Ground Game Carries Vandy To A Dominant Season Opening Win

Vanderbilt opened the 2022 season in Hawaii against the Rainbow Warriors, and despite a warning from Hawaii’s director of player development, Jeff Reinebold, Vanderbilt handled Hawaii in dominating fashion.

Alarming Start

The end result was good for Vanderbilt but Hawaii’s opening drive could not have been more alarming. Hawaii opened the game with an 8-play, 75-yard drive right down the Vanderbilt defense’s throat. On 3rd & 2 at Vanderbilt’s 37-yard line, Hawaii running back Dedrick Parson took a handoff and bounced to the left, and ran outside. Bad angles and poor pursuit were on full display as Parson’s took it to the house. 

Vanderbilt tried to respond on their opening drive but their efforts were futile as penalties pushed them back to a 3rd & 23 on their now 15. On the next drive, the Vanderbilt defense took the field and shored up some of their issues. They forced Hawaii to go three and out but the defensive line still looked lackluster. The interior of the defensive line was getting no push against the Hawaii front. Credit to defensive coordinator Nick Howell for recognizing this early and trying to rectify it with exotic blitzes and good pressure off the edge but it took a bit for Vanderbilt to finally get home. 

Hawaii was able to complete passes for short gains. The defensive backs were often playing five yards off the line of scrimmage, willing to let up small gains if that means defending the deep ball. From the first glimpse, the secondary’s mantra seems to be “bend but don’t break”. 

Team 2 Takes Over

For a Vanderbilt fan, every fall hope springs eternal. You have been let down numerous times but there is a small part of you that thinks this time might just be different. Unfortunately, the first few series were scenes that Vanderbilt fans were well aquatinted with. Going into a season with hope renewed, just to have that hope quickly diminish by the second quarter. But Clark Lea and Team 2 did something that we have not seen a Vanderbilt team do in a long time, they got punched in the mouth early and not just got back up, but mauled their opponent in return. 

On the third offensive series of the game for Vanderbilt, the offense awoke from their slumber. Aided by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Hawaii, Vanderbilt found themselves moving the ball as QB Mike Wright delivered a nice ball to Quincy Skinner Jr. on a crossing route for 12 yards and a first down. In the following play, Vanderbilt decides they want to play bully ball and hand it off to running back Rocko Griffin as he took it up the middle and ran for 34 yards down to the Hawaii 7-yard line. Two players later Vanderbilt capitalized on a dazed and confused Hawaii defense and connects with Will Sheppard for probably the easiest touchdown he will ever have in his career. 

In the following sequence, the defense returned to the field where Hawaii showed 11-man personnel with the tight end in a three-point stance on the short side of the field. Vanderbilt read the offense perfectly and forced Hawaii’s running back to try and bounce it towards the sideline where he was met with Max Worship. Worship put his hat on the ball and knocked it loose where it was recovered by Anfernee Orji where Orji and he was off to the races. Orji, like the ‘Dores, didn’t look back. 

The Offense Shows Balance

Vanderbilt then continued to have their way with Hawaii for the rest of the game. Mike Wright was 13/21 with 146 yards through the air and 163 yards on the ground. Vanderbilt averaged 9.2 YPC as Wright, Re’Mahn Davis, and Rocko Griffin ran Hawaii ragged. 

Darryl Oumi/Getty Images

The Vanderbilt receiving corps also had a night. Led by wide receiver Will Sheppard who had three receptions for 39 yards, two touchdowns, and one soul-snatching block, the young group showed real flashes of being a dynamic bunch in not just the pass game, but the rushing game as well. 

Mike Wright Flashes

Coming into the 2022 season a big question mark was the arm strength and accuracy of Mike Wright. Wright did not give us much in the passing game last night, but he gave us reason to believe that there was an actual improvement over the offseason. 

Wright was shaky in the passing game to start. Balls were often misplaced and Wright struggled to read the defense early. As the game progressed, Wright began to build confidence with short, accurate passes, and then he began to stretch the field. 

One pass, in particular, was very impressive. Early in the third quarter, Vanderbilt found themselves in a 1st and 10 from their 49-yard line. Vanderbilt is in 12-man personnel with Will Sheppard out wide and Re’Mahn Davis to the left of Wright. Vanderbilt runs an RPO and Wright correctly reads that the blitzing cornerback is going to pick up Davis. Wright pulls it and rolls to his right and while on the move, off his back foot, hits a double-covered Will Sheppard in stride as he runs a deep corner route. 

Everyone knows that Wright is dynamic in the run game, but showing that he can be an effective and efficient passer will prove dividends for the offense going forward. 

Sound Defense All Four Quarters 

Defensive miscues at the start of a season are frustrating but inevitable. It has been noted that it is much easier for an offense to get going at the start of the season than it is for defense. Lack of physicality in camp and the rest of the offseason hamstring the defense when it comes game time but this defense did not show it outside of the very first drive of the game.

Vanderbilt swarmed the ball on nearly every play and was relentless in pursuit of the ball. Despite a thin defensive line, Vanderbilt was able to get home and sack Hawaii three times while only acquiring nine sacks all of 2021.  

This style of defense also resulted in two scoop and score touchdowns for the Commodores (which is more defensive touchdowns than the 2020 and 2021 teams recorded all season). One in the first quarter where Max Worship met the running back in the hole, popped the ball loose, and Orji scooped and scored. Another one happened in the third quarter where Elijah McAllister hits the back from behind and jars the ball loose, CJ Taylor then scoops and scores for the ‘Dores. 

The defensive front of Vanderbilt was impressive but the secondary led by Max Worship were the stars of the show on defense. Hawaii aired it out 55 times during the game and the secondary only allowed 28 receptions and 250 yards through the air, averaging out to 4.5 YPC. The secondary only allowed two passes over 20 yards but neither scored for touchdowns. Worship, Jeffrey Ugo, and De’Rickey Wright all had impressive pass breakups as well. 

Newcomers Impress

Stats don’t often tell the entire story of a game. During the game, three players were really impressive, and they are all newcomers. One is Clemson transfer, Kane Patterson. Patterson is expected to split playing time with Ethan Barr but when he was on the field he looked impressive. Kane Patterson only recorded two tackles but he was often sent up the middle with Anfernee Orji in blitz packages and created chaos up the middle for the defense. 

Freshmen Darren Agu showed great speed off the edge. Agu only recorded two tackles but was consistently beating his man off the edge all game long and almost got home numerous times. The combination of speed and length that Agu possesses is going to be of supreme value for this defense going forward. 

On the offensive side of the ball, it is hard not to be wowed by freshman Jayden McGowan. McGowan was utilized often in the run game where he showed balance when making defenders miss and plenty of east-west and north-south speed when taking sweeps and turning to plant his foot and turning them upfield. 

Marco Garcia, AP

Week One: Elon @ Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt exorcised some of their demons from the 2021 season against Hawaii. Vanderbilt looks to keep the momentum rolling when they go up against Elon on September 3rd at 6 pm at Vanderbilt Stadium. 

MVPs of Week Zero

Offensive MVP: Mike Wright

Marco Garcia, AP

Passing: 13/21 for 146 yards; 2 TD

Rushing: 13 carries for 163 yards; 2 TD

Defensive MVP: Max Worship

Vanderbilt Football

7 solo tackles

1 PBU

1 forced fumble

Trevor Hulan

@iamtrevhulan

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