Eastern Michigan Review: Eagle-Eye Vandy

No, the Eastern Michigan Eagles do not represent a formidable football force. Nevertheless, the Vanderbilt Commodores have a history of not always maxing out against teams they should beat. The VU crew didn't defy the laws of physics on Saturday night, but it definitely took a step forward as the 2010 season nears its midpoint.

Before Saturday night's game at Vanderbilt Stadium had even begun, there was reason to worry – and profoundly so – about the trajectory of the Dores' unfolding season. Any Commodore partisans who plopped in front of a television on Friday night (and who love their college pigskin more than the regional baseball team known as the Atlanta Braves) saw the University of Connecticut slip on a banana peel in a very painful manner.

Yes, the same UConn club that whacked Vandy by 19 points on Oct. 2 responded to that drubbing of the Dores by losing at Rutgers, 27-24. Just to clear, that's the same Rutgers outfit which lost at home to Tulane in week five. If you lose to Rutgers in 2010, you have some serious problems. What did it say, then, about Vandy that coach Robbie Caldwell's boys couldn't even take Connecticut to the wire?

Anyone wearing Vanderbilt colors knows how to employ the transitive property, one of college football's favorite little parlor games, and when Connecticut lost to Rutgers, the dominoes did not stack up (or fall down) favorably for the boys in black and gold. When Rutgers banged through a last-minute field goal to send UConn to the bottom of the Big East standings, members of the VU faithful had to groan inwardly and wonder if this dance with the men of Eastern Michigan would produce still more on-field agonies.

After all, since Eastern Michigan hails from the town of Ypsilanti, it only stood to reason: You can't spell "Ypsilanti" without "yips," and if there's a football program that has endured its share of yips over the years, it's Vanderbilt. This is a program that's been known to fall short even on occasions when victory was expected (Middle Tennessee 2005, against David Cutcliffe in any season, against Mississippi State in recent years, etc.). As Eastern Michigan and head coach Ron English sauntered into Nashville for a night fight, Vanderbilt needed to quell some of the fresh doubts that only intensified when Connecticut exposed itself as a not-very-good team.

Happily, Vanderbilt removed all banana peels from the 120-yard-long, 53-yard-wide piece of real estate on its home campus. Blessedly, Commodore Caldwell captained a club that looked the part of an SEC team drubbing an inferior and leaving absolutely no doubt about the matter when it was all said and done.

A touchdown just 73 seconds into Saturday's soiree with Eastern Michigan? That's the kind of first-punch statement this team needs to be able to replicate as it enters the teeth of its SEC slate in the coming weeks.

Three scoring plays of at least 57 yards in length against the Eagles? That's the level of quick-strike potency this offense has occasionally exhibited in 2010, and which has to accompany the Dores on the road trip to Athens this coming weekend. Now that Georgia has A.J. Green back in the fold, Vanderbilt will have to score in the 20s to give itself a decent chance, and that depends on the ability to eat up massive chunks of real estate with a handful of huge plays. It's a tall order to expect Vandy to march 85 yards in 15 plays and eight minutes; more of the fireworks witnessed on Saturday night against Eastern Michigan will need to be pulled out of the golf bag Between the Hedges.

Only three third-down conversions allowed to EMU's offense in 15 attempts? That's the get-off-the-field focus-and-finish mentality which will enable VU to contain Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray and create the tempo Vanderbilt will need to establish at Sanford Stadium. Getting off the field also ensures that some of the SEC's better and beefier offensive lines – such as the emergent group at South Carolina and the (literal and figurative) Hogs at Arkansas – won't be able to lean on the Dores in the second half, thereby keeping this team fresh and intact for the remainder of the SEC season. The third-down template constructed on Saturday – and witnessed by an overwhelmed Mid-American Conference foe – needs to travel to the enemy lairs of the Southeastern Conference.

One of the other really impressive aspects of Vanderbilt's performance on Saturday was that the Dores' defense – while holding Eastern Michigan to just 209 yards that were evenly split between the rush and the pass – didn't get gashed for big plays. This might seem obvious when one realizes that Vandy allowed only six points, but it can often be true that a team gives up big plays yet still limits an opponent's points by standing tall in the red zone. Long gainers can enable an offense to move the ball well between the twenties, but stall near the goal line.

That wasn't the case for Eastern Michigan's offense against Vanderbilt on Saturday.

The Eagles produced just one – yes, one – play over 20 yards, a 24-yard pass from EMU quarterback Alex Gillett to receiver Garrett Hoskins. Moreover, that single strike accounted for almost one-eighth of the Eagles' entire offensive output. Blowout wins can still be accompanied by sloppy defense and substandard fundamentals, but coordinator Jamie Bryant's defense truly looked airtight in bottling up the Eagles. EMU offensive coordinator Ken Karcher had no answers throughout Saturday's proceedings, and that's why this game turned out to be as decisive as it was. The final 52-6 tally, like the 31-3 halftime bulge Vandy accumulated, was not deceptive in the least.

This wasn't a nerve-wracking night with an uncomfortably close finish; this wasn't a lopsided yet disturbingly sloppy slog to a 30-10 win. This was a good, clean butt-kicking that Vandy should expect to deliver against an opponent that entered Nashville with a bagel in the win column. This was an authoritative performance which could have done without two lost VU fumbles, but contained all the other ingredients of a mature 60-minute effort.

If the Commodores can display the best possible brand of ball security in the coming weeks but retain the focus they flashed against Eastern Michigan, they'll definitely give themselves a chance against the remainder of the SEC slate. That's all a fan base can reasonably ask for after all the tumult this program endured in July and August.

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