Our cup is at mid-level. The half-empty crowd will draw plenty of evidentiary support from our narrow – possibly lucky – win over TSU. The half-full club will point to our winning record and narrow loss to Notre Dame and infer imminent SEC competitiveness.
By FK Friedman
The truth is – to slightly alter Dennis Green’s famous rant: “We are who we thought we were.” After five games, we stand at 3-2 – winning all of our out of conference games except the one in South Bend and losing our lone SEC tilt. We are exactly where we expected to be after five games – and that is nothing to panic about. But the TSU game hammered home concerns that have plagued us all year – and the staff needs to act upon them.
Vandy staggered early again against TSU – a team that is, by the way, fairly talented. We left points off the board early too – with poor red zone execution and predictable calls. It was a game where those lost points would haunt us. In the first half, we had five drives inside TSU’s 35 yard line – and only ten points to show for it. This is a recurring theme. Our first quarter red zone INT not only cost us 7 points, but set TSU up for a score. Two missed field goals – one was a chip shot – meant we gave away 20 points – this is the margin between comfort and a narrow escape.
The failure to finish – or tendency to squander opportunity – is an undeniable trend for this team, particularly early in games. Much like the Nevada game, however, when we “woke up” and took a double digit lead with back to back scores – a noticeable sigh of relief, foot off the pedal moment reoccurred. The scary thing about this game is not only that we had another slow start – but that we then also blew a double digit second half lead to an FCS opponent. In blowing the lead, we had back to back offensive series where we threw short of the sticks on third down – another trend that needs to stop.
TSU won my respect in this game. Not only did they have a lot of quality players – including QB Demry Croft – but they ran smart passing routes that seemed to confound our secondary. This was attributable to a combination of factors: (1) Croft was mobile (we did not use a spy on him) and he bought time, (2) we almost let Shi Smith beat us two weeks in a row (the staff seemed so worried about getting beat deep, we gave away the underneath stuff all day long), and (3) with time, Croft found match-ups and frequently picked on our least experienced defenders. Our pass rush only recorded a single sack – and Croft’s fleetness was accented with good field vision and decision-making. TSU coached-up a good game plan. We did not garner any turnovers – and allowed TSU to convert 7 of 14 on third downs. TSU averaged 5.7 yards per play – and gained 373 total yards.
As our pass rush and turnover revival suffered a reversion to 2017 form, special teams also had its worst day of the season. In addition to the missed field goals, kick-off coverage totally broke down twice. Andrew Rector saved the game with a shoestring tackle on TSU’s final kick-off return. Even our lone punt of the day was below standard. Trey Ellis did record a nice punt return.
The offense sputtered at times – especially with two early INTs (one of which came on a fourth down.) However, the playmakers made plays all day. All four touchdowns is this game were of the spectacular variety. Our initial first and goal ended with a predictable sequence of run, run, pass – the throw was intercepted and nearly returned for a score. Our second first and goal opportunity went run, run, pass too. On third down, Jared Pinkney was smothered by a TSU defender but still managed to make a circus catch of a low outside bullet – thrown perfectly to the only spot it could not be defended. The catch kept us in the game and Pinkney later contributed another highlight reel grab. Later, Ke’Shawn Vaughn would weave his way through TSU defenders for a sparkling 78 yard score. Kalijah Lipscomb contributed two brilliant catches for TDs – the last one came with six minutes left on a third and five bomb that was underthrown. The good news is: Lipscomb came back for the ball and made a play as the defender stumbled. The bad news is: if he doesn’t make that play – we probably lose the game to an FCS opponent. This catch is destined to find its way on to the top five plays of the year at season’s end.
There were actually a lot of bright spots on offense after the first quarter. We did use the whole field – running wide with great success – and we mixed in misdirection and quick throws. Vandy accumulated 256 yards on the ground and 297 through the air. We averaged 7.5 yards per carry – with Vaughn, Blasingame and Tennyson all busting long runs. Vaughn was also spectacular on defense, providing tackles on both INTs – the second stop involved chasing down the defender from behind to save a touchdown. Nice hustle plays.
C.J. Bolar stepped up with seven catches – and seems to be climbing the depth chart. Lipscomb’s final numbers were 9 grabs for 174 yards and 2 scores. Kyle Shurmur shook off the shaky start and went 20-32 with 3 TDs. The two early INTs were unsettling and he missed some open throws in the first half – but none in the second.
If we were looking for a tune-up before the Georgia game last Saturday – we did not get it. Instead, we blew a gasket and ended up having to replace the radiator. The question is: how will we respond? Last year, when our confidence took a big hit, it left a long-lasting mark. Coach Mason needs to light a tricky fire under his squad this week – because we need to be attuned to fixing major faults, without growing fragile and defeatist. This is a tall order heading to Athens to face a team as multi-talented as #2-ranked Georgia.
Georgia was fairly lackluster in an easy home win over the Vols last week. After that semi-focused performance, I would be very surprised if we are over-looked this Saturday night -although Georgia does have a critical road game at LSU the following week.
As usual, Georgia has a lot of weapons. Quarterback Jake Fromm is completing 72.5% of his passes. Elijah Holyfield and D’Andre Swift are running strong. Georgia is averaging over 40 points per game in three SEC tilts. (Interestingly, Coach Smart has called off the Dawgs in routs, so Georgia has not hit 50 points yet this season.) Georgia’s lines smothered Carolina (and the Gamecocks terrorized us in the trenches.) In a game with another common opponent, Georgia led MTSU 42-7 at halftime. Against Georgia’s defense, we cannot rely on smash mouth success or long developing routes. To be competitive in this game, we will have to rely on misdirection and quick throws to keep Shurmur upright. Our last trip to Athens turned on a screen pass – something we need to do more often. Zach Cunningham took over from there. That homecoming game will not be forgotten by the Athens faithful for a long time.