Head to Head: Vanderbilt vs. Western Kentucky

Vanderbilt meets Western Kentucky on Thursday in Nashville. VandyMania.com's Don Yates compares the two teams in several critical areas. He also makes a prediction on the game's final score.

Western Kentucky PASSING DEFENSE
REMARKS: This will be a battle of two units that struggled big time last season. Both units return most of their starters so improvement is expected.

Vanderbilt's passing offense (#107 of 128 in 2014) left a lot to be desired last season when the Commodores were last in the SEC and near the bottom of the FBS in passing yards. Vanderbilt's starting quarterback has not been announced. It will be either Johnny McCrary (78att, 152comp, 8int, 9TD) or Wade Freebeck (34comp, 72att,5int,1TD). McCrary has an average at best arm but is very quick and mobile. Freebeck is less mobile than McCrary but has a stronger arm. At wide receiver sophomore Trent Sherfield and junior Latevius Rayford are set to start. Rayford was second on the team in catches last season with 36 while Sherfield had one lone catch. Vandy suffered a big loss during preseason practice when C.J. Duncan went down to injury. Last year he led the wide receivers in receiving yardage (441) and touchdowns (4). Tight end Steven Scheu gives Vanderbilt's passing attack another threat. Scheu made a team leading 39 catches for 525 yards and four scores. Vanderbilt's offensive line returned all but one starter. However, the Commodores line suffered a big loss in preseason practice when offensive tackle Andrew Jelks suffered an injury. Jelks was replaced on the depth chart with redshirt junior Will Holden. Seniors Jake Bernstein and Spencer Pulley lead the Commodore offensive line. Last season Vandy's blockers averaged 1.75 sacks allowed per game.

Western Kentucky's runs 4-3 style defense. The Hilltopper passing defense (#123 of 128 in 2014) was about as bad as Vandy's passing attack last season. The Hilltoppers allowed opponents to complete over 63 percent of their passes for nearly 290 yards a game. The good news for WKU is that they return most of their starters defensively. Redshirt junior safety Branden Leston led the Hilltoppers in interceptions last season with four. Cornerback Wonderful Terry, listed as a starter, did not start last season but scored three defensive TDs (2 INTs, 1 FR). Senior cornerback Prince Charles Iworah, a Nashville native, had 49 tackles, one pick and broke up five passes. WKU ranked 70th in sacks last season and returns all starters from the defensive line. Defensive tackle Bryan Shorter and defensive end Gavin Rocker each had 5 1/2 sacks to lead the Hilltoppers.

REMARKS: Two names - Ralph Webb and Andy Ludwig - are reasons for optimism among Vanderbilt fans. Webb rushed for over 900 yards last season as a freshman despite playing in an offense that was designed more for passing. Vanderbilt was the lucky benificiary of a coaching change at Wisconsin which resulted in the Commodores gaining a new offensive coordinator who was known for designing offenses around the available personnel. The combination of Ludwig and Webb is expected to bring about favorable results. Dallas Rivers (61car, 218yds, 2TDs) is a hard runner with a big body who can wear down opposing defenses. Vanderbilt's offensive line returns most of its starters but needs to improve for the Commodores running game to be a success. Experience, Ludwig and a new strength coach should help in this area.

Western Kentucky's rushing defense (#113 of 128) was nearly defenseless last season. The Toppers gave up over 220 yards a game and allowed opponents five yards per carry on average. Opponents went to the well often averaging 45 carries per game. Linebacker Nick Holt led WKU and ranked second in C-USA last season with 111 tackles (62 solo). Linebacker Dejon Brown was second on the team in tackles with 78 and had an impressive eight tackles for loss. Look for this unit to improve with experience but likely not enough to slow Webb and company. Daughty passed for five or more TDs in games including a season high eight scoring passes against Marshall.

REMARKS: Last season Western Kentucky rode its stellar offense to the eight wins and a bowl game. Say what you want about Bobby Petrino, but the guy can flat out coach. Now one of his former pupils, Jeff Brohm, is running the show at WKU. Last season the Hilltoppers were third nationally in scoring offense averaging 44.4 points per game. WKU was second nationally in passing piling up nearly 375 yards per game. A big reason for that passing success was senior quarterback Brandon Doughty who threw for more yards (4,830) and touchdowns (49) than any player in the FBS in 2014. WKU returns two of three starting wide receivers. Last season Jared Dangerfield caught a school record 69 passes, 11 for scores. Junior Taywan Taylor piled up 45 catches for 767 yards and seven scores. WKU's offensive line returns 3 of 5 starters and is led by left tackle Forrest Lamp who is a Lombardi Watch list member. Last season the Hilltopper blockers allowed just 19 total sacks, 28th best in the FBS.

