Vanderbilt has been trying their darndest to break a 23-game SEC losing streak. They gave both Georgia and Florida a run for their money and only lost by three to Ole' Miss. So when was the Commodores last SEC win you ask? One guess… Against the Cats, 24-20, in 2000. Thing is, unlike the above mentioned, Kentucky knows better than to overlook this feisty group.
No flashback to 2000 this week… The Commodore's boat just does not have the artillery to contend against the Battleship Lorenzen.
Here we go…
Kentucky by: 17
Trenches: Every week finds me more and more impressed with the play of Kentucky offensive guard Sylvester "Big Kat" Miller. It seems that every time you look down field, Miller is there making a block, nothing like seeing one of the big boys ten yards ahead leading the way. The rest of this unit, lead by tackle Antonio Hall and center Nick Seitze have steadily progressed this season and will have their hands full this week with a quick and aggressive Vanderbilt defense.
Vanderbilt offensive tackle Justin Geisinger has a hamstring strain, and it is doubtful that he will suit up this Saturday. Geisinger is possibly one of the best offensive tackles in this league; the Commodores needed him this weekend if they had any chance of slowing down the Wildcat defensive rush. The rest of the offensive line has done nothing to help Vanderbilt's rushing or passing game this season. In their defense they have had a string of injuries, but in the trenches, injuries are a badge of honor, not an excuse. The In short, the Vanderbilt offensive line will struggle this week.
Quarterbacks: Jared Lorenzen is the fourth player in SEC history to reach 10,000 yards total offense in a career. Lorenzen has accounted for 10,146 yards of total offense as a Wildcat. What about the play against Arkansas when J-Lo fended off a defensive back with one hand while flicking a pass to tight end Jeremiah Drobney. The shot of Houston Nutt on the sideline shaking his head in disbelief and admiration was priceless. Do we have a MasterCard commercial brewing here? Anyway, Lorenzen's cannon was a bit off the mark in the first half against Arkansas but as always he eventually found his aim. In his first two contests versus the Commodores, Lorenzen threw for a combined 786 yards and 8 touchdowns. Last season Lorenzen struggled for 128 yards through the air, but you can have an off day when your tailback rushes for 224 yards and 4 touchdowns. I cannot imagine Kentucky having that kind of success on the ground this Saturday so Lorenzen better adjust his aiming sight and get ready to let it fly.
OK, Shane Boyd… he can play anywhere and do just about anything. I just wish the coaching staff would take him off of the punt team.
Vanderbilt QB Jay Cutler gets around… No, not that way… he completed passes to nine receivers versus Florida, one week after finding season-high 10 different receivers at South Carolina. Cutler is only a sophomore and what I would consider a work in progress. He has all of the tools to be a good SEC QB, but he does not really have the supporting cast or the skills needed to win the game on his own. Last year Cutler utilized his running ability as an option quarterback, this season the Vanderbilt coaching staff has asked him to put it in the air. Cutler is attempting 10 more passes per game and averaging 80 more yards through the air then he did last season. One of the biggest problems for Cutler has been the lack of production from the Commodore backfield. Cutler desperately needs his rushing game to step it up, keeping the opposing defense honest.
Running Backs: I stated before the Arkansas game it might be a good ideal to hitch Alexis "Bling-Bling" Bwenge up behind fullback Rock Johnson. That is exactly what happened and behold Bwenge has the top performance of any Kentucky tailback this season. Man I like patting myself on the back. Anyway, if Coach Brooks and Coach Hudson have learned one thing this season it is that speed at tailback will only take you so far in this league, actually about 2.8 yds per carry. If you want to run the ball in the SEC, you not only need speed; you have to be able to break tackles. Reference Cadillac Williams, Artose Pinner etc… Bwenge does not have world-class speed but he did show some giddy-up against Arkansas. That bodes well this week for a Wildcat offense that has been in desperate need of a tailback to step up and lay claim to the starting position. I do not imagine Bwenge breaking the century mark this Saturday against a tough Vanderbilt defense but he should get 75 yards on the ground and at least one touchdown. In addition, Monquantae Gibson, I championed your cause last week, now you go and get yourself suspended for a game. Take a cue from Mr. Holts and get it all together, if you can show some speed, you have a chance to be the go-to-guy next year.
