Kentucky Review: The Brick Wall

As the 2010 football season winds toward its conclusion, there are only two more chances for the Vanderbilt Commodores to write the kind of script that SEC observers aren't expecting. In order for the VU crew to rise up and beat Tennessee, coach Robbie Caldwell's team needs to address an urgent issue that surfaced this past weekend against the Kentucky Wildcats.

The most alarming element of Vandy's 38-20 loss to Big Blue at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington was not the offense's familiar lack of consistency. Heck, it wasn't even the groan-inducing fact that the defense hemorrhaged on three separate snaps, allowing 21 points on a triumvirate of plays that all covered at least 55 yards. (The defense's susceptibility to the home-run game-breaker is concern number two heading into Saturday's showdown against the Children of the Checkerboard.) The problems on the Vanderbilt sideline need to be identified and then explained with a little more detail and specificity.

The number one ailment for Vandy football in 2010 is a problem that is most centrally rooted in a lack of quality depth, a paucity of bodies who can be rotated in and out to maintain a fresh and resilient roster. The offseason took too much of a toll on this team, and the regular season hasn't let up in its effect on Caldwell's kids. The punishment that Warren Norman and Zac Stacy have absorbed – added on to various other bumps and bruises (and worse) – has left this team depleted, especially on the offensive side of the ball. In a conference as cutthroat as the SEC, where wars of attrition are fought every Saturday, that's not a recipe for success.

Broken bones and bodies – the worst of the worst when it comes to "bad breaks" – have hit VU hard in 2010, but the core idea at the heart of building a durable and winning football program is that it's not built on one or two players. Football – with rosters that are twice the size of a baseball roster (if not more) and (at the collegiate level) at least six times the size of a basketball roster – demands an abundance of resources. You can't be a mile wide but half an inch deep in the realm of pigskin; a solid program will absorb one loss here and one injury there. It will overcome one graduation by a special player and plug a younger man into the gap. This is why the downfalls at Texas and Florida this season are so surprising; you expect the Longhorns and Gators to reload instead of rebuild. Yet, the losses of Colt McCoy (look at what he's doing for the Cleveland Browns) and Tim Tebow have proven to be far more significant than the vast majority of football pundits imagined. Texas and Florida are lacking not just quality depth, but leadership and pugnacity. It gives one pause as a football observer.

Also consider what's going on at Oregon State. The Beavers entered this season with legitimate Pac-10 title aspirations. The OSU program has been a steady overachiever in recent years, squeezing nine wins out of second-tier recruits thanks to the precise schooling of coach Mike Riley. Oregon State is regarded as an overachiever in college football because unheralded young men would always fill a role when asked.

Until this year, that is.

When receiver James Rodgers went down, a team that didn't get crushed at Boise State (the Beavers lost to the SmurfTurf Squad by only 13 points, which really isn't too shabby) and beat Arizona suddenly fell off the map. Riley's recruits lost at Washington, at UCLA, and – this past Saturday – at home to Washington State in an absolutely mind-boggling upset. Naturally, Oregon State needed James Rodgers – the older brother of running back Jacquizz Rodgers – to provide chemistry in the locker room and cohesiveness on the field as well. Nevertheless, without "big brother" on the gridiron, there's still no excuse for Oregon State to lose to Washington State. Really good programs compensate for adversity, and in the past, that's exactly what the Beavers did. Not in 2010, however. It's a head-scratcher, to be sure. At any rate, you see the point: Vanderbilt needs to be deep enough and formidable enough to withstand some body blows. This is and has been the top problem for Commodore Caldwell over the past two and a half months, and it's priority number one not just for the offseason, but for this upcoming game against the hated Vols.

We've identified and outlined the problem, but let's put some meat on the bone by illustrating this problem's harmful effects, illustrated not just by Saturday's 18-point defeat in Bluegrass country, but on several occasions in this 2010 trail of tough times.

The game-breakers uncorked by Kentucky and quarterback Randall Cobb, quarterback Mike Hartline, and running back Derrick Locke all turned a close game into a blowout, but the larger dynamic at work in this game – UK's sixth win in the past seven tries against VU (the 2008 season being the happy exception) – was that the Dores hit a very familiar brick wall after halftime. VU got outscored 28-7 in the second half of this contest, with the Commodores' one score being an empty garbage touchdown with 2:33 left in regulation. Vanderbilt played with evident passion, toughness and even joy in the first half. When Larry Smith darted into the end zone from four yards out to give the visitors a 13-10 edge on the Cats, he bounded back to the sideline and performed a jump-and-back-slam celebration with a teammate. VU cared about competing and is clearly giving it the old college try for Caldwell, a man who commands universal respect inside the locker room. The issue before Vandy is not one of belief or sincerity or commitment. It's a matter of attrition and stamina. The numbers bear out this point in stark detail.

The Dores were waxed 28-7 in the second half of the Kentucky game, but that's hardly an isolated instance of the Music City post-halftime blues for this Nashville-based team. LSU beat VU 17-3 in the second half of this season's meeting between the two teams. Connecticut blanked VU 19-0 in the second half of a game that was tied 21-21 at the break. VU stood up to South Carolina (SEC East champion South Carolina) in the first half, fighting the Gamecocks to a 7-all draw over the first 30 minutes. In the second half, the offense hit that brick wall and got whitewashed, 14-0. At Arkansas, VU got buried by a 26-point second -quarter surge from the Hogs, but even after that dispiriting turn of events – when the Hogs called off the dogs – Vandy lost the second half by a 17-0 score. This 28-7 afternoon on the short side of the stick against Kentucky is just the latest in a series of shortcomings for the Commodores.

So, as all eyes now turn to Tennessee, guess what the Vols' biggest problem has been all year? Yup – you guessed it: the same problem the Dores have been wrestling with.

Tennessee played Oregon, Alabama and South Carolina to a standoff in the first 30 minutes this season, but got blown out of the water by the Ducks and Crimson Tide while dropping a 14-point decision to the Gamecocks. Coach Derek Dooley's roster is similarly thin and frail. Tennessee fights hard, but lacks fuel when the middle of the third quarter hits. Caldwell needs to manage this game so that his team can be as fresh as possible for the second half. The Dores must play the first half to set up the second, shortening the game early so that they can max out late. If Vandy can play to a stalemate in the first half, it can at least attempt to lean on the Vols in the second half and test the Vols' mettle. The Dores will have to shut down UT's emergent deep-passing game, but if VU can indeed accomplish that objective, this game not only could, but should, go down to the wire.

Hopefully, if such a scenario does come to pass, the Vanderbilt football team won't hit the brick wall it has run into on so many occasions in 2010. Top Stories