Vanderbilt passing defense ranked No. 50 in the FBS last season allowing 218 yards a game. The Commodores have a new defensive coordinator in head coach Derek Mason. Mason has significant experience stopping spread, no-huddle offenses (see Stanford vs. Oregon when he was DC). Mason took over as defensive coordinator the last game of 2014 and held Tennessee, a team picked by many to win the SEC East this season, to just 92 passing yards. Most of the Commodore secondary returns from 2014. Cornerback Torren McGaster picked off two passes and had seven defended passes. Either Taurean Ferguson or redshirt sophomore Tre Herndon is set to start at the second CB position. Ferguson had 30 tackles and four defensed passes in six starts last season. Senior safety Andrew Williamson had interceptions in Vanderbilt's wins over Florida and Kentucky in 2013. Defensive end Caleb Azubike and outside linebacker Stephen Weatherly combined for 8 1/2 sacks. Another outside linebacker, junior college transfer Nehemiah Mitchell, has the tools to become a sack monster.

REMARKS: Western Kentucky was 69th nationally running the ball in 2014, averaging 160 yards per game. Leon Allen rushed for over 2,000 yards last season. According to some reports he may miss the game due to an injury. However, his backup is no pushover. Redshirt junior Anthony Wales ran for 518 yards on 82 carries, averaging 6.3 yards per carry. He had a 75-yard run versus UAB and an 80 yarder against Army. WKU will run. In the Army game last year the Hilltoppers ran 41 times and had just 25 pass attempts.

Last season Vanderbilt ranked No. 88 against the run allowing an average of 184 yards per game. Inside linebacker Nigel Bowden led the Commodores in tackles last season with 78. Linebacker Darreon Herring is a ball hawk and had 45 stops. Fellow linebacker Zach Cunningham was second on the team in tackles with 67. With coach Mason calling the defense, the Commodore's run stopping ability should be improved.

REMARKS: Vanderbilt kicker Tommy Openshaw made eight of 11 field goals with a long of 48 yards against Florida. Openshaw has looked solid during practice. Punter Colby Cooke averaged 42.4 yards on 66 punts with a long boot of 68 yards. He had none blocked. Against South Carolina last year Vanderbilt's Darrius Sims returned two kickoffs for touchdowns. Sims finished the season with a 24.5 yard average per return. The athletic Ty Herndon is set to be the second return man for kickoffs. Tre Ellis will be the starting punt return man. Last season Ellis averaged 5.4 yards on nine returns.

Western Kentucky kicker Garrett Schwettman made 16 of 21 field goals last season. His longest was from 42 yards. Schwettman made 70 of 71 point after attempts. Punter Joseph Occhipinti, another Hilltopper from Nashville, average 37.1 yards per punt and has a career long of 55 yards. Kickoff returner Kylen Towner had 28 returns for 635 yards and one TD which came on a 94-yard return versus Old Dominion.

REMARKS: Derek Mason is in his second season at Vanderbilt with a 3-9 overall record. Prior to Vanderbilt Mason was a successful defensive coordinator at Stanford. In 2012 Mason was a finalist for the Broyles Award, given annually to the nation's top assistant coach. Mason has some NFL coaching experience serving stints with the Vikings, Raiders, Giants and Rams.

Jeff Brohm is in his second season at WKU. Last season, enjoying a No. 96 strength of schedule, he led the Hilltoppers to a 8-5 record and a bowl win over Marshall.

REMARKS: Last season Vanderbilt ranked 124th nationally in turnover margin. The 'Dores lost the ball 16 more times than they took the ball away from opponents. Ludwig should surely improve on that. Vanderbilt is 3-0 all time versus the Hilltoppers. Vanderbilt is 25-4 all time versus the Conference USA. Western Kentucky is 2-17 against the SEC.

PREDICTION: Vanderbilt 38, Western Kentucky 27. Vanderbilt starts 2015 with a bang. You may be rolling your eyes but consider the following. The likely positive effect of the change in coordinators at Vanderbilt; Mason's experience stopping high powered offenses; WKU's 2014 vaunted strength of schedule: 96 vs. Vanderbilt's 18. Several key injuries being reported out of the WKU camp. Can Western Kentucky win this game? Certainly but I believe Thursday's game is more likely to go Vanderbilt's way.

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