*This is Mississippi State's first visit to Vandy since 1999 when the Bulldogs took a 42-14 win. It is also the last time these teams will meet in football until 2008 (in Starkville) under the SEC's long-term rotation. Next fall, Vanderbilt will be replaced by Georgia on the MSU slate, while Arkansas will take State's place for the ‘Dores.
Bobby Johnson can empathize with a question his new MSU counterpart Sylvester Croom is hearing these days: did he really understand what he was getting into when he signed on as Vanderbilt coach in 2002, after eight successful years at D-IAA Furman. Whatever he thought at the time, Johnson has certainly given his best efforts to a unenviable job. And while the initial results so far aren't encouraging—consecutive 2-10 records and a 1-15 SEC mark the first two years—the coach does have the ‘Dores playing harder and in many ways better. A look at the depth chart shows a matured lineup presumably developed in the staff's schemes, so there should be progress. Of course, with so many starters back the 0-3 start is a serious letdown. But the scores also show how close Vandy has been to getting their first 2004 win, and somebody is going to be the first victim.
There's no mystery to Vanderbilt's early-season struggles. A veteran offense has gotten off to a very slow start, ranking 11th in the SEC after three games in yardage and tenth in scoring…though State does rank lower in both stats. This is surprising because the offense was expected to be the stronger side this year, with six seniors and four juniors in the starting lineup. A big part of the problem appears to be turnovers; Vandy ranks last in the league in takeaway/giveaway margin with five fumbles and three intercepts through three losses. Yet this unit has firepower and an option-based scheme that opponents have little time to prepare for. Junior QB Jay Cutler makes the offense go as a true triple-threat, able to run (his 42 carries leads the team), pitch to back Norval McKenzie, or sell the keeper before pulling up for a downfield pass. He's hit 64% of throws so far for 577 yards and three scores. McKenzie has to work for his yards, 149 on 37 totes to-date, but the senior is a threat to break it all the way if the support misreads things. And the ‘Dores do want to run the ball often, with a 60/40 breakdown in plays called so far. After South Carolina contained the option Vanderbilt was able to rush for 183 and 153 the next two games. The strength of the blocking is definitely on the left side with 6-4, 330-pound tackle Justin Geisinger and 6-7, 295-pound guard Brian Kovolisky. Geisinger, an Outland Award favorite, missed the Navy game with a knee strain but is listed as this week's starter. The line has taken a loss though as RG Mac Pyle abruptly left the team this week. With 312-pound Nigel Seaman moving up the front averages 300 pounds across. Wideout Brandon Smith (13 catches, 148 yards) leads the receiver roster, though before hurting a toe at Oxford Erik Davis (8 for 137) was Cutler's top target. Chris Young and Marlon White take their turns in the rotation, and the average catch has gone for a dozen yards this season. If Vanderbilt can cure the penalties and raise the average possession time (also last in the SEC) this offense can fulfill the potential to put up points.
Judged only by the SEC statistics it would be hard to see much progress by the Commodore defense this season, which ranks 11th in yardage, 11th against the rush, and last in scoring. But in this squad's ‘defense' the offensive issues with turnovers and not controlling the ball for long periods have put the ‘Dore D in some tough situations. It's also the younger of the two units, though there is a healthy amount of experience in some areas. Particularly up front with three seniors on the four-man line. There is size here, too, 302-pound senior tackle Matt Clay anchoring the interior. Senior Robert Dinwiddie has two starts at the other tackle, and last week moved over to end so 310-pounder Ralph McKinzie could line up beside Clay. The star of the front, though, is the youngest member in soph DE Jovan Haye, who tied for the SEC lead in sacks last year. The linebackers are an impressive group as well, with weakside LB Moses Osemwegie and MLB Otis Washington collecting 48 tackles through three games. Strongside ‘backer Herdley Harrison is the one passers have to watch, with a pair of sacks and a hurry. The secondary is somewhat more questionable, especially if FS Kelechi Ohanaja (25 tackles) is still hampered by a muscle strain that kept him out of the Navy game. Vanderbilt has yet to record an interception in 2004 and opponents have completed 64% of passes.
Patrick Johnson ended '03 as the regular placekicker and is 3-of-5 on career field goals with a long effort of 44 yards. He's perfect on PATs. Punting has been disappointing so far with a net under 35 yards despite Abtin Iranmanesh' 41-yard average effort. But Kwame Doster is a dangerous punt return man with a 18.5 yard rate on his 11 attempts.
It probably gripes both of these charter members to repeat this, but State and Vanderbilt have played fewer times against each other than any other combination of traditional SEC teams. There have been only 18 games in a century for a series that began in 1904, which should—but doesn't—embarrass league power brokers. Mississippi State has won 10 meetings, including the last four (1989, 1998-99, and 2003), and has a 5-1 record in Starkville. Vanderbilt actually won four of the first six games, with two ties, but only in 1934-35 could take consecutive victories. The record in Nashville is split, 4-4-2. Johnson is 0-1 against State.
