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ROANOKE’S BEST AND WORST PLAYS OF VANDERBILT FOOTBALL 2017

This year’s retrospective is a bit philosophical. There was much to celebrate early – followed by a tsunami of failure once SEC play began – and, then, an upbeat ending. In a season where Vandy broke the all-time record for SEC points allowed, there are plenty of bad plays to choose from. But it was also an extraordinarily frustrating year. The Commodores returned a lot of starters, coming off a bowl appearance. The opening three games gave fans every reason for optimism: the team flashed stellar defense, collected wins over what would be two bowl teams, posted a shut-out, and a gritty road win. Not to mention a victory over a ranked opponent. Then, reality provided a stiff slap – the kind that leaves a mark.

THE BEST

In choosing among the top plays, there are a number of offensive highlights. This was a record-breaking season for the passing game. Vandy signal-caller Kyle Shurmur shattered the single-season TD record with 26 throws to paydirt. Kalijah Lipscomb hauled in eight of them. Much as Zach Cunningham dominated the “best plays” last year, Shurmur’s arm is the headliner in 2017.

5) It should be noted that Ralph Webb also broke the career rushing TD record this year. But, just being honest, the rushing game (in its plow straight ahead splendor) took a big step back in 2017. Nonetheless, in game 1, a tough road trip to MTSU, Vandy got off to a quick and inspired start on both sides of the ball. Openings between the tackles were hard to come by – but much had been made in the preseason regarding the goal of getting Vandy runners involved in the passing game. In the third quarter, with rushing still rough going, Webb is sent on a wheel route that is simply uncovered. He is gone. Off to the races. 73 yards later the game is iced and anything seems possible. Webb’s 20-yard TD run against UT gets an honorable mention, too.

4) Perhaps it is cheating to have a tie at #4, but I’m doing it anyway. With the team reeling following five consecutive SEC losses, Western Kentucky rolled into Nashville. WKU is no gimme and this was a key opportunity to right the ship. Two top plays stand out in this one – even if only one made the national highlight reels.

First, a little background: Vandy gets the ball deep in its own territory right before half-time tied at 14 following a Hilltopper score. After two runs up the middle garner three yards – WKU is aggressively using timeouts to get the ball back and take the lead before half. On third and seven, Shurmur throws a laser into triple coverage. Kalijah Lipscomb hauls it in – and suddenly momentum swings back our way. While not a “top 5” play, this is one of those unsung, critical plays that turns seasons and merits mention. What followed was a frenetic final minute drive that culminated with a WKU safety blasting a deep toss down the middle. The defender comes up celebrating - but the ball is punched off a foot in mid-air. It ricochets wildly into Trey Ellis’ arms as he dashes, in stride, into the end zone for a 31-yard TD. ESPN replays this one often.

I wish I could say we never looked back after Ellis’ go-ahead grab. But we did. As is frequently the case, with the lead we grew conservative – pounding the middle and pocket passing safe routes. We were clinging to a 4-point lead (after a long, 17-play WKU drive garnered only a field goal) when we handed the jet sweep to Trent Sherfield. He sprinted 45 yards untouched – and the game was won. Sherfield averaged over 11 yards per carry this season on 8 sweeps. Donaven Tennyson averaged over 20 yards per carry. Sam Dobbs averaged over 12 yards per carry – all on jet sweeps. Running wide worked – but we simply insisted on testing the middle too often. Like the season, there is a bittersweet aspect even to our best plays.

3) A lot of folks may disagree with pick #3 – but it was a beautifully conceived, brilliantly executed play that, at the time, gave us strong momentum against a beatable bunch of Gators at the Swamp. After stumbling out of the gate, Vandy’s offense awoke. Down 14-7, we confidently took the ball 75 yards, tying the game on a classic play-action, misdirection throw. Shurmur fakes a hand-off for a sweep left. Everyone goes left except Shurmur (who rolls right) and Caleb Scott who drifts right for the TD grab. We would take the lead later in the quarter – only to fall in the end. But this was a really nice play. Executed perfectly.

 

2) You may be sensing a theme here – I liked it when our offense was unpredictable. The surprise of the year came against the Vols. In a tie game, Vandy pulls the flea flicker out of its bag of tricks. Kalijah Lipscomb goes 30 yards – and there is no Vol defender near him. In this game, we do not look back – en route to a 42-24 victory in Knoxville.

