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This isn't baseball talk; Vanderbilt has to figure out stronger ways to start halves on offense

This past Saturday's game against the Tennessee State Tigers was not a definitive verdict on the 2016 season or the Derek Mason era -- not unless Vanderbilt lost. It didn't, so in the bigger picture, this game is neither an indicator of what's to come or a lasting window into the VU program. FCS games, unless they're complete disasters, simply don't offer cause to huff and puff or (on the other side of the divide) get excited about the road ahead. What is worth focusing on after Saturday'

Vanderbilt had a chance to do something in this FCS training ground -- or rather, somethings, plural -- it hadn't previously done in 2016.

The Commodores obviously scored small amounts in their losses to South Carolina, Georgia Tech, Florida, and Kentucky, but even in their previous two high-output offensive games of the season -- against Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky -- they failed to score at least 10 points in the first or third quarter of a game. 

Multiple times, Vanderbilt has hit double figures in the second and fourth quarters of games this season. Fourth-quarter touchdowns against WKU and Georgia either tied or won games. The WKU touchdown forced overtime and became the gateway to a victory. The 28-point second quarter unleashed on Middle Tennessee -- the Dore offense's best quarter of the season, hands down -- showed that on occasion, this team can close halves with a flourish.

The resilience of VU's defense is a constant. Only the Georgia Tech game got away from it. Every other loss for this team remained close because this defense did its level best, fighting uphill and knowing -- much as the opposing pitcher knows when going up against David Price (why not get in a Vandy reference, right?) -- that the margin for error is small. When VU finishes halves on offense, the work of this defense makes victories possible. The plan was fulfilled in the win over Georgia.

This leaves Mason and his team with one enduring gap on the 2016 resume: The inability to start halves authoritatively.

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Imagine, if you will, a world in which Vanderbilt scores 14 points in first quarters or 13 points in third quarters. The benefit of a first-quarter surge is obvious and profound. Mason's defense can play with an advantage, and opposing quarterbacks would take the field knowing that if they make another mistake, the game could get away from them due to the airtight nature of VU's defensive 11. Vanderbilt could rush the passer against offenses which might panic in various ways, such as junking the run and throwing on virtually every down. The Commodores could tilt the playing field. 

Scoring in larger amounts in third quarters -- provided that games are close at halftime (which they generally have been for VU in 2016) -- would certainly cause opponents to sweat, but it would carry a bigger internal benefit for the Vanderbilt program. Knowing that the offense can make adjustments at halftime and apply consistent pressure on an opposing defense, sustaining quality instead of going through and all-too-common lull, might give Vanderbilt the measure of confidence it needs to become bowl-eligible, which will be achieved if VU can split its last four games.

Looking ahead to those four games (after the upcoming bye week), everyone expects a win over Missouri, but the hard part will be to find a win against Auburn, Ole Miss, or Tennessee. 

In each of the three tough games (AU, Ole Miss, the Vols), the ability of Vanderbilt's defense to compete won't be questioned. Auburn's offense might be a steamroller which will get the better of VU, but the defense will offer strong resistance regardless of the scoreboard. The same can't currently be said of the offense. This side of the ball has to do something special to win one of those three games.

Double-digit first and third quarters on the scoreboard -- not OR, but AND -- would qualify.

The test for the home stretch of the season involves an X-and-O component Andy Ludwig has to figure out. In terms of a game-flow-based need? Vanderbilt needs a "first and third" solution which has nothing to do with the World Series.


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