As the Tigers prepare for a second straight road game, the defense will spend a significant amount of practice time working on stopping plays from a specific formation.
The Tigers got burned last Saturday at Syracuse by preparing too much for the option, which the AU coaching staff expected to see in abundance from a team that used it consistently in its first three games. Instead, the Tigers got a steady dose of counters and traps that they had not adequately prepared for and the Orangemen coasted to 31-14 victory.
Time wasted? Perhaps, but in reality it was something the coaches had seen on film and had to have the Tigers prepared to face. It was a good move tactically by the Syracuse coaching staff and give them credit for going away from the option.
With Auburn visiting Vanderbilt this Saturday for an SEC tilt, is it possible that head coach Woody Widenhofer and staff are coming up with their own surprise wrinkles to throw at the Tigers?
It's possible, but doubtful the Commodores will divert much attention away from their strength in preparation for the Tigers, especially considering that strength is quarterback Greg Zolman. The fifth-year senior is just 50 yards shy of becoming the Commodores' all-time leading passer. He has 6,258 career yards and is 50-of-98 this season for 789 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Vandy is going to live and die by his strong left arm, just like they have for the past three seasons. His main receiving target last year and so far this year is junior Dan Stricker. He had five 100-yard receiving games last season and has 12 catches for 187 yards and three touchdowns already this season.
In last year's 33-0 shutout of the Commodores, Auburn held the Zolman-to-Stricker connection to just two catches for 10 yards and the entire Vandy offense managed just 152 yards against the stingy Tiger defense.
Senior linebacker Tavarreus Pounds says this year's Commodores are a different team and cannot be taken lightly. "This week we're going to get back to the basics," he says. "If they do try to run the ball we have to stop the run, but we have got to be real good on the back end and underneath because they are going to throw the ball a lot."
Rover Rashaud Walker agrees that Saturday's game will not be easy. He says Vanderbilt is talented and is certain the Commodores will remember last year's shutout, giving them extra incentive.
"They have a great quarterback and receivers who can make plays in any part of the game," Walker says. "We just have to contain the quarterback, get some pressure on him, be able to go man coverage and stay in our zones."
The Commodores have the six-foot-four, 212-pound Zolman running the offense from the shotgun formation on most plays to give him that extra second or two to make decisions. Having an opposing quarterback in the shotgun makes it more difficult for the pass rush to apply much pressure on him. That's an area where the Tigers have struggled this season, recording just four sacks in three games.
Coach Tommy Tuberville says the most important thing about defending the pass is getting a good pass rush. "We try to make a guy like Zolman get out of the pocket as much as we possibly can, to make him throw on the run," the coach says. "Now that they've gone to a lot more shotgun, it is going to be a lot more difficult. Hopefully, we'll get a lot better pressure this week. We've got to play better defense against the pass than we did against Ole Miss." The Tigers did well until the final quarter and a half vs. the Rebels when sophomore Eli Manning tossed three touchdown passes in the final 20 minutes to bring Ole Miss within six points.
Tuberville says Zolman and company will surely look at the film from that game to see how the Tigers played against the pass. "We've made some adjustments from that," he notes. "I'm sure they are going to run some of the same things Ole Miss ran."
Manning, much like Zolman will Saturday, worked from the shotgun when he led the second-half aerial barrage against the Tigers. Either way the Tigers' approach this game as far as defensive game planning goes, they can't allow too much practice attention to go towards stopping Zolman and the shotgun.
The Tiger defense did surrender 226 yards to the Orangemen on the ground last week and the Commodores' surprise wrinkle could come in form of senior Lew Thomas (six-foot, 213) at running back. Thomas has finally begun to show promise after several injury-plagued seasons. The fifth-year senior is averaging 7.9 yards per carry (32 for 254 yards) and has three touchdowns this season. The Commodores have run Thomas from shotgun formation this season with draws, pitchouts, counters and have even shown the option on some plays with him and Zolman.