Cutler rises, even as Vandy falls

Vanderbilt's offense continues to struggle to find the end zone, but the offensive woes can't be blamed on quarterback Jay Cutler.

Surrounded by one of the most ineffective supporting casts in the Southeastern Conference, the Commodores' junior quarterback continues to shine for what is arguably the conference's worst team. While Vanderbilt has averaged just 10 points in its last four games, Cutler has managed to put up commendable numbers as both a passer and runner.

Cutler, a 6-foot-4, 225-pounder from Santa Claus, Ind., recovered nicely from an ankle injury suffered against Florida two weeks ago with 202 yards passing and 48 yards rushing in a 14-13 loss to Kentucky.

For the season, Cutler is 125-of-208 passing for 1,530 yards and seven touchdowns. He has thrown just three interceptions.

Cutler can only hope his efforts will lead to a rare win Saturday against Tennessee.

''We are very pleased with Jay's performance,'' Vanderbilt offensive coordinator Ted Cain said. ''He continues to improve every week. He has the system down in the run and pass. He is well suited for our power game and the option and the play-action passing we do. He is mobile in the option game, and when we need to throw he can do that.''

Cutler's success has come as no surprise to the Vanderbilt coaching staff. He provided reason to expect big things during his first two years on the field.

As a freshman, Cutler passed for 1,433 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also rushed for 393 yards while setting a school record for total offensive output by a freshman with 1,826 yards.

Last year, he set school sophomore records for completions (187), yards passing (2,347) and touchdown passes (18). Perhaps his best game came against Kentucky, when Cutler threw four touchdown passes and rushed for 129 yards.

Against LSU, Cutler surpassed the 5,000-yard mark in career passing and the 1,000-yard mark in career rushing.

''In all my years here, he is the best quarterback we have had,'' Cain said. ''He has the entire package. There isn't much he needs to improve on.''

Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson added: ''Jay is a great competitor and he plays the game like you want him to.''

But as good as he has been Cutler needs help to make a winner out of the Commodores. The running game has struggled much of the time, producing just 152 yards per game.

That puts added pressure on Cutler to make things happen. At times, the desire to make big plays has led to mistakes.

''I think early on he tried to do too much,'' Cain said. ''But after the first game or so, he has done a great job. He went 125 passes without an interception. He has handled the pressure well. He tries to take what the defense gives now and go from there.''

An explosive performance on offense would be a welcomed sight for the Commodores on Saturday as they try to salvage another disappointing season.

''We would certainly like to do better,'' Cain said. ''We need more total offense and points scored. We haven't done well scoring in the fourth quarter. It's been a combination of things. We have a lack of depth on the line. Against LSU, we finished the game with our No. 4 right guard. We gave up a lot of sacks. They got tired and worn out.''

The running game has been perhaps the biggest disappointment for Vanderbilt's offense. Running backs Kwame Doster and Norvel McKenzie have combined for just 800 yards rushing.

''We have gone a little more to a passing scheme,'' Cain said. ''Our running game is not what it has been in the past. Teams have seen our scheme and they have made the option tougher to run.''

Turnovers, while fewer in number than last year, have also been a problem at times.

''We have a better turnover ratio this year, but turnovers have hurt us at times,'' Cain said. ''The only touchdown LSU got against us was in the first half when we turned it over at the 20. We also had a turnover in the red zone. Turnovers have hurt us more this year even though we haven't had as many.''

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