Coach James Franklin is stressing the importance of winning the former and reducing the latter to zero when Vanderbilt hosts defending Big East Conference champion Connecticut on Saturday night.
It's likely that the Commodores will have the more athletic team, but the Huskies have built an identity as a team which wins because they make fewer mistakes than their opponents. Vandy played mistake-free football for the most part in its season-opening rout of Elon, committing just four penalties and no turnovers.
"Winning the turnover battle is going to be important," Franklin said. "I know coach (Paul) Pasqualoni and he's going to have a disciplined team. We had four penalties (against Elon) and that was a real positive, but we need to clean that up. Our goal is to have zero penalties."
Little things like cutting down on penalties and keeping turnovers to a minimum will be vital for the Commodores to have a successful season. In that vein, Franklin was very pleased with how quarterback Larry Smith played.
While the stats say Smith was just 13 of 27 for 125 yards, he threw for two touchdowns and no interceptions. Franklin liked how Smith didn't take sacks on three occasions, throwing the ball away.
"He put the offense in position to be successful," Franklin said. "He didn't take sacks, he didn't make turnovers and he didn't hurt the team."
Avoiding self-inflicted wounds will be vital for Vandy -- not just this week, but for the season's remainder.
--The Commodores have a chance to win consecutive games for the first time since their bowl season of 2008. They won their first five contests that year, rising as high as 13th in the Top 25, and closed with a Music City Bowl victory over Boston College. In the last two years, they are 4-20.
--Former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen might watch this game with much interest and not just because his old quarterback coach, James Franklin, is now running the Vandy program. Coordinators from the 2010 Terrapin team that shocked many by winning nine games will be calling plays for both teams. Offensive coordinator John Donovan will script the Vandy attack against the Connecticut defense of Don Brown.
--DE Tim Fugger picked up where he left off last year, forcing a first quarter fumble which the Commodores recovered and turned into a touchdown. Fugger forced four fumbles last year and has six for his career, more than any teammate except MLB Chris Marve (7).
SERIES HISTORY: Tied 1-1 (last meeting, 2010, Connecticut won 40-21).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: One point of emphasis for the coaching staff this week is the unit's work on third down. They were only 4 of 13 against Elon, forcing Franklin to go for three fourth down situations in order to generate the needed points that gave the Commodores an edge. As the competition ratchets up, starting this week, Vandy must be more efficient in converting third downs or else the offense will bog down in a sea of punts.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: One of the positives from last week's win over Elon was that this unit allowed just over two yards per carry, a big improvement from 2009 and 2010, when the Commodores were regularly blown off the ball. If they can keep the run-oriented Huskies under four yards per attempt, that will be a good sign for this defense's viability this year. Keeping UConn off schedule and forcing it to pass would increase the team's chances for a win dramatically.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "With all due respect to Elon, that's a team we should beat. This week is definitely going to be a step up." -- TE Brandon Barden on playing UConn.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Connecticut at Vanderbilt, Sept. 10 -- One way or the other, this will provide a better gauge of where both teams are. Both tuned up with easy wins over outmatched FCS foes, winning by a combined 80-17. Can the Commodores match up with the physical Huskies and knock off the defending Big East champs in what would be another example of SEC superiority?
KEYS TO THE GAME: The offense must do a better job of converting third down plays and keeping possession so that the defense isn't left out there for 35 1/2 minutes, as was the case against Elon. Defensively, Vanderbilt has to keep Connecticut from being able to run downhill and force it to win the game in the air. Winning the field position battle will be critical because it's not a sure bet the offense can go 80 yards consistently yet.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Larry Smith -- He did a good job of cutting out mistakes against Elon and the coaches feel his stats would have been better were it not for five drops. Smith may have to make more plays for Vandy to beat a better foe. But he'll have to ride that fine line between playmaking and bad decision-making, one which has tripped him up at times the last two years.
RB Zac Stacy -- He led the team in rushing last week, but had just eight attempts for 35 yards. The offense needs more from him and for that to happen, it has to have the ball more. Stacy could help make that happen with sharp, authoritative runs on first and second down that could increase possession time.
MLB Chris Marve -- This is a game made for the senior as Connecticut will try to power the ball down Vandy's throat. Marve notched a dozen tackles last week against Elon and should make that many, if not more, Saturday night -- if the defensive line can win as many battles at the scrimmage line as it did in the season opener.
--RB Warren Norman (knee) appears likely to play for the first time this year against Connecticut. Norman sat out against Elon after being limited in preseason, although coach James Franklin said Norman could have played if needed.
--QB Larry Smith (arm) left the Elon game for precautionary reasons but should be able to play against UConn. Smith absorbed a big hit during a fourth quarter TD drive and the coaches didn't want to take a chance with a 38-14 lead.
--FB Fitz Lassing made his way to the depth chart's top with a strong preseason, then caught the first TD pass of his career in the win against Elon, a 15-yarder from Larry Smith. Lassing helped the running game average 5.5 yards on 24 attempts.
Vanderbilt aims for second victory
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