Florida and build back its reputation even more? That would be exciting if the Dores can pull it off. Let’s look at what Vanderbilt must do versus the Gators:
Left, Wright and Center
Mike Wright made huge plays as a runner and passer. The big plays are the focus, but the fact that he made his big plays in a variety of ways is very notable as well. Wright kept Kentucky’s defense off balance because the Wildcats knew he was a threat to run. Openings in the passing game emerged partly as a product of Wright’s running success. Vanderbilt also had success on traditional running plays (non-scrambles) because UK wasn’t always loading the tackle box to stop a handoff. Wright became the center of the offense in ways which drew attention to him, not the rest of the VU backfield. It’s important for Vanderbilt and Wright to establish a good run-pass mix so that Florida can’t settle in and assume a specific line of attack.
Force Anthony Richardson to be patient
Whether as a runner or passer, Anthony Richardson is a dangerous, talented quarterback who can set fire to an opposing defense if he’s on top of his game. Vanderbilt has to throw him off balance, and that begins with denying him easy reads and open running lanes. If a Florida opponent forces Richardson to create 12-play, 80-yard drives, the Gators are in trouble and will be swimming against the odds. If Richardson can gain chunk plays with his arm or his legs, the Gators’ template for moving the ball – and scoring, and winning – falls neatly into place. Vanderbilt has to know it will give up yards. It just can’t give them up quickly or easily. Make Florida and Richardson earn every inch.
Carry the Kentucky game into this one
Kentucky played poorly, but Vanderbilt took advantage. Not every SEC opponent will play poorly, but now that Vanderbilt has won a conference game, the performance level of every player on the VU roster needs to improve. This is how a program raises its floor and gradually improves its expected weekly standard of quality. The road to improvement and continued success depends on being dissatisfied with one game, one day, one moment of achievement. Consistent achievement is the goal of every team, and that’s what this game is most centrally about.