There was a lot to like about our gritty performance in overcoming a talented Western Kentucky squad - but there was plenty to complain about, too. Ultimately, it seemed like we fixed several problems that needed to be corrected - and recognized some in-game tendencies that had to be adjusted. The win over Western Kentucky stopped the bleeding - but the patient is not out of the woods yet. The prognosis, at least, is better.
Nine games into the season, sitting at 4-5, the weirdest team stat to contemplate is this: we have never trailed in the four games we have won. For that matter, in games we have won, we are giving up 7.5 points per game. In games we have lost - all SEC affairs - we have allowed over 46 points per contest.
Our glaring defensive weakness has been stopping the run. While this was, perhaps, understandable against Bama and Georgia, we made Ole Miss and South Carolina (teams that are challenged on the ground) look like world-beaters, too. So holding WKU to a net -6 yards rushing was fairly refreshing. The stat is misleading, because the Hilltoppers actually gained 47 yards rushing - but that yardage was offset by 53 yards lost on the ground (punctuated by a series of bruising sacks.) Hilltopper RB D'Andre Ferby has had some solid games against us over the past few seasons - this run-stopping performance was noteworthy. Also positive, WKU had a designated read-option QB - and that is another weakness for us. We held the QB keeper to minus 2 yards in three tries. Admittedly, WKU is challenged on the ground - so our back-slapping should be modest. But we needed that defensive performance badly. It should be lost on no one that our next opponent, Kentucky, has a very strong running game and an elusive dual-threat QB.
We also can't overlook the fact that WKU threw for 355 yards. Yet, oddly, several corners had particularly strong games despite the yardage allowed. Taurean Ferguson stepped in and appeared to solidify the secondary after several earlier major breakdowns. Tre Herndon and Arnold Tarpley turned in strong games. And then there was the pass rush. Charles Wright remains a force to be reckoned with as he added two more sacks. (After watching a UT defender launch with his helmet and hit a USM ball-carrier squarely in the head and not get called for targeting, it made Wright's ejection the week before for his shot to Bentley's biceps seem all the more dubious.) There were six sacks in all - and we upped the ante after eventually realizing that Western's qb White would pick us apart without pressure.
Joejuan Williams turned in a fine game - and Dayo Odeyingbo collected two sacks as well displaying quickness and burst. Jordan Griffin, Oren Burks, Ryan White and LaDarius Wiley all turned in big plays - and White even collected our first turnover in weeks on the games' final play. He played a large role in the final play against WKU last year too.
There were still several coverage breakdowns, and whiffed arm tackles, and painful penalties (including a devastating offsides on a fourth down stop). We were also aided by two flat-out drops late in the game by open WKU receivers. It just seemed to be our day. What I liked most about the performance was the coaching adjustments. We corrected the coverage breakdowns - and there were none in the second half. In the first half, WKU ran several hurry-ups where our D was not set - we seemed to figure that out better as the game wore on. We turned up the heat on White - and it worked. We recognized sitting back and giving him time to throw was too risky. In the second half, we held a good offensive team to three points. It reminded me of the high hopes back in September. Again, the corrections came at half-time - in SEC games they need to come on the fly.
The offense on Saturday ran like a well-oiled machine: when we put it in drive. We intentionally left it in neutral for long stretches of this game - running clock and taking no chances with the lead (reminiscent of last year's South Carolina debacle.) This one had a much happier ending because we finally gave the squad permission to score even with a slim lead.
We opened the game with a beautiful drive using the whole field, play action, roll outs and misdirection - and consuming six minutes en route to an early lead. With the lead, however, we reverted to "testing the middle" repeatedly, pocket passing and punting. When WKU tied us, we generally snapped back creativity-wise - and scored. With the lead, for much of the game, we were pure vanilla. The result was WKU ran 83 offensive plays to our 56.
The "unsung" turning point play of the game came in the final 90 seconds of the first half. After getting tied at 14 - we started close to the vest from our own 16-yard line. WKU aggressively called two timeouts after two anemic tests of the middle gained three yards total. On third and seven with 1:25 left, Shurmur fired a bullet into triple coverage. Though the throw may have been somewhat ill-advised, Kalijah Lipscomb hauled it in for a huge first-down - and suddenly we were off to the races. The resulting drive was impressive and culminated in a strange ricochet-kick TD reception by Trey Ellis. It was a lucky bounce - but we were due for one. Without the WKU time-outs, it is probably tied at the half and a different second half.
Shurmur was remarkably in control in this one. While the stats were better against Carolina, he was frequently high and wild and under duress in Columbia. He threw a full arsenal of first-rate balls against WKU - ranging from a couple of lovely touch floaters, to a laser to Sherfield in the end zone on a key red zone third down. The O-line protected well and Shurmur looked comfortable and patient. He was also selling play action while going 14 of 21 for 220 yards. Meanwhile, Ralph Webb was collecting 105 yards on the ground and breaking TD records. Yet the offensive star of the game proved to be Trent Sherfield who grabbed everything thrown his way (five catches for 82 yards) and ran the dagger jet sweep for 45 yards to score the clinching td. On this day, we had multiple weapons. And we seemed to understand that running was not setting up the pass - passing was setting up the run. The runs up the middle, again, only succeeded after we successfully ran wide.
Special teams was a mixed bag - but the general improvement was noted. Sam Loy had a truly excellent game. Our coverage was basically good - but several costly gaffes occurred anyway. One Vandy defender let a Loy punt clank off his helmet for an interference call - another let a short WKU punt at midfield turn into a turnover when it bounced off his leg. Frustrating. We hit our only field goal attempt of the day and kickoffs were solid. Our kick returns remain unremarkable.
On the whole, we absolutely had to have this win and we got it. We seemed to recognize in-game that we were stopping ourselves on offense and avoided another vanilla death. The defense showed signs of reverting to form - and just in time. Kentucky will test both the soundness of our rush defense and our pocket containment. Their passing game is not bad either - it will be a good test.
Vegas, a bit surprisingly, has set Vandy up as a three-point favorite in next Saturday's match-up. The Wildcats' shaky pass defense may be at the root of this line. Whatever the over/under turns out to be: over seems worth thinking about. Home field is usually worth three points to Vegas. So Vandy fans need to turn out for this one to make sure the stands are not awash in blue. It might just be the difference.