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Vanderbilt's Offensive Line the Key to Success Against Florida

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Not much went well for the Vanderbilt Commodores last week in their 59–0 loss to Alabama. The Dores, after a 3–0 start that featured a win over Kansas State, were dominated in every facet of the game. Some of the struggles were self-inflicted — turnovers, missed throws, poor tackling, etc. — but the biggest issue was the opponent: Alabama was simply the superior team.

This week, Vanderbilt heads to Gainesville to battle Florida, which is 2–0 in the SEC after pulling out yet another close win, 28–27 at Kentucky. The Gators don’t always look pretty, but they keep finding ways to win under third-year coach Jim McElwain. Florida isn’t as talented across the board as Alabama — no team is — but the Gators will present some significant challenges for the Vanderbilt offense, especially at the line of scrimmage.

It’s no secret that Vanderbilt’s running game — expected to be a team strength — has been a disappointment this season. The Commodores are averaging 2.97 yards per carry overall and only 2.12 in their three games against FBS opponents. And this stat isn’t skewed by a poor performance against Alabama; the Dores actually had more success in the running game, on a yards-per-carry basis, against the Tide than against both Middle Tennessee and Kansas State.

So what’s been the issue? Perhaps the running backs aren’t holding up their end of the bargain (missing holes, not breaking tackles, etc.), but it appears the offensive line is the biggest culprit.

Coach Derek Mason has been reluctant to call out any player or position group during his three-plus years at Vanderbilt … until now.    

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Derek Mason

“We are soft inside,” he said, "and we’ve got to get better. So my O-line, if you’re watching, take the challenge. It’s been soft. We’ve got get to better.”

Vanderbilt’s struggles up front have been a surprise, especially after the team’s offensive performance late last season. True, left tackle Will Holden and center Barrett Gouger were lost to graduation, but there was confidence that respected position coach Cameron Norcross could cobble together a quality unit from three returning starters and some promising newcomers. And that still might happen — the Dores made tremendous improvement up front as last season progressed — but to date this group has yet to perform up to par in the running game.

This Saturday would be a good time for the offensive line to take a step forward. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur is emerging as one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC, and the Commodores have their best collection of pass catchers since the Jordan Matthews years, but this is still a program that wants to — and needs to — run the ball to be effective.

Ralph Webb, the school’s all-time leading rusher, has been a big part of this team’s success on the ground in recent years, highlighted by back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. The Gainesville native has been effective against Florida, too, with a combined 311 yards rushing on 62 carries in three games.

Webb would love nothing better than to shine in his last game at the Swamp — but that can’t happen unless his offensive line accepts the head coach’s challenge and starts moving the pile.