Friedman: ODU will stress Vandy's defense

Vanderbilt football has won nine consecutive November games. The last time Vandy lost in November was the controversial overtime struggle in Knoxville in 2011 – more than three bowl games ago.

Our November opener this year provides one of the genuinely head-scratching match-ups of the season. On the surface, the Old Dominion Monarchs arrive dead last in C-USA’s Eastern Division, riding a four game losing streak. In their last five games, the fewest number of points ODU has allowed is 41 – that was in a losing effort at MTSU. Last weekend, Western Kentucky dropped a cool 66 points on ODU. The Monarchs’ defense is ranked 113th nationally – allowing 235 yards on the ground per game and 249 yards through the air. Before we get too excited about that ranking – remember our offense is ranked 123rd.

At the same time, ODU QB Taylor Heinicke averages 285 yards passing per game with 21 touchdowns on the year; Phil Steele’s revered pre-season publication lists Heinicke in the category of “others to watch” for Heisman consideration. Old Dominion has two dangerous receivers, Zach Pascal and Antonio Vaughan, who were both named to the mid-season All C-USA team. Their lead running back, Ray Lawry, has 11 TDs and averages 7.4 yards per rush. The Monarchs score in bunches – and they have beaten Rice on the road and scared NC State on the road already this season. In short, ODU is likely to stress out our defense – and if they score early, that could stress our offense.

Old Dominion’s coach has observed that Vandy presents the biggest o-line the Monarchs will face this season. This is a game where Vandy needs to grind out long, time consuming drives and keep the ball out of Heinicke’s hands. In short, we need to do the exact opposite of what we did the last time we were favored – against Charleston Southern.

Our staff has tended to feel out opponents – and work on pocket passing against underdogs as if out-of-conference games are some kind of tune-up or exhibition. This has led to serious trouble in all three games where we were favored. Last week, as a 21-point underdog, our passing game actually showed signs of life. In his first start, redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary showed poise, mobility and – most of all – excellent field vision. His quick reads were actually remarkable given Missouri’s frenetic defense and blitz packages. McCrary did have trouble with touch on some early short throws – but he settled down nicely later.

The quick release routes worked well last week – and the O-line did a solid job of pass blocking. Andrew Jelks spent much of the day fighting off – and frustrating – future NFL-er Shane Ray. A bevy of tight ends – Steven Scheu, Davis Dudchok and Nathan Marcus – contributed big plays. Receivers C.J. Duncan, Latevius Rayford and Caleb Scott also got in the mix. Rayford made one key play that did not make the box score – coming back for a ball as a defender swooped in for a possible pick-6; the catch was called back on a Vandy penalty – but the play was important.

On the negative side, our running game was shut down. Cold. Having adjusted our passing game during the bye, our offensive brain-trust now needs to add some mystery to our running game. We have essentially abandoned misdirection and any attempt to run east-west. By letting opponents focus exclusively on our runs between the tackles, we have made it easier for opposing defenses to stop us.

At Missouri, our idea of running a “creative” rushing play was to bring Darrius Sims into the backfield, call time out to make sure everyone knew he was in the game, and then hand it to him for a loss. In the second half, we did use him as a decoy once – and I loved that – except we ended up simply running between the tackles again. It would be nice to use our backs laterally – to catch or run, instead of constantly sending them north and south. Perhaps getting back Patton Robinette for a “dual threat” series or two will help here.

The defense played well at Missouri. Nigel Bowden was everywhere. Our cornerback play was good. Weatherley, Azubike, Ferguson, McGaster, Cunningham, Butler, Tarpley and Williamson made memorable plays. And Kris Kentera looked good on special teams. In the end, we did get worn down and bull-dozed in the final quarter. We also failed to produce any turnovers – a recurring theme on this season. To be fair, though, it looked like the booth missed one Mizzou fumble badly to our detriment. What else is new?

After several years of positive thinking, the Vanderbilt football fan base is back to hoping to avoid bad outcomes more than it is expecting favorable ones. I hate to feel pretty good about last week’s loss – but that is where we are. Given my adjusted expectations, our play at Missouri was actually encouraging. Vegas likes us by 9½. Notably, we have failed (badly) to cover in either of our previous wins as a favorite. Pick: Vandy 42, Old Dominion 34.