The Last Time: October 4, 2003
Mississippi State scored its first win of the season, and ended a nine-game losing streak, by defeating the visiting Commodores 30-21 at Scott Field. It was also the last SEC success of the Jackie Sherrill Era. The Bulldogs came in 0-4 but got off to a strong start, scoring a pair of first-quarter touchdowns to set the day's tone. Jerious Norwood carried four times in the opening MSU drive, with a five-yard burst putting State ahead at 10:50. The second time the Dogs got the ball they rolled downfield again on Norwood's running, setting up Kevin Fant to hit Justin Jenkins on a 15-yard TD throw. Vanderbilt cut the lead in half with a 33-yard touchdown pass by Jay Cutler to Chris Young, before State padded the margin to 17-7 at halftime on Brent Smith's 34-yard field goal. After intermission the ‘Dores made things tense with a touchdown drive and two-yard scoring dive by Norval McKenzie. But the home team answered with ten quick points. Smith converted on a 45-yard kick at 3:08 and CB Odell Bradley intercepted Cutler and returned the ball to where Fred Reid could score on a five-yard touchdown burst. Vanderbilt didn't give up and got back within 27-21 on Cutler's second touchdown toss of the afternoon, but with 5:43 left Smith was good on a 47-yard field goal that sealed the win. Norwood made the most of his second career start with a 113-yard rushing day, while Nick Turner gained 90 more yards. Vanderbilt gained 205 yards in the air and 95 on the ground, while State was a better-balanced 203/215 with Fant 18-of-30 throwing.
*VU offensive graduate assistant and Olive Branch native Jordan Pettit is the older brother of Bulldog sophomore tight end Blake Pettit.
*Four Commodores are Mississippi prep products: wideout Chris Young (Batesville), lineman Adam Dossett (McComb), linebacker Marty Morgan (Canton), and defensive end Chris Booker (Brandon).
*VU kicker Patrick Johnson and MSU running back Jason Jude were teammates at Athens, Ala., High School.
Did You Know?
*In the game at Mississippi, 21 of the 22 starting Commodores had at least five career starts and eight have started for two full seasons.
*Vanderbilt has gone bowling only three times in 115 seasons of football. The last was in 1982 at the old Hall of Fame Bowl in Birmingham.
How They Compare:
Cutler was made to run this offense, and if the defense is too anxious about the keeper he will burn it fast. How will State staff decide to divvy up the series between York and Henig?
Running Backs: State
But that's based more on potential than what either side has actually produced so far. In fact, if you count Cutler as a runner the edge would have to go to Vandy. Surely Norwood can do some damage this weekend.
Offensive Line: Vanderbilt
Didja ever think to see the day a ‘Dore line would be regarded more highly? Credit Vandy for developing and growing their blockers. Bulldog front is just trying to scuffle through a long season, though the rotation to protect shaky guards is not helping create consistency.
Kind of hard to judge between the groups. A full-strength Bivines (he's not) would tip the balance as State needs a true deep threat. Vandy wideouts run good routes, make the catches.
Defensive Line: Vanderbilt
Yep, the ‘Dores are bigger and stronger across the board with a play-maker in Haye. State's D-line is showing some progress though, and playing the faster ends can be key this week if Evans and Heard can make the right reads often enough.
Yeah, the Vanderbilt ‘backers have better numbers. But truthfully neither group has played to potential, and if some young Bulldogs keep progressing precociously this can become a strong point. Their big challenge is playing as smart as they play hard on the option, no easy matter.
And there's a sense State might be a bit better overall at corner-coverage despite some September shuffles. But the Vanderbilt safeties have a more typical gameplan to work with, while State's are seeing something they aren't used to.
Neither set of kickers has done much of anything to cheer this year. Is this the week that changes? Both sides have a return guy oh-so-close to breaking something big.
Who knows? Neither squad has any justification for confidence coming in. After all, the homefield has never been any advantage for Vanderbilt, while the Bulldogs haven't won a SEC road game in almost four calendar years. The forced change at quarterback is a wild card as the ‘Dores don't know what to expect and State can't be sure what they'll do.
Somebody is going to get their first SEC win this weekend, and possibly their only one of '04. But that is the last thing either coach, Croom in particular, can tell his team, and add pressure to what everyone else sees as a must-win opportunity. Yes, the real experts—those who put real dollars on such things—are making Vanderbilt sizable favorites, which probably surprises the ‘Dores as much as anyone. They've played three hard, close games and as said above, somebody is going to be on the wrong side of the scoreboard on the day this Vanderbilt team gets it right. Yet the forecast is being made more on what is not known about State this week than is certain. Goodness knows there are enough obvious negatives—bad line play, poor tackling, no deep threat—to point to. Still there's the sense that these Bulldogs just need something, maybe a single thing like a lucky turnover or fluke score, to turn things in the right direction. Or, just as likely, that sort of break would get Vandy back to thinking like, well, Vandy.