Vanderbilt sophomore tailback Kwane Doster is proof that just because you are the man one season, does not mean you will be him again the next. Last season Doster was one of the top freshman rushers in the country and could have started for any team in the league, he is not even listed as the starter this Saturday. Doster is fast enough to run by your secondary and can cut on a dime, leaving you two nickels. Whatever the problem keeping Doster from his freshman season form, the Vanderbilt faithful had better hope he finds it again before next season and the Wildcat faithful had better hope he doesn't find it before Saturday. Doster was the best offensive threat Vanderbilt has had in many a year, and maybe ever, it will be interesting to see where he goes from here. So who is the guy that put Doster on the bench? None other than Norval McKenzie. The 5-foot-11, 202 pound junior battled back from a broken leg suffered last season and has done an admirable job for the Commodores this year. McKenzie is not the burner that Doster is but he can turn the corner on you in an instant. McKenzie is a better power runner than Doster and will get plenty of action against the Cats as the Commodores try and keep on the ground to take pressure off the arm of QB Jay Cutler. Fullback Mathew Tant has done a respectable job running and blocking this season but is more of a threat as a receiver in the Red Zone.
Receivers: Derek Abney had five receptions for 94 yards vs. South Carolina, becoming only the second player in UK history to reach 2,000 career-receiving yards. Not bad for a guy known primarily for his work as a return man. Abney has been there every time Jared Lorenzen has needed someone to make a play this season. Abney will need to continue the trend this week against the league's second ranked pass defense. Chris Bernard, and Tommy Cook are as solid as any receivers in the league and will need to bring their A-game this week against a tough Vanderbilt secondary. Running sharp routes will be the key for the Kentucky receivers as they battle a very good Vanderbilt secondary.
Tight end Jeremiah Drobney looks to be back in top form after breaking his hand early in the season. With Drobney, Winn Gaffron and Bruce Fowler, the Cats have solid depth at tight end.
Two names: Erik Davis and Brandon Smith. Both Davis and Smith have surpassed 500 receiving yards on the season and are the Commodores deep threat. Davis has blazing speed, soft hands and a knack for finding the end zone. Smith runs great routes and is more of a possession type of receiver. That does not mean you should ease up on #80, he can turn a short gain into a long touchdown. Following behind these two is true freshman Marlon White. The 6-foot-4 White is still learning the ropes and could be a good one before he leaves the Vanderbilt campus. Chris Young had a stellar season in 2001, but has yet to return to that form after redshirting in 2002. From here, just pick an offensive player on the roster and he has probably either caught or dropped a ball this season. As I mentioned earlier, Cutler is not afraid to throw the ball to anyone wearing a Vanderbilt jersey.
Vanderbilt tight ends Dustin Dunning and Nick Getter are solid players that have come on in the recent weeks as two very good receivers.
D-Line and Linebackers: Not counting the points scored in overtime by Arkansas, the Kentucky defense has held eight consecutive opponents under 30 points in regulation play. The last time that happened in one season was 1981 when UK held nine consecutive opponents to less than 30. Junior defensive end Vincent "Sweet Pea" Burns is among the nation's leaders in tackles for loss. He is second in the SEC with 14.5 TFL's, and has a motor that will not quit. Lamar Mills and Jeremy Caudill continue to be impressive from nosetackle and defensive end respectively. Reserves Ellery Moore and Trey Mielsch have the skills to be starters for the Wildcats, but will continue to provide much needed depth on the defensive line the next three games. Vandy QB Jay Cutler does not make the best decisions when he has time, the Wildcat D-Line will further cloud his thought process with plenty of pressure.
Middle linebackers Dustin Williams and Chad Anderson combined for 38 stops against Arkansas. Williams was obviously bothered by a lower back injury or spasms in the second half but as a football payer pain comes with the territory, especially if you are a middle linebacker. Again, these two are one of the best linebacker tandems in the league and getting better every game. Outside linebacker Raymond Fontaine continues his improved play and has solidified as well as justified his position as a starter. True freshman Durrell White has been one of the best finds of the season for the Wildcats and still gets my vote for All-SEC freshman honors. The enigma that is Deion Holts, fans love him, coaches scratch their heads and opposing offenses are still trying to figure out how to block the defensive lineman turned outside linebacker. Watching Holts you wonder if he would not be more suitedback on the defensive line, but you also see the immense talent and athletic ability that lead Mike Archer to make the switch to outside linebacker this past fall. Archer is a great coach so we will wait and see if his decision process pans out the same in the Spring.
