Head to Head: Vanderbilt vs Tennessee State

The Vanderbilt Commodores host Tennessee State of the FCS on Saturday a week after knocking off Georgia on the road. Here is a look at how the two sides match up going into the game.



The Vanderbilt passing offense didn't exactly break out against Georgia. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur is 91 of 177 attempts for 946 yards, three touchdowns, and three interceptions.  Vanderbilt still hasn't produced a passing touchdown since the WKU game in week 4 and has yet to produce one in any SEC matchup. Against Georgia, Shurmur was clearly playing to a mantra of not turning the ball over. His completions were of the safe and steady variety, while most of his incompletions were squarely in the "if the receiver doesn't catch it, then no one catches it" category. Two of Shurmur's seven completions were to running back Ralph Webb, while his biggest pass to a receiver was a 27-yard hook up with Kalija Lipscomb. The offensive line was tested by the Georgia pass rush but performed pretty well in giving up three sacks given that the downfield coverage was at a high level.

The Tennessee State pass defense has helped the team win five of their six games, but the Tigers do give up a lot of points. After holding Arkansas-Pine Bluff scoreless, Tennesse State has given up between 24 and 35 points in each of their last five outings. Teams average 209.3 yards passing against TSU and has scored eight touchdowns through the air. The flip side of that is that Tennessee State is very aggressive when passes are put out there and the team has 12 interceptions on the season. The key to the pass defense is Michigan State transfer Ezra Robinson who has four interceptions, two of which he has returned for touchdowns.



The yardage may not have been there, but Vanderbilt scored two more touchdowns on the ground against Georgia to cement the rushing attack as the go to unit offensively this season. Webb now has 730 yards and six touchdowns on the year and the cumulative ground game has been responsible for 945 yards and 11 scores.

The TSU rushing defense has been solid against FCS opposition to date. The Tigers allow only 133.8 yards per game on the ground, a good number in this era of college football. They have also shown an ability to stop their opponents behind the line to gain, dropping running backs for a combined 130 yards on the season. Ebo Ogundeko (8.5) and Chris Collins (7.5) led the team in tackles for a loss and are players that Vandy will have to be aware of on Saturday.



TSU has passed for 1,423 yards this season on 91 receptions and has 12 passing touchdowns. Most of those passes have come from either sophomore QB O'Shay Ackerman-Carter who has attempted 57 passes, and 35 have been completed sitting at roughly 61 percent or senior QB Ronald Butler who has attempted 97 passes, and 65 have been completed sitting at roughly 58 percent. Butler has seven of the Tigers passing touchdowns to five from Ackerman-Carter. There are two main targets when the Tigers are on offense as WR Patrick Smith (31 catches) and WR Steven Newbold (20 catches) are the only players with double-digit receptions. Smith is the main name to watch here with six touchdown catches to his name.

Vanderbilt played a classic game of bending but not breaking through the air against Georgia. Freshman QB Jacob Eason threw for 346 yards on 27 completions, but he was only able to find the end zone once. This means Vandy has now allowed eight passing touchdowns on the season. One area the Commodores must improve is in taking the ball away. Another game with zero turnovers forced against Georgia means that Vandy still only has four picks on the year.



The TSU rushing attack is not as prolific as their passing threat. RB Erick Evans has one too many letters in his first name, but he is the leading rusher and he has carried the ball 88 times for 393 yards and four touchdowns. He splits time in the backfield, primarily with Earl Harrison who has 43 carries on the seasons for 239 yards and two scores. As a team, TSU rushes for right around 160 yards per game, but it is an attack without a stud back that the Commodores can shut down.

While there are many aspects to a rushing defense, this week it is all going to be about the insane numbers being put up by linebacker Zach Cunningham. Cunningham leads the SEC with 81 total tackles and 13 tackles for a loss and ranks in the top five in the country in both categories. Cunningham was having an exceptions season, but then he took it to another level with an astonishing 19 total tackles (2.5 TFL) against Georgia. One of those tackles was, of course, a game-saving stop, showing that Cunningham isn't just making plays in the middle of the pile on downs that don't matter.



Vanderbilt's Tommy Openshaw added a field goal against Georgia and has now connected on 8-of-10 field goals with a long of 48 yards on the year. Openshaw is perfect on extra points and on field goals shorter than 40 yards.  Darrius Sims has a reputation as a dangerous return man and he is the current SEC special teams Player of the Week following his 95-yard kickoff return that set up the Commodores' first touchdown against Georgia. Sims is now just 44 yards short of the Vanderbilt school record for kick returns and with the way he brings the ball back that record could easily fall this Saturday.

Special teams, especially the kicking part, tend to be an issue for FCS schools and TSU is no exception to this rule. The team averages just 33 yards per punt and given returns and touchbacks the net punting average this season is an awful 25.4 yards per punt. Part of this is because Austin Rowley has had three punts blocked so far this year. Field goals are also an adventure as Tigers' kicker Lane Clark is just 8-of-14 on the season. It is also worth noting that TSU has given up two punt return touchdowns in six games to date.



Seventh-year head coach Rod Reed is 41-34 at TSU.  He has been on the Tennessee State coaching staff in some capacity since the start of the 2003 season. Before that, he worked as a position coach at places like Prairie View A&M, Bethune-Cookman, and East Texas Baptist. Reed is 1-1 all-time in the FCS Playoffs after taking his 2013 TSU team to the second round of the tournament.

Third-year Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason is 10-20 at Vandy. He previously was the defensive coordinator at Stanford and has coached as an assistant in the NFL. Mason took over coordinating of the Commodore defense following the 2014 season and in 2015 Vanderbilt had the most improved defense in the nation (FBS). Mason also finally has a huge weight off of his back after his first SEC road victory last week against Georgia.



After the crazy win between the hedges in Athens, last time out it is Vandy that has the momentum heading into this one. Vanderbilt and Tennessee State sit just five miles apart, so some of the players grew up together and know each other. This is especially true for the Tigers as many of their players will feel like they have been overlooked by Vandy and as such, they have something to prove in this game. It is a classic battle between momentum and a personal issue, so the intangibles are even.

Prediction:  Vanderbilt 31, TSU 21. This is a dangerous game for Mason and Vandy. All that good feeling that was created last weekend is suddenly lost if TSU springs an upset here. Vanderbilt still struggles to score the ball and they face an FCS opponent that is 5-1 and that is high scoring. Vandy should do enough to win, but don't be at all surprised if this one is closer than advertised.

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