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If Vanderbilt can’t stop the Mizzou run game, nothing else will matter

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Mizzou’s had the best run game in the country over the last month. Vandy’s run defense is worse than any Mizzou has faced in the last month.

Alabama v Vanderbilt
Ryan White
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

If you were to survey the average college football fan, the two recent Vanderbilt players said fan would likely be able to mention are running back Ralph Webb and former linebacker Zach Cunningham. They have been the faces of the Derek Mason Commodores, which crafts an image of a ball control offense and sound, sturdy, Stanford-style defense. Move the chains, wear down the opponent, play physical run defense, win some games.

Webb is somehow still in uniform — it feels like he’s been with the Dores since about 2003 — but here are some rankings for you:

  • Rushing S&P+: 97th on offense, 111th on defense
  • Passing S&P+: 27th on offense, 17th on defense

That’s jarring for me to see, and I’ve watched Vandy a few times this year. The more the game is in the hands of VU quarterback Kyle Shurmur and the Commodore secondary, the better.

The problem for Vandy: though Shumur could indeed find success, with the way that Missouri has been running the ball of late, Question No. 1 in this game is whether Vandy can slow the Tigers down. If they can’t, whatever Question No. 2 is might not matter.

Let’s put it this way:

  • Florida ranks 29th in Rushing S&P+. Against the Gators, Ish Witter and Larry Rountree III rushed 32 times for 166 yards (5.2 per carry).
  • Idaho ranks 60th in Rushing S&P+. Against the Vandals, Witter and Rountree rushed 21 times for 138 yards (6.6).
  • UConn ranks 102nd in Rushing S&P+. Against the Huskies, Witter and Rountree rushed 16 times for 133 yards (8.3).
  • Tennessee ranks 108th in Rushing S&P+. Against the Vols, Witter and Rountree rushed 42 times for 371 yards (8.8).
  • Vanderbilt ranks ... 111th in Rushing S&P+.

Granted, matchups matter, and college football players are inconsistent. Just this last weekend, Miami’s previously awful run defense completely wiped the floor with Notre Dame’s previously awesome Josh Adams. But until we know whether Vandy can slow down the Tiger run game, nothing else really matters in this ballgame.

Defensive Line

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Florida
Dare Odeyingbo
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

DE

  • Jonathan Wynn (6’4, 265, Sr.) — 17.5 tackles, 3 TFLs (1 sack), 3 run stuffs, 2 PBU, 30% success rate allowed
  • Dayo Odeyingbo (6’6, 250, Fr.) — 13.5 tackles, 3 TFLs (2 sacks), 3 run stuffs, 1 INT, 28% success rate
  • Drew Birchmeier (6’4, 295, RSFr.)

NT

  • Nifae Lealao (6’5, 315, Sr.) — 14.0 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 5 run stuffs, 3 PBUs, 33% success rate
  • Jay Woods (6’3, 285, Sr.) — 11.0 tackles, 1 TFL (1 sack), 1 run stuff, 36% success rate
  • Josiah Sa’o (6’2, 295, RSFr.)

DE

  • Dare Odeyingbo (6’2, 272, Jr.) — 24.0 tackles, 8 TFLs (3.5 sacks), 7 run stuffs, 2 PBU, 1 FF, 28% success rate
  • Cameron Tidd (6’3, 290, RSFr.) — 10.5 tackles, 1 TFL (1 sack), 3 run stuffs, 1 FF, 27% success rate

The national average for opportunity rate (rushes gaining at least five yards) hovers around 38 or 39 percent. Missouri’s offense currently ranks ninth with a 45 percent opportunity rate; Vandy’s defense, meanwhile: 125th with the same 45 percent.

That’s not what I expected of this unit considering the Commodores ranked 54th in Rushing S&P+ last year, and considering four of the primary six linemen are juniors or seniors. Lealao and Woods have been around forever, and Wynn and Odeyingbo were decent role players last year.

Odeyingbo appears to be holding up his end of the bargain, and his freshman brother Dayo is showing potential, but VU linemen are not occupying blockers nearly well enough to free the linebackers, and the linebackers aren’t making nearly as many plays. (That last part isn’t as surprising considering the absence of Cunningham.)

Linebacking Corps

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Vanderbilt
Oren Burks (20) and Jordan Griffin (40)
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

OLB

  • Charles Wright (6’3, 240, Jr.) — 24.0 tackles, 9.5 TFLs (8 sacks), 5 run stuffs, 20% success rate
  • Andre Mintze (6’3, 235, RSFr.) — 3.5 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 2 run stuffs, 25% success rate

ILB

  • Emmanuel Smith (6’2, 235, Sr.) — 40.5 tackles, 4 TFLs (1.5 sacks), 10 run stuffs, 39% success rate
  • Jordan Griffin (6’0, 223, Jr.) — 38.5 tackles, 7.5 TFLs (1 sack), 9 run stuffs, 1 PBU, 1 FF, 52% success rate

