clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Ole Miss vs. Vanderbilt, and a night in the margins

Vanderbilt's football program lost an exciting game to Ole Miss and its talented freshmen Thursday night, but it's the looming scandal that casts the real shadow over Nashville.

Frederick Breedon

1. After some nasty conjecture from both the coach and his constituency these last two weeks, James Franklin got his home sellout of 40,000. And Vanderbilt took the loss for a second consecutive Thursday night ESPN opener. In the process, the narrative around the university, city, and region clouded a bit more, shifting between Franklin's success, the looming sexual assault trial of four former players and the apparently irreversible fan ennui.

"The losses hurt bad. I hate the losses. More than you can possibly imagine," Franklin said after the game.

"The wins I enjoy. We try to enjoy them as much as possible, because I don't want to become one of those coaches that, the wins are OK and the losses kill you. I have an extreme personality, and that's who I am, so the wins are going to be the best thing in the world, and the losses are going to rip my heart out."

2. Jordan Matthews showed a dig route, turned upfield, and managed to break past the bracket coverage Ole Miss had tried on him all night. He converted on a 4th and 18, down by five in the fourth quarter. He momentarily saved the game.


At that point, among those on the Vanderbilt sideline, even that 42-yard feat felt very much inevitable. Granted, that makes no sense, but that's the kind of busted logic that's born while watching a 10-catch, 178-yard night from a man delivering such a performance while systematically breaking down from physical exhaustion and a series of heavy blows.

You just keep expecting more, and you can't explain why it makes sense when it does.

3. On the next play, new Vanderbilt quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, once the loser of a QB competition at Wyoming, capped a 300-yard starting debut in the SEC with a 34-yard pass to wide-open tight end Steven Scheu. Carta-Samuels saw two high safeties and a blitzing corner, so he checked to Scheu.

"I kept waiting for someone to come over into coverage. No one did, so it was very nice to watch that freight train [Scheu] roll all the way," Carta-Samuels said after the game.

"I never thought we had the game won. The way we play here at Vanderbilt, there's so much more going on play to play that you're not thinking that way."

Carta-Samuels has a California accent that makes him sound like Steve-O and looks like a boxer from the 1920s. He delivers all the mandatory pro-team rhetoric his coaches demand but without losing his default arrogance. He wasn't born to be a SEC quarterback, but all the measurements of the jacket just happen to fit perfectly.

4. As Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze would note after the game, Scheu's touchdown was the exact same play that Vanderbilt used to cap a comeback win against the Rebels last season.The difference between the two touchdown passes is personnel.

Instead of suspended receiver Chris Boyd, it was Scheu, a senior tight end who wasn't expected to start after Vandy's most recent signing class brought in the nation's highest-rated junior college tight end, Brandon Vanderburg. Instead of Boyd on Thursday night, Matthews was left with replacement Jonathan Krause.

5. Vandenburg is sitting in jail right now.

He signed in February, arrived to Nashville on June 2, and needed only 21 days to nearly topple a football program. He's the key figure in a sexual assault investigation that caused the Commodores to dismiss him and three other players, as well as suspend Boyd, their second-best wide receiver. Carta-Samuels "couldn't be prouder" of Krause, who filled Boyd's role of spelling Matthews and capitalizing from that single coverage. Krause wasn't available to the media after the game. The players that were, led by Carta-Samuels, gave a memorized singsong about team loyalty and expectations.

"They're dead to us. They did this to us, and we're ashamed."

6. Win or lose, that's all that can be expected. In fact, had they won, Vanderbilt's teamspeak mantras would've probably felt more disingenuous in the face of this still-burgeoning scandal. Privately, the coaches and active players have flushed any trace of association with the four players accused of sexual assault.

"They're dead to us. They did this to us, and we're ashamed," one person inside the football program said before Thursday's game.

Boyd, however, is a different story, embroiled in a gray-looking felony charge of obstructing justice. Publicly he's suspended, because Vanderbilt the brand -- the health care behemoth and massive employer in the state of Tennessee -- won't allow anyone charged with a felony in connection to a sexual assault investigation to wear the name on national television. Privately, many are pulling for Boyd to be cleared and rejoin the team. It is an inarguable distraction, no matter how pervasive the culture of "team" is.

7. Ole Miss has elected for the counterintuitive media policy of restricting interviews with freshmen. That means that the litany of names that salvaged the Rebels' 39-35 win -- among them defensive end Robert Nkemdiche (two tackles and a fourth-down rushing conversion on a fake punt) and receiver Laquon Treadwell (nine catches, 82 yards) -- were off limits. The real freshman narrative was on the offensive line. The Rebels were brutalized inside by Vanderbilt in the first half, allowing four sacks and countless pressures.

In the third quarter Freeze's staff made a shift, relying on two blue-chip true freshmen (tackle Laremy Tunsil and guard Austin Golson) to spark any semblance of a running game. Both freshmen helped hold contain against a Vanderbilt blitz when senior Jeff Scott made his 75-yard touchdown run with 23 seconds remaining.


8. Wallace said afterward he nearly kept the ball on the zone read, and Scott initially thought about staying on course to head out of bounds. Wallace didn't, and Scott risked the fact Ole Miss had one timeout left and cut inside. That was really it, the difference between the winner and loser Thursday night. Even though a Carta-Samuels pass to Matthews was deflected into an interception to end the game, it felt like Vanderbilt could've easily gone on to take the lead again.

9. At some point this season, patching holes of depth with simple raw talent will combust on top of Ole Miss. By the third quarter Treadwell looked indispensable to Wallace, so much so that the idea of this team winning six games while he was playing high school ball in Illinois makes no sense. With Donte Moncrief covered, the pair connected four times in five plays to key a touchdown drive that revived that offense in the third quarter.

Along with the true freshmen who anchor a freshly patched line, Hugh Freeze's dilemma is now apparent: he'll gain cache with future recruits thanks to playing his true freshmen stars so often, but that's still a move of absolute, manic necessity.

10. If allowed to respond to the subject, Franklin would argue that his team's performance proved that the circumstances of the outside scandal have nothing to do with what Vanderbilt's built on the field. He's right in that there was no apparent distraction. His starting quarterback, refuse from the Mountain West, is listed as a potential witness for the prosecution and produced more passing yards in a single game than any Vandy QB since 2006. Vanderbilt will now have to create a bowl-eligible season without a win against Ole Miss for the first time, meaning that ever-elusive big upset for Franklin is mandatory.

Nevermind the depth the four dismissed players could've provided, or what a top tight end could've added to formation versatility. Whatever Boyd alone might've added is worth mentioning the reason for his absence. Like the Rebel team that barely beat them, Vanderbilt lives fighting in the margins of the SEC.

More from SB Nation:

The prettiest, smartest college football preview collection anywhere

Catch up on college football’s opening night

How to stop Jadeveon Clowney: actual coaches build a game plan

Why we love college football: a beautiful SB Nation longread

Why we’re happy Johnny Manziel is playing