1) The number one play of the season – and one many of us will remember for a long time – occurred in game 3. And it is one of those plays a true fan can still see unfolding in slow motion in their mind months later – much like Zach Cunningham’s miracle game-saving stop against Georgia last year. After opening 2-0 with stellar defensive play ranked Kansas State comes to town. It is an old-school defensive slugfest, played close to the vest. While K State’s QB Jesse Ertz is gaining big yards with his legs, Vandy’s secondary is shutting down the passing game. In the second half, we bring up the safeties to watch Ertz’s legs more carefully. It is a tense, well-played low-scoring affair. K State gets the ball near mid-field late, down 14-7. They begin driving but stall near the Vandy 20.  It is fourth and 8 in the closing minute with the game on the line. Ertz scrambles right making several defenders miss, then bursts suddenly into daylight. Oren Burks and LaDarius Wiley come flying in to try to bring the big QB down. They trip him up just short of the first down. Game won – and at 3-0, anything really seemed possible.

THE WORST

Unfortunately, after the brilliant opening on defense, things went south dramatically. When a team breaks the all-time record for points allowed in SEC play, there are many terrible plays to consider. Honorable mentions include: Florida’s back-breaking fourth down, fourth quarter TD run, Sony Michel’s easy 50 yard scamper, AJ Brown’s 58 yard catch that opened the floodgates in Oxford (and most of the rest of the Ole Miss game), and, for that matter, the entire first half against Missouri.

To avoid too much pain, I have decided to go “quirky” for our collection of worst plays. Some were not truly the worst – but are emblematic of a problem that dogged us all year.

5) Against UT Kyle Shurmur uncorked a gorgeous 50-yard bomb to Kalijah Lipscomb who made a lunging, tumbling grab. He seemed to be falling for ten yards – but when he landed, he was in the end zone. It should have been a highlight reel play – instead of a forgotten one. Lipscomb led the team with 8 TD receptions – but he was denied this one due to a formation penalty. Among the usual suspects for problems this year, the 5-yard offensive penalty played a prominent role. Something to work on.

4) Kentucky ran the ball down our throat - and there were several bad plays to choose from in a game Vegas thought we might win. But the stinker that stands out came on special teams. When our offense finally got on track, there was a chance we might make a game of it late. Those hopes were extinguished after we kick-off to UK’s Lynn Bowden, Jr. who eludes Vandy defenders for 93 yards. Caught at the six-yard line, it takes Benny Snell one play to power into the end zone. Game over. Special teams coverage also needs a lot of work in the off-season.

3) We played a decent game at South Carolina. The offense was effective – collecting 27 first downs and converting 8 of 15 third downs. On our final drive, we are down 7, but in Gamecock territory. An “away-from-the ball” holding penalty costs us a first down – but it is third and three on a day where much is working. On third down, and then again on fourth down, we inexplicably throw bombs that are pretty uncatchable. It felt like panic set in – and a very winnable game slipped away. Coach Mason’s comments into the headset seemed fairly unhappy – although I am not a professional lip-reader.

2) Against Florida, we go ahead 17-14 right before half. We kick-off with only 43 seconds to half-time. Freshman QB Felipe Franks – forced into service when the Gator starter is knocked out – dinks and dunks a couple of balls and then suddenly uncorks a 50-yard bomb with no safety at home. Florida’s Tyrie Cleveland makes a nice catch – and we are lucky to hold the Gator’s to a tying field goal before half.

But the real damage comes later. We spend the rest of the game respecting the deep ball. In a game where we have to bring the safeties up to stop Florida from getting five yards per carry, we leave them back. Florida happily accepts the five yards per carry the rest of the way. No Florida running back had scored a rushing touchdown in the previous 9 games before Vandy came to Gainesville. On this day, the Gators would get five rushing touchdowns from running backs. It was a bad day on the chalkboard – we let one play beat us.

1) This is arbitrary but, again, one symbolic defensive breakdown leading to a long-range TD must be included on the list – and Alabama deserves the honor. As noted above, we gave up a lot of big plays this season. But when Bama came to town we had a nationally ranked defense and a 3-0 record. We also stuffed Bama’s first drive. And while the Crimson Tide scored on their next possession – it was not like the dam had burst. Then, on the next drive, Damien Harris burst 61 yards through our defense and the dam did burst. Too easy. And the 59-0 beating that followed really did haunt us the rest of the year. Bama had 38 first downs to our 3. 677 total yards to our 78. They ran 93 offensive plays to our 38. Ugly. After a very promising start, we were never the same.

The campaign did include five wins – against some good teams. The win over UT was very satisfying. The problem with this season is: we expected more. And we were probably right. The team that beat K State should have won more than one game in conference. Despite a boatload of returning starters, the team struggled mightily in SEC play - while a lot of the competition got better.

 

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