Under new head coach Bobby Johnson, the Commodores enter the game off the best offensive performance for a Vanderbilt team in nearly 10 years. The 344 rushing yards was the most since the ‘Dores ran for 415 against the Georgia Bulldogs way back on Oct. 15, 1994. And, excluding a lopsided win over The Citadel in 1999, the 31-point victory was the largest margin for Vanderbilt since a 41-7 win over Navy in 1993. All those add up to a confident team coming to Auburn this weekend.
However, Vandy has not beaten the Tigers in football since 1955. The Commodores will try to change that at a game that will kick off shortly after 11:30 a.m. at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Leading the way on offense is redshirt freshman quarterback Jay Cutler. A 6-4, 208 athlete with good speed and a strong arm, Cutler beat junior Benji Walker for the starting spot. Although he started slowly in an embarrassing 45-3 loss to Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Cutler came into his own last week as the Commodores bombed Furman 49-18 using an expanded playbook filled with option plays and deep passes.
After having just 225 yards of total offense in the opener, Cutler and company amassed 557 yards against the outmanned Paladins in Nashville. Much of that production was due to the play of Cutler. Passing for 215 yards on 11-of-14 throws while adding 107 yards on the ground on just six carries, he broke down the defense allowing the Commodores to move the ball at will.
Auburn's job this Saturday is to keep Cutler from making the big play and force him to try to drive his team down the field in short chunks of yardage. With three touchdown plays of 40 or more yards against Furman, he proved he can make things happen quickly. Now it remains to be seen if he has the patience to grind out a drive when it matters most.
Wide receiver Dan Stricker is the star of the Vandy offense.
Helping in his big-play offensive attack is senior wide receiver Dan Stricker (6-3, 201). The Vanderbilt all-time leader in 100-yard receiving games with 10, Stricker has been one of the top receivers in the SEC since his freshman season. With four catches for 132 yards and two touchdowns against Furman, Stricker stretched the defense with his blend of size and speed and that allowed the Commodores to eat up huge chunks of yardage on the ground. Sophomore cornerback Carlos Rogers has the task this week of slowing down Stricker and if that happens it will likely be lights out for the Vanderbilt offense.
But Stricker isn't the only weapon at Cutler's disposal. Big senior M.J. Garrett (6-3, 202) is also back for the Commodores after emerging as a solid complement to Stricker last season. Catching 27 passes for 455 yards and four touchdowns as a junior, he is back in 2002 but off to a very slow start with just two catches for nine yards in two games. Backup Brandon Smith (6-1, 180, So.) has four catches on the year while true freshman Grant Brigham (6-0, 170) from Mountain Brook may be the big play threat for the Commodores when he's in the game. He has one catch this season for 32 yards in the opener against Georgia Tech.
Leading the ground attack along with Cutler is sophomore Norval McKenzie (5-11, 202). The former All-State running back at McEachern High in Powder Springs, Ga., had a solid game against Furman after taking over the reigns for injured starter Ronald Hatcher. On just 11 carries he totaled 99 yards on the ground after rushing for 25 yards against Georgia Tech. Last season he had 80 yards on 13 carries as the backup to Lew Thomas. He will be backed up by true freshman Kwane Doster (5-11, 175). The Tampa, Fla., native has burst onto the scene for the Commodores and uses his blend of blazing speed and surprising strength to create problems for an opposing defense. On the season he has 15 carries for 91 yards.
The fullback position is in the solid hands of senior Bara Cola (6-0, 242) and redshirt freshman Matthew Tant (5-11, 218), who has eight carries for 36 yards this season. Tant is the runner of the two with Cola used mostly as a blocker for the Commodores' multiple offense.
Up front the Commodores boast one of the taller offensive lines the Tigers will face this season in left tackle Justin Geisinger (6-4, 320, So.), left guard Jim May (6-4, 302, Sr.), center Jamie Byrum (6-4, 286, Sr.), right guard Brian Kovolisky (6-7, 272, So.) and right tackle Kenan Arkan (6-7, 285, So.). A starter in 24 consecutive games, Byrum is the leader of the offensive line and probably the offensive unit as a whole. He will serve as a team captain for the second year in a row. Both Kovolisky and Arkan are in their first year as starters while Geisinger and May both started in 2001 with May currently at 31 starts in a row and counting at left guard.
Linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer is a key defender.
Defensively, the play of the Commodores centers around the linebacker trio senior Hunter Hillenmeyer, sophomore Eric Byrum and Moses Osemwegie. Hillenmeyer, a 6-4, 241 senior, has been a starter since the opener last season for the Commodores. A physical player, he leads the team in tackles through two games with 25 and has one tackle for a loss. Osemwegie (6-0, 220) is a speedy linebacker who roams from sideline to sideline to make plays. The redshirt freshman has 20 tackles and one-half of a sack on the season. Byrum (6-4, 234, So.) has just four tackles through two games while splitting time with Brandon Walthour. Walthour (6-3, 225, Sr.) has 10 tackles and is expected to get the start Saturday against the Tigers.
The secondary is led by the play of All-SEC cornerback Rushen Jones. The 6-1, 201 senior is perhaps the top cover guy in the league this season and his play over the years has proven that. A four-year starter for the Commodores, he has 123 career tackles and three interceptions in his 28 career starts. After missing six games last season due to a dislocated wrist, he has come back strong as a senior and should be a tough challenge for the Auburn passing game.
On the other side is inexperienced redshirt freshman Dominique Morris. A fantastic athlete who has the size (6-0, 195) and speed to get the job done, Morris has only played football for three seasons and is still learning the game. Expect the Tigers to look his way early and often on Saturday and stay away from Jones.
Free safety Jonathan Shaub (6-1, 208, Jr.) is a sure tackler who gets more action than the Vandy coaching staff would like. With 18 tackles in two games, his numbers will have to be much lower if the Commodores hope to slow down the Auburn attack. Strong safety Justin Giboney (6-1, 208, Sr.) rounds out the secondary. He is also a busy man with 21 tackles in two games, much too high for a safety this early in the season.
Coach Bobby Johnson is in his first year at the Nashville school.
Much of the action in the secondary is due to a defensive line that has yet to produce this season. Veteran defensive end Chuck Losey (6-4, 252, Sr.) is the most experienced of the front four with over 20 starts in his career. Despite all that experience he has just six tackles in two games this season. The scary part is that is the top number for any Commodore defensive lineman.
A name many Auburn recruiting fans will remember starts opposite Losey. Redshirt freshman Jovan Haye from Dillard High in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has just four tackles this season, but has forced a fumble. A 6-3, 265 athlete, he is capable of making plays off the corner, but is suspect against the run. In the middle sophomores Aaron Carter and Matt Clay get the call for Vanderbilt. Carter (6-3, 276, So.) is small for a defensive tackle and could have problems against Auburn's bigger offensive front. Clay (6-2, 292, So.) is the run stopper of the group for Vanderbilt, but has just two tackles in two games. When they need a break Birmingham native Brett Beard (6-3, 290, Jr.) will be the first off the bench.
A questionable defensive front should mean big numbers for an Auburn offense looking to establish the run early. Expect the Commodores to stack the line of scrimmage to force the Tigers to throw the ball downfield, which could lead to some big plays for quarterback Daniel Cobb and his receivers. Offensively, Vanderbilt is hoping for the big play against the Tigers, but Auburn has been good through two games in avoiding just that. If the Commodores have to grind it out and make first down after first down to score, it could be a long day for the visitors.