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Vanderbilt’s kitchen sink offense isn’t great, but it’s hard to prepare for

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NCAA Football: Tennessee State at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Technically speaking, the next two games Missouri plays could have an impact on the SEC East race. Next week’s game is easy enough to explain: Tennessee still has a chance to win this miserable division, but a loss to Mizzou would cripple the Vols’ chances.

This week, though, is more of a technicality. Vanderbilt cannot win the East but could still play a role by tying for the lead at 4-4. Some tie-breaker scenarios could change based on whether Vandy is involved or not.

The impact: If Mizzou beats the Commodores, South Carolina’s odds of winning the East shift from 2.2% all the way to 2.3%. HIGH STAKES. LET’S GET TO PREVIEWING THIS VITAL BATTLE.

Quarterback

  • Kyle Shurmur (6’4, 223, So.) — 130-for-236 (55%), 1,310 yards, 5 TD, 4 INT, 18 sacks (4.7 yards per pass attempt); 14 carries, 76 yards (5.4)
  • Wade Freebeck (6’5, 225, Jr.) — 6-for-13, 77 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT (5.9 yards per attempt); 3 carries, 9 yards (3.0)

I rankled some Vandy fans in the offseason with my opinion that Drew Lock was further along and/or had a higher ceiling than the Commodores’ own sophomore slinger, Shurmur. I think 2016 has vindicated me, at least a little bit.

Comparatively speaking, Shurmur hasn’t been asked to do as much as Lock. He averages 28 pass attempts per game to Lock’s 37, and while Missouri has been attempting (with a little bit of success) to further build its run game, Vandy’s priorities are clearly 1) hand the ball to Ralph Webb, 2) maybe throw ... or maybe just run Webb some more.

Shurmur has produced two of his three highest passer ratings of the season in the last two weeks. That has to be at least a little bit disconcerting for a Missouri defense that figured some things out against the run last week, only to see its pass defense crater.

  • Shurmur, first 7 games: 91-for-197 (46%), 946 yards, 3 TD, 3 INT (88.5 rating)
  • Shurmur, last 2 games: 39-for-59 (66%), 364 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT (125.7 rating)

Granted, one of these two games came against FCS’ Tennessee State, but one also came against Auburn.

Shurmur is quickly settling into a decent efficiency-passing groove. It’s always been the logical step for an offense that has leaned too heavily on Webb for a while: Pull defenders out of the box with quick, easy passes, and hope that gives Webb some more running lanes.

Basically, Vandy will probably do with Shurmur what South Carolina did with Jake Bentley last week — try to establish the run while keeping Mizzou off-balance with the pass. VU doesn’t have the receiving corps that the Gamecocks do, but the Dores certainly have a more seasoned running back.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Auburn
Kyle Shurmur
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Running Back

RB

  • Ralph Webb (5’10, 202, Jr.) — 177 carries, 901 yards (5.1), 6 TD; 23 targets, 16 catches, 126 yards (5.5)
  • Khari Blasingame (6’1, 235, So.) — 70 carries, 331 yards (4.7), 7 TD; 5 targets, 4 catches, 8 yards (1.6)
  • Josh Crawford (5’10, 202, So.) — 13 carries, 64 yards (4.9); 1 target, 0 catches

FB

  • Bailey McElwain (6’0, 238, Fr.) — 6 targets, 3 catches, 11 yards (1.8)
  • Dallas Rivers (6’1, 225, Jr.) — 11 carries, 22 yards (2.0), 1 TD; 5 targets, 2 catches, 13 yards (2.6)

Ralph Webb is a back I struggle to evaluate. There is skill in being able to consistently pound out four to five yards at a time while taking on a huge load of carries, and my goodness, has Webb taken on a heavy load at times. He averaged 23 carries per game in 2015, going over 25 in three of his final six games of the year. Vandy won two of those three games (10-3 over Missouri, 21-17 over Vandy), even though he averaged a paltry 3.6 yards per carry.

Webb both dished and took a beating in 2015, and at the very least he kept the clock moving. In 2016, he has a dance partner. Since taking on 51 combined carries against WKU (in a 31-30 win) and Florida (in a 13-6 loss), he has averaged only about 15 carries per game. Big sophomore Khari Blasingame, meanwhile, has averaged about 7 per game in that span.

