On Thursday in Nashville, Vanderbilt fell behind early, as South Carolina jumped to a 10-0 advantage on the heels of running back Marcus Lattimore. The Commodores defense managed to hang tough, holding the Gamecocks scoreless during the next 30 minutes of play.
Vandy reeled off 13 unanswered points and clung to a three-point fourth quarter lead. Then Lattimore capped an efficient nine-play drive with his second touchdown run of the night, as South Carolina regained the lead for good at 17-13.
The game ended in controversy when the officiating crew failed to blow the whistle after apparent South Carolina pass interference. With time winding down, Vanderbilt wideout Jordan Matthews streaked down the field on fourth-and-seven. The ball hit the turf just ahead of him, and replays clearly showed that a South Carolina corner pulled his arm. Vandy never had another offensive possession, as Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks ran out the final 1:47.
The outcome represented another close loss for a Commodores team on the verge of competing in the SEC. Last season, four of their losses came by six points or fewer.
To those who watched Vandy's season-opening loss and expect a tight defensive matchup this Saturday, think again.
The low score hardly reflected second-year head coach James Franklin's mindset. In its six wins last season, Vanderbilt scored an average of 37 points.
When Northwestern and Vanderbilt met in 2010, the Wildcats won 23-21. The 2012 episode could be a shootout. Nothing new for Wildcat fans.
Vandy on Offense
Vandy pivot Jordan Rodgers – brother of Aaron - outplayed his opponent Connor Shaw in the passing game on Thursday, averaging an excellent 9.3 yards per attempt. Jordan Matthews was the primary recipient, catching eight balls for 147 yards and a score.
Similar to Syracuse, which boasted Marcus Sales, Vanderbilt leans on one receiver for production. NU redshirt freshman Nick VanHoose, the top defensive back for NU on Saturday, appears to match up best with Matthews given the importance of size against a 6-3 receiver.
But still, assuming that a first-year corner can slow down an elite receiver is a stretch. Safety help over the top will be crucial if the Cats hope to prevent Matthews from putting forth another dominant performance.
Last year, senior running back Zac Stacy gained 1193 yards on the ground with 14 touchdowns, both single-season school records. In the South Carolina game, he ran for only 48 yards on 13 carries. Rodgers, a mobile quarterback, went for minus-eight yards and failed to break containment until the fourth quarter.
Respected offensive coordinator John Donovan, who revitalized the Commodores attack in 2011, will look to establish the running game early on. NU's defensive line, which impressed at times in the season opener, needs to shine.
Sophomore defensive tackle Sean McEvilly impressed against Syracuse, gaining strength down the stretch. That might earn him playing time against Vandy. The front four should anticipate a busy workload, and defensive line coach Marty Long will rely on solid performances from a number of linemen.
NU linebackers face a much different task this week. They were especially counted upon in pass coverage against Ryan Nassib of Syracuse. With Rodgers and Stacy in the backfield, the crew will be forced to step up in the run game. The physical David Nwabuisi seems primed to reach double-digits in tackles.
Vandy on Defense
In his first season as defensive coordinator in 2011, Bob Shoop's unit was ninth in the nation in pass defense efficiency. Success against South Carolina in that department came as no surprise, then. The Gamecocks struggled mightily through the air, gaining only 67 yards in 15 attempts.
Cornerback Kenny Ladler highlighted the excellent effort from the Commodores secondary. The junior stuffed the defensive box score with an interception, a pass breakup, a sack and nine tackles. NU faced a leaky Orange secondary in the opener, but Vanderbilt provides a stiff challenge in the passing game.
Northwestern survived Syracuse with only two of its top five receivers heavily involved. Look for Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian to utilize the Wildcats receiving depth this week - Rashad Lawrence and Kyle Prater in particular - to attack Vandy defensive backs.
Star linebacker Chris Marve was one of three defensive starters who graduated this offseason. Vanderbilt blog Anchor of Gold predicted that much of the team's defensive success rested on the play of his replacement, Chase Garnham. Garnham was up for the task Thursday, with nine tackles including a sack.
Marcus Lattimore may be the top running back in the nation, but Venric Mark poses a different type of challenge. Though not as polished or skilled as Lattimore, Mark can break away in the open field. The front four for Vanderbilt, which boasts three seniors, will look to take advantage of an inexperienced Wildcat offensive line.
More disturbing for Shoop must have been the unit's inability to stop Shaw on the ground. Shaw ran for 92 yards, seven of which came on a late third-and-five conversion that delivered the final blow to Vandy's hopes. If those struggles continue, Colter will have little trouble moving the ball against the Commodores defense.
Overall, Vanderbilt matches up well with Northwestern in nearly every area. If the Commodores can make adjustments and exploit the beleaguered Northwestern defense, Saturday plans to be another stressful night for the Cats faithful.