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2016 Independence Bowl: Vanderbilt needs late surge from passing game to carry over

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Vandy finished with a bang but its offense struggled for most of the season.

Vanderbilt v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Ah, Vanderbilt, what isn’t there to say about a 6-6 team? About all 6-6 teams? So many things, so so many things that I am going to struggle not to abruptly jump from one compelling line of discussion to another.

[five hours of staring at blank computer screen]

Vanderbilt! Football. Because we are obligated to do some football in Shreveport. Sports. Vanderbilt is in Tennessee.

Vandy S&P+ national rank Yds/Play
(national rank)
Yds/Rush
(national rank)
Yds/Pass Att.
(national rank)
2015 Offense 118 4.5 (120) 3.8 (109) 5.5 (120)
2016 Offense 90 5.3 (97) 4.3 (82) 6.7 (91)

I kid but 2016 has been a fairly noteworthy season for Vanderbilt, which did not weather the loss of head coach James Franklin well, to put it kindly. The Commodores posted losing records in each of new coach Derek Mason’s first two seasons, slipping quickly from 9-4 in 2013—Franklin’s last year—to 3-9 in 2014 and 4-8 in 2015.

But the Commodores managed to get up off the deck, and none to soon for Mason, who is a first-time head coach.

The offense has been a major part of the team’s overall improvement, as the unit’s gone from horrible to just not very good in the span of a season. For some perspective on the Commodores’ 2015 numbers, bear in mind that Boston College averaged 4.4 yards per play that year.

Vanderbilt averaged only 15.2 points per game last season and got shut out twice, which is also as many times as the ‘Dores hit 20 points against an FBS opponent. It was bad all around.

The bright spot was running back Ralph Webb, who has been Vandy’s feature back since 2014. He’s hit 1,100 yards rushing in each of the last two seasons and has more than 3,000 for his career. He also has another year of eligibility remaining.

Previously Webb was stuck in something of a grinder role—he needed 23 carries per game to average 96 yards per contest in 2015, for example. This season, with some better support, his per-carry average is a career-high 5.1 and he’s scored 12 rushing touchdowns.

The Commodores probably would prefer not to put the game in quarterback Kyle Shurmur’s hands, despite the hot streak he’s riding into the bowl game. He lit up Tennessee and Mississippi to close out the regular season but overall his year was a struggle, especially against other power-five teams. It’s just hard to know what to make of how Shurmur and his teammates finished out November.

The overall body of work says this offense, and the passing game especially, is bad. The Commodores were dreadful on passing downs. Then again, Shurmur closed out ‘16 with 400+ yards passing on 12.1 yards per attempt and his team scored 45 points. I dunno, man.

Vandy S&P+ national rank Yds/Play
(national rank)
Yds/Rush
(national rank)
Yds/Pass Att.
(national rank)
2015 Defense 20 5.2 (33) 4.0 (47) 6.4 (26)
2016 Defense 45 5.9 (81) 4.7 (85) 7.1 (52)

The advanced metrics don’t see the same level of drop-off on this side of the ball that some of the more traditional stats imply. Still, there are some rather significant red flags. For one, the Commodores’ rushing defense has been pretty rough against competent offenses, and they’ve allowed 200+ yards rushing four times.

This unit is also extremely bendy-don’t-breaky which may say some things about scheme or approach but also here we’re getting into a bit of fluky randomness territory. Vandy has allowed 44 trips into the red zone, which is only average. (Alabama, astoundingly, allowed 20 red zone trips ALL YEAR. I don’t have a point with this, I just thought it was incredible.)

In those 44 red zone trips, Vandy allowed scores only 29 times, for a score percentage of about 66%—that leads the nation. Vanderbilt’s defense also ranks ninth in touchdown percentage. These are impressive numbers, and no doubt they were crucial to Vandy’s win total, but they do not accurately reflect the down-to-down quality of the defense.

But then again, we’ve seen NC State squander approximately eight hundred thousand billion pristine scoring chances in 2016, so if you want to take a glass-half-empty approach here and consider this a nightmare matchup, well, your friends and family will understand.