Webb has taken on only about 20 carries per game for the year, but his average is up to 5.1 yards per carry. Granted, the average is just 4.3 per carry against SEC foes, but ... Mizzou’s run defense has not really qualified as SEC-quality for portions of this year.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Western Kentucky
Khari Blasingame
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Receiving Corps

WR

  • Kalija Lipscomb (6’1, 190, Fr.) — 55 targets, 23 catches, 278 yards (5.1), 2 TD
  • C.J. Duncan (5’11, 203, Jr.) — 46 targets, 28 catches, 304 yards (6.6)
  • Latevius Rayford (6’1, 201, Sr.) — 4 targets, 2 catches, 16 yards (4.0)

WR

  • Trent Sherfield (6’1, 200, Jr.) — 34 targets, 18 catches, 150 yards (4.4); 6 carries, 52 yards (8.7), 1 TD
  • Caleb Scott (6’2, 204, Jr.) — 15 targets, 10 catches, 190 yards (12.7)
  • Darrius Sims (5’9, 191, Sr.) — 3 targets, 1 catch, 4 yards (1.3); 14 carries, 114 yards (8.1)

TE

  • Nathan Marcus (6’5, 244, Jr.) — 11 targets, 8 catches, 50 yards (4.6)
  • Jared Pinkney (6’4, 250, RSFr.) — 26 targets, 16 catches, 180 yards (6.9), 2 TD

Considering the opponent, the game against Auburn last week may have been the best of Shurmur’s career. He didn’t take too many shots downfield, but he completed two-thirds of his passes and topped 200 yards for just the third time in his 14 games.

So who benefited from this increase in passing? C.J. Duncan and Caleb Scott, mostly. The two second-string juniors caught 11 of 15 passes for 149 yards, while first-stringers Kalija Lipscomb and Trent Sherfield caught just four of 10 for 34.

Preparing for Vandy, then, is a little bit tricky at the moment. The Commodores are passing more and not looking as far downfield, and at different points this year, Lipscomb, Sherfield, Duncan, and Scott have all caught quite a bit of Shurmur’s eye. So have tight ends Jared Pinkney and Nathan Marcus.

In two early scoring drives against Auburn, which accounted for 112 of the Dores’ 341 yards, Webb rushed three times and caught a pass, Blasingame rushed once, Darrius Sims rushed twice, and Shurmur completed passes to Sherfield, Rivers, Lipscomb, Duncan, and Pinkney. VU might not have a single, go-to threat, but variety is the spice of life, and the Dores are trying to utilize every decent weapon they’ve got.

NCAA Football: Tennessee State at Vanderbilt
Trent Sherfield & Kalija Lipscomb
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive Line

LT

  • Will Holden (6’6, 312, Sr.) — 9 starts in 2016, 32 career starts
  • Devin Cochran (6’7, 305, Fr.)

LG

  • Delando Crooks (6’5, 305, Jr.) -- 4 starts in 2016, 4 career starts questionable
  • Ean Pfeifer (6’4, 290, RSFr.) — 5 starts in 2016, 5 career starts

C

  • Barrett Gouger (6’4, 305, Sr.) — 9 starts in 2016, 20 career starts
  • Cole Hardin (6’4, 305, So.)

RG

  • Bruno Regan (6’3, 310, So.) — 9 starts in 2016, 10 career starts
  • Bailey Granier (6’6, 320, So.) — 4 career starts

RT

  • Justin Skule (6’6, 305, So.) — 9 starts in 2016, 11 career starts
  • Jared Southers (6’4, 308, RSFr.)

The line is a limitation. Vandy ranks just 72nd in Adj. Line Yards and 96th in Adj. Sack Rate; the Dores keep defenders out of the backfield against the run (41st in stuff rate) but don’t get much of a push (105th in power success rate).

This also isn’t the line we were supposed to see this year. Two-year starter Andrew Jelks was lost for the season in August, and guard Delando Crooks started the first four games but came down with an undisclosed injury. (Yes, undisclosed. College football coaches are ridiculous and getting worse.)

This is good news for Missouri, of course. The Tigers struggled mightily against good blocking like that of LSU and Kentucky, but this line is closer to South Carolina’s than Kentucky’s. So there’s that.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Vanderbilt
Will Holden with Blasingame and Shurmur
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports