Mismatch with Austin Peay allows Vanderbilt to identify needed depth

The game had everything to do with players like T.J. Cunningham and Jake Sealand.

People will look at Vanderbilt’s 38-3 victory over Austin Peay on Saturday and wonder why the final score wasn’t more lopsided. (University of Tennessee fans, no doubt, will take pride in their larger margin or victory over the same opponent a week earlier). Some will wonder why quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels connected on just three of his first nine pass attempts. (There were, fact, a few boos when his throw to Jordan Matthews sailed high and wide 10:35 into the contest). Others might even lament the fact that the Governors finally made a first down and crossed midfield for the first time early in the third quarter.

None of it matters. Vanderbilt is past the point that it needs to prove anything against an overmatched opponent, which Austin Peay surely was.

This game never was in doubt. Not before kickoff. Not after it.

There has been, however, uncertainty about which player presently is the third receiver, someone capable of making plays when needed. There also is the question of happens when one of the leaders and most important players on the defense is unavailable.

As preparations begin in earnest for South Carolina (6 p.m., Saturday, ESPN), those answers seem a bit clearer.

Vanderbilt’s rout of Austin Peay allowed Cunningham and Sealand to play well, build confidence for themselves and gain the confidence of coaches for the games to come against much more difficult competition.

“Although I would have liked to see us play better in that game I think there’s a lot of positives that come out of it,” coach James Franklin said. “The fact that … those guys were able to get in the game, get some legitimate playing time and some legitimate reps we’ll be able to watch the tape and improve from it.”

Starting middle linebacker Chase Garnham watched the game on crutches, his right foot in a cast. Vanderbilt does not discuss injuries, but there is no reason to think that the senior, the Commodores’ second-leading tackler last season, will play again anytime soon or at all this season.

Enter Sealand, a true sophomore who had appeared in just nine games and had 25 career tackles. Redshirt-freshman Harding Harper also got time with the starters in the first half and made a couple tackles. Harper finished with three stops and Sealand had two.

“Sealand started the game, … he’s got really good instincts,” Franklin said. “He played fast. I thought Harding came in and did some nice things.”

Carta-Samuels threw for 300 yards in the opener against Ole Miss but of his completions were to limited to just four players, senior wide receivers Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause plus a running back and a tight end.

He was just 3-for-9 for 28 yards against Austin Peay when he heard a couple boos. Then a 12-yard pass to Cunningham with a little more than a minute to go in the first quarter started a string of 10 consecutive completions. Half of them (for 44 yards) were to the true freshman out of Fort Lauderdale playing just his second college game.

When Josh Grady opened the second half at quarterback his first play was a pass to – that’s right – Cunningham for a nine-yard gain. Patton Robinette replaced Grady at the start of the fourth quarter and his first pass was to – that’s right – Cunningham for a 14-yard gain.

Cunningham finished with a game-high seven catches for 67 yards.

“Whenever you can get freshmen legitimate minutes – he was able to get some time last week but didn’t really get any balls thrown his way,” Franklin said. “So I thought it was great that our quarterbacks were confident to go through their reads. … A couple of those throws to Cunningham he was the third or fourth [read] and they went right back to him and he made some really good plays.”

The performance of Cunningham and Sealand, of course, guarantees nothing going forward except that they now have the benefit of some positive experience and extended game action, the likes of which they probably could not have gotten against any other opponent.

Anyone who questions why Vanderbilt would bother to play such an inferior opponent, there’s the answer.