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There are currently five SEC teams that will be National Champions if they manage to win all of their remaining games – MSU, Bama, Auburn, Ole Miss and Georgia. Only MSU remains unbeaten, however.

The loser of this week’s Auburn-Ole Miss game will see their championship hopes go up in smoke. Mississippi’s collapse in Baton Rouge will likely leave a hangover. At LSU last week, the better team lost – and Ole Miss lost by getting in its own way repeatedly in the fourth quarter: a quick snap fourth down debacle, a late INT from within field goal range, a crippling delay of game penalty as the brain-trust decided whether to kick the tying field goal, and a very quick exit from the field by the team’s leader. Bo Wallace was sloppy – 14 of 33 – and sometimes with Wallace that carries over to the next game. Of greater concern, LSU also managed a whopping 264 yards on the ground against Ole Miss – a warning sign given Auburn’s dangerous ground game. Then there is Ole Miss’ loss of Denzel Nkemdiche for the season. While Ole Miss is trending negatively, Auburn also had all kinds of trouble with South Carolina last weekend. South Carolina’s Dylan Thompson launched five TD passes against Auburn’s hot-and-cold defense. The game is in Oxford and the home team has won the last three in this series. Vegas likes Ole Miss by 3. A funny bounce may decide this one. Pick: Auburn 33, Ole Miss 31.

For me, the most interesting SEC game of the day is Tennessee visiting struggling South Carolina. This is another SEC death match – albeit in a slightly lower echelon than the Auburn-Ole Miss tussle. South Carolina is favored by eight at home. Justin Worley, UT’s senior QB, was a late scratch last week versus Bama. Nathan Peterman got the start, but was replaced by the more mobile Joshua Dobbs early. Mobility matters given the youth of the Vols’ o-line. Dobbs played well and is likely to get the road start – but starting sometimes carries more pressure than relief work. South Carolina’s offense had another good outing at Auburn last week – but the Gamecocks’ defense has been another story. Carolina has struggled with its transition to the 3-4 alignment – or is it just the departure of last year’s stellar d-line? Either way, in SEC play the Gamecocks are giving up over 38 points per game. The Vols are 0-4 in conference; the Gamecocks are a disappointing 2-4. UT shocked Steve Spurrier’s squad last year in Knoxville – on the one hand revenge will be a factor, on the other, UT knows they can beat this team. I expect a wild one here. Pick: SC 34, UT 32.

Using the transitive property of Vanderbilt football, the Kentucky-Missouri game should go into overtime. Both teams beat us by ten at home. The difference is: we played our best game at Missouri, and bumbled badly in Lexington. To give the Wildcats their due, Kentucky played very well last week in a losing effort versus number one ranked Mississippi State. Just the same, UK still has no road wins, and the game is in Columbia. Missouri’s defense impresses – but the Tigers’ offense fluctuates between mediocre and lousy. If Missouri turns to the power running game, the match-up favors the Tigers. Vegas likes Mizzou by 7. Pick: Mizzou 24, UK 20.

Arkansas had another impressive non-conference win last weekend – but Bret Bielema continues to search for his first SEC win. This week, the quest brings the Razorbacks to Starkville to face number one MSU. The pressure of the top-ranking seemed to get to MSU a bit last Saturday on the road. Even at home, MSU may have its hands full with Arkansas’ running game. Arkansas is going to win an SEC game soon – but probably not this week. Pick: MSU 38, Arkansas 24.

Florida has had a bye week to let the Missouri smack-down sink in. Things are falling apart in Gainesville – and facing Georgia seems calculated to make the situation worse. Meanwhile, Georgia seems to be pulling together and getting better. Since Todd Gurley’s suspension the Bulldogs have crushed both Missouri and Arkansas. Florida’s defense is still pretty good or the Vegas spread would be worse. As it is, Georgia is favored by 12½. Pick: Georgia 31, Florida 13.

In the only other non-conference game besides our tilt with Old Dominion, Texas A&M hosts Louisiana-Monroe – a team fresh off gakking a double-digit fourth quarter lead to Texas State. A&M has struggled against its Western Division foes. The Aggies will let off some steam here. Pick: Texas A&M 51, Louisiana-Monroe 19.

After the Charleston Southern scare, this Old Dominion game feels uncomfortable. Let’s hope the November magic returns. There really was progress against Missouri. The question is, will we build on it?

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