ILB

  • Oren Burks (6’3, 230, Sr.) — 57.5 tackles, 7 TFLs (1 sack), 9 run stuffs, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 45% success rate
  • Jay Hockaday (6’3, 230, So.) — 3.5 tackles, 0.5 TFLs, 2 run stuffs, 0% success rate

OLB

  • Caleb Peart (6’1, 235, Sr.) — 5.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 3 run stuffs, 33% success rate
  • Josh Smith (6’3, 240, Jr.) — 9.5 tackles, 3.5 TFLs (2 sack), 4 run stuffs, 25% success rate

The attacking ability here is at least decent. VU isn’t nearly consistent enough down for down, but the Commodores do rank a healthier 69th in Stuff Rate (run stops at or behind the line) and 65th in Adj. Sack Rate. Here, you see where that production comes from. The primary inside linebackers (Oren Burks, Emmanuel Smith, Jordan Griffin) have each taken part in at least nine run stuffs, and Charles Wright the key to the pass rush.

Because of the struggles against the run, Vandy doesn’t do a very good job of leveraging opponents into passing downs (96th in standard downs success rate). If they do get you there, however, the Dores know how to attack you and get off the field (29th in passing downs success rate). The attacking linebackers are part of the reason for that; an experienced secondary is another.

Secondary

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Vanderbilt
JoeJuan Williams
Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

CB

  • Tre Herndon (6’1, 188, Sr.) — 23.0 tackles, 1 TFL (1 sack), 9 PBU, 1 FF, 79% success rate
  • Taurean Ferguson (5’9, 190, Sr.) — 22.0 tackles, 2 TFLs, 4 run stuffs, 1 PBU, 48% success rate

SS

  • Ryan White (5’10, 190, Sr.) — 47.0 tackles, 4 TFLs, 6 run stuffs, 2 INT, 3 PBU, 53% success rate
  • Zaire Jones (6’0, 200, RSFr.) — 8.0 tackles, 1 TFL, 3 run stuffs, 1 FF, 55% success rate

FS

  • Arnold Tarpley (6’1, 203, Sr.) — 22.5 tackles, 2 run stuffs, 2 PBU, 52% success rate
  • LaDarius Wiley (6’1, 205, Jr.) — 65.5 tackles, 1 TFLs, 3 run stuffs, 1 INT, 5 PBU, 65% success rate

CB

  • Joejuan Williams (6’3, 208, So.) — 32.5 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 3 run stuffs, 9 PBU, 1 FF, 66% success rate
  • Bryce Lewis (6’0, 185, Jr.) — 7.5 tackles, 1 TFL (1 sack), 1 INT, 1 FF, 56% success rate
  • Donovan Sheffield (5’11, 190, Jr.) — 10.0 tackles, 1 PBU, 55% success rate

This isn’t really a team you want to have to pass against. On third downs with four or more yards to go, opponents are just 41-for-76 for 527 yards, two touchdowns, and five interceptions. Passer rating: 107.7.

The corners play pretty close to the line of scrimmage and cover you well. Granted, when they get burned, they get really burned — something else that tends to haunt recent Mizzou opponents — but if you have to pass, you might not be able to. So once again, Mizzou’s success running the ball could be the key to a road win. And Mizzou’s had a lot of success running the ball of late.

Special Teams

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Mississippi
Jamauri Wakefield
Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

K

  • Tommy Openshaw (6’2, 200, Sr.) — 31-32 PAT, 1-3 FG under 40, 1-3 FG over 40; 43 kickoffs, 72% touchback rate
  • Ryley Guay (5’10, 190, So.) — 2 kickoffs, 100% touchback rate

P

  • Sam Loy (6’1, 190, So.) — 57 punts, 39.8 average, 120th in punt success rate
  • Reid Nelson (6’2, 215, Sr.) — 2 punts, 24.5 average!

KR

  • Jamauri Wakefield (6’1, 220, RSFr.) — 16 KR, 24.6 average
  • Kalija Lipscomb (6’1, 200, So.) — 3 KR, 16.3 average

PR

  • Kalija Lipscomb (6’1, 200, So.) — 11 PR, 6.1 average

By the way, have you noticed where Mizzou ranks in Special Teams S&P+ now? FIFTH! The Tigers rank between 40th and 50th in kickoff efficiency, place-kicking, and punt return efficiency) and rank ninth in kick return efficiency and first in punt efficiency (all hail Corey Fatony).

Vanderbilt’s Special Teams S&P+ ranking: 130th. Dead last. Tommy Openshaw’s kickoffs are great (20th in kickoff efficiency), but that’s pretty much the only strength. Returns are below average, punting is bad, and Openshaw’s place-kicking has been egregiously awful. Granted, Mizzou fans probably still don’t trust Tucker McCann all that much, but he’s been much better this season; Openshaw’s been worse than McCann was last year.

Special teams is a small-sample affair, obviously, but if this game comes down to a special teams play, the odds are decent that Mizzou was on the right side of it.