Vandy mirrors the Cats in that it has been their defense that has shown the most improvement from a year ago, through ten games they have 59 tackles for loss compared to 39 at the same time last season While forcing more fumbles 14 versus 7 and capitalizing on turnovers 15 to last seasons 9. The cornerstone of the Commodore defensive line is sophomore defensive end Jovan Haye. The 6-foot-3, 255-pound sophomore leads the Commodores with 10 tackles for loss and six sacks. Haye is the real deal, explosive off the ball with enough strength to handle any offensive tackle in the SEC. Chris Booker is the Commodore's other starter at end, slowed by a nagging knee injury from 2002, he has been consistent at best this season, but has shown glimpses of solid SEC caliber potential. Robert Dwindle and Booker have battled all season for the starting nod opposite Haye, I expect to see Dwindle get plenty of reps this Saturday. Rounding out this unit are defensive tackles Matt Clay, Ralph McKenzie, Aaron Carter and Trey Holloway. Though Carter and Holloway are listed as starters, it is Clay and Carter that gives Vanderbilt their best and most complete D-Line.
Moses Osemwegie was the defensive stand-out versus Florida, posting a team-high 12 total tackles. It was the fourth consecutive game that Osemwegie reached double digits in total tackles. Osemwegie enters the Kentucky game as the SEC's third leading tackler with 104 stops. The Commodore's always seem to have a couple of very good defensive standouts, Osemwegie continues the trend, if left unattended he could be a difference maker this Saturday. 5-foot-11, 225 pound middle linebacker Otis Washington has made the most of his opportunity as a starter this season after spending the 2002 campaign on the practice squad. Washington is nothing flashy on the field, but straight ahead football instincts combined with good speed, make him a better than average middle linebacker. Herdley Harrison is a very good linebacker that makes few mistakes and is always around the ball. Kentucky fans may remember Harrison for his interception that started the Commodores short lived Rally in last years contest. All in all, this is a strong unit that will challenge the Wildcat offense, though Osemwegie is the one to keep your eye on.
Secondary: Earven Flowers is one of those guys that always seem to be around the ball, leading the Cats with seven pass breakups on the season. Not only is Bo Smith Kentucky's best cover corner he has continued to make his presence felt as a run stopper, totaling 24 tackles the past two games. Strong safety Mike Williams returned to his role as one the biggest hitters in the league against Arkansas and his sack of Matt Jones was vintage #1. Muhammad Abdullah continues his stellar play at free safety, and as far as the "almost" interception in overtime that would have sealed Arkansas's fate; Abdullah only gave up 125 pounds and 5 inches to Arkansas tight end Jason peters. I know the coaches probably didn't, but I'll let that one slide Muhammad. I praised this group as the strength of the Wildcat defense before the Louisville game and continue stand by that statement.
The Commodores pass defense is ranked 2nd in the SEC, only giving up an average of 186.2 yards per game. Anchoring this impressive unit is cornerback Dominique Morris who is the Commodore's best cover man. Morris has 3 picks and six pass break ups on the season. Strong safety Andrew Pace is a solid tackler and much like his Kentucky counterpart, he always seems to be around the ball and will be utilized in blitzing situations. Free safety Kelechi Ohanaja (say that three times fast) is second on the team with 84 tackles and 2.5 sacks. Ohanaja was green behind the ear hole coming into the 2003 season but has matured into one of Vanderbilt's top defenders. Bill Alford moves back into his starting role this week at cornerback. Alford has been inconsistent this season but when focused, becomes Vandy's best cover man behind Morris. This is a strong unit with lots of speed, J-Lo needs to be extra careful letting it fly this week. The Vandy "D" has kept their offense in a position to win games this season, Kentucky needs to get out early and shut the door fast.
Special Teams: When I played pee-wee football we used to get stickers for the back of our helmet when we made a good play or had a good game. My "Mr. Hustle" sticker this week goes to Andrew Hopewell, an inspiring story that deserves every accolade that comes his way. Mr. Abney took one back 95 yards against the Commodores last season, would be nice to see him do it again this Saturday. The Kentucky coverage team's had their worst showing of the year against Arkansas, they need to buckle it up this week, especially the Kickoff team as they try and contain the dangerous Kwane Doster.
As a team Vandy has connected on only 50% of its field goal attempts. The most telling statistic regarding Vandy's kicking woes, they are 3-of-9 from beyond the 30-yard line. That's really all I have.
In A Nut Shell: Kentucky needs to make sure they hold onto the ball, the Vanderbilt defense has a knack for creating turnovers, thus keeping their team in the game. The Wildcats also need to get to get into the Red Zone as often as possible. I know that is common sense, but here is the statistical analysis that makes it even more important for the Cats to get the ball into Vandy territory.
Kentucky leads the SEC in Red Zone Touchdown Scoring Percentage, scoring 24 TDs in 30 attempts (80.0 percent). The Commodore Red Zone occupies the SEC cellar, opponents score 92.5% of the time they enter inside Vandy's 20.
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