Vandy comes in with a record of 1-2 following its first win of the season last Saturday over the Richmond Spiders by a score of 28-22. The Commodores opened the season with a 37-28 loss to Middle Tennessee State at home and followed that with a 12-9 loss to Alabama, also at home.
Coach Woody Widenhofer is back for his fifth season as the Vanderbilt head coach and things are very shaky for "Woodyball" these days. With another poor season on the brink of becoming a reality, Widenhofer and the Commodores are a very dangerous team for the Tigers to play--one that has nothing to lose.
The urgency for the Commodores becomes even clearer when you look at their schedule for the remainder of the season. With another home game against Georgia followed by six of their last seven games on the road (with trips to South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee), it's now or never for the black and gold. They must beat the Tigers Saturday to have any hope of making their season anything more than a lost cause.
Making victory possible in just about any game begins with having a quarterback who is cool under pressure and is a team leader. Vanderbilt has that in senior Greg Zolman (6-4, 212). Just 50 yards shy of becoming Vanderbilt's all-time leading passer, Zolman has been impressive this season out of the new shotgun formation although the Commodores have struggled at times. In three games running the shotgun the majority of the time, Zolman has hit 50 of 98 passes for 789 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. In fact, it's been 123 passes since the Miamisburg, Ohio native threw his last interception.
At running back converted wide receiver Lew Thomas (6-0, 213, Jr.) has given the Commodores some much needed speed out of backfield since his insertion into the rotation following the expulsion of sophomore Ray Perkins earlier in the year. Last week he set a career high with 93 yards on just 15 carries against the Spiders. For the season the slashing Thomas is averaging 84.7 yards per game and an SEC best 7.9 yards per carry. When he needs a break senior Rodney Williams (5-11, 215) is a very capable replacement, averaging 3.1 yards per carry with one touchdown on the season. He has five career 100 yard games.
Catching passes for the Commodores is perhaps one of the best receiving corps in Vanderbilt history. Junior All-SEC candidate Dan Stricker (6-3, 204) is back after having one of the best seasons ever for a Vandy receiver last season when he had 994 yards and five touchdowns on 61 catches. This season Stricker has been his usual steady self with games of 70, 75 and 84 yards with three touchdowns. On the other side junior M.J. Garrett (6-3, 205) has become a go-to man for Zolman with 13 catches on the year for 274 yards and one touchdown. Additional depth will come from freshman Brandon Smith (6-1, 177), sophomore Ronald Hatcher (5-10, 180) and freshman Jason Mathenia (6-1, 180). Tight end Tom Simone (6-5, 239, Jr.) is a very capable blocker but isn't utilized much in the passing game.
Up front the group of left tackle Justin Geisinger (6-4, 320, Fr.), left guard Jim May (6-4, 305, Jr.), center Jamie Byrum (6-4, 274, Jr.), right guard Duncan Cave (6-1, 300, Sr.) and right tackle Pat Green (6-7, 344, Sr.) form one of the best groups the Tigers will face this season. With only one sack allowed this season, it's likely that Auburn's defensive backs will have to be up to the task when covering Commodore receivers, something that is still a big question mark for this Auburn defense.
The once proud Vanderbilt defense has been reduced to a shell of it's former self this season with opponents running with good success. While its scoring defense has improved the last two games, the yardage the Commodores have given up is still a big concern for Widenhofer and staff. Allowing almost 233 yards rushing per game and 425 total yards, the Vandy defense will have to improve on those numbers dramatically this weekend if it wants to keep the VU offense within striking distance Saturday night.
Leading the way for the Commodores on defense has always been the play of the linebackers and this season is no different. Senior Antuian Bradford (6-0, 228) paces the team in tackles with 34 and had one of his finest games ever as a Commodore last week with 12 tackles and three for a loss in the Vandy win over Richmond. The biggest addition to the defense has been freshman Pat Brunner (6-3, 240) at inside linebacker. With 13 tackles against Richmond and nine against Alabama the week before, he's become a key component to the Vanderbilt defense.
On the outside linebackers Nate Morrow (6-4, 245, Sr.) and Hunter Hillenmeyer (6-4, 236, Jr.) form one of the better tandems in the league. Morrow, a team captain, has 31 tackles this season while Hillenmeyer has 20 tackles and one and a half sacks.
Up front the Commodores are without their usual difference-makers on the line. Ends Chuck Losey (6-4, 250, Jr.) and Wally Conyers (6-7, 285, Sr.) earn the starting jobs with capable back-ups Doyle Crosby (6-4, 302, Sr.) and Ryan Nungesser (6-4, 267, Jr.) providing excellent depth and giving Widenhofer a solid rotation for his attack-style defense. In the middle sophomore Brett Beard (6-3, 290) is questionable with a sprained foot and if he's unable to go that would be a big blow to this already suspect defensive unit. Back-ups Matt Clay (6-2, 280, Fr.) and Robert Dinwiddie (6-2, 275, Fr.) are not as experienced and seasoned as Beard, causing the Commodores potential problems right in the heart of their defensive unit. Look for the Vandy coaches to stack the linebackers close to the line of scrimmage to help in run support.
In the secondary veterans Harold Lercius (SS, 5-11, 196, Sr.) and Rushen Jones (CB, 6-1, 175, Jr.) are back and the duo has 53 starts between them to form one of the more experienced secondary tandems in the SEC. The same can't be said for the other two Vanderbilt secondary members as cornerback Aaron McWhorter (6-1, 200, Jr.) and free safety Justin Giboney (6-0, 191, Jr.) both have experience, but not to the extent of Lercius and Jones. McWhorter has played in 23 consecutive games and brings great size and athletic ability to the table for Widenhofer while Giboney is a sure tackler who is second on the team in stops with 32 after just three games. With the experience in the backfield, look for the Commodores to stack the line of scrimmage early and often to force Jason Campbell to make quick decisions with the ball. This should create some big play opportunities for the Auburn offense and if they are able to capitalize, it could be a long day for the home team. If they are able to get to Campbell with blitzes like Syracuse did last week, the same could be said of the Tigers.
The kicking game is in solid hands as punter Joe Webb comes into the Auburn game averaging 42.5 yards on 13 punts this season. Kicker Chuck Folino has also been solid this season by making three of four field goals and all four of his extra-point attempts. VU may also use Jimmy Stover in the kicking game as well. He is 0-1 in field goals and has nailed both extra-point attempts. In addition to his duties at wide receiver, Hatcher serves as the return specialist for the Commodores and does a terrific job in that capacity. Averaging 27.2 yards per kickoff return and 9.2 yards per punt return, the Birmingham native is a very dangerous part of the Vanderbilt team and the Tigers must contain him Saturday night in order to win the all important battle of field position.
This is a game that the Tigers should win but just like every other game this season they must limit turnovers and avoid putting the defense in short field situations. Look for the Tigers to try to exploit a very suspect Commodore run defense early and often. If they are able to do just that, good things should happen. If they can't establish the run, it could be a long day in Music City.