Different "D": MTSU's 3-4 defense featured the nation's 25th worst passing defense in 2000, giving up more than 230 yards per game. They also finished poorly in scoring defense with an 80th place finish nationally. This spurred some changes in the MTSU defensive scheme, as they will be unveiling their 4-3 defense for the first time Thursday night. Their ability to translate the defense from the controlled environment of the practice field to live, unpredictable game play will be key. Implementing a new defensive scheme can often be difficult, and it is somewhat surprising that this topic has not been mentioned more by media or the fans.
Common Opponent: Both MTSU and Vanderbilt squared off against the Florida in 2000, and neither result was pretty for the underdog. Here is a comparative look at some of the basic stats for each team against the Gators:
|Total Yards Allowed||475||457|
|Time of Possession||28:52||30:07|
Tale of Two Halves: Prior to halftime against Florida, MTSU's offense had difficulty moving the football. The Blue Raiders possessed the ball 9 times in the first half, but was only able to accumulate 81 yards. This 81 yards came on drives of 39, 4, 1, 14, -2, 8, 9, 8, and 0 yards. They were not able to run a play in Florida territory during the first half. During the second half MTSU was able to control the ball and the clock, while accumulating a respectable 148 yards against its SEC opponent's reserves.
Rosters: Though this is a game between the two Division 1A teams in the mid-state, do not expect to see either roster filled with players from mid-state high schools. Vanderbilt's roster lists 11 scholarship players from this area, while MTSU's lists 15. I have only been able to verify that 9 of those 15 are on scholarship. Interestingly, of MTSU's 87 player roster, 34 hail from the state of Georgia.
Fans: There has been a lot of talk about the makeup of the crowd for Thursday night's opener. After all it is a matchup between an SEC team and an opponent with thousands of local alumni. Look for the walk-up business to be substantial and fairly evenly split, putting the crowd in the 35,000 range. It will roughly break out 25,000 VU fans and 10,000 MTSU. I expect the MTSU fans to be more lively initially, but their spirit will be contagious. It should be a very special atmosphere.
More on Size: The Tennesseean printed an article outlining the disparity in size of each team's offensive line and the potential significance this disparity will have on the outcome of the game. There is another area on the field where VU enjoys a large size advantage. According to each team's roster, Vanderbilt's starting 4 linebackers average 6-4 and 237 pounds, while MTSU's average 6-2 223 pounds.
This is an extremely intriguing matchup from a local standpoint, but beyond that angle pits two teams employing very similar styles. Each offense will try to spread out and confuse the opposing defense, while both defenses will attempt to employ an aggressive, attacking style. MTSU has been very effective in this offensive style for two seasons, while Woody Widenhoefer practically perfected the implementation of aggressive, blitzing defenses. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt is somewhat new to the spread offense, and MTSU will be playing its first game under their new defensive scheme.
The game has the potential for any one of several different outcomes. MTSU has the offensive firepower to score between 21 and 38 points, depending on the VU's ability to fill some defensive holes and MTSU's ability to keep it guessing. On the other hand, VU has the ability to break the game open if the offense hits its stride from the beginning and forces MTSU into a passing contest. It is certainly winnable for either team, and each team is capable of beating the other by 14 or more points depending on the number of turnovers and each teams ability to control the other's marquee player, primarily Hicks and Stricker.
|Quarterback||Vanderbilt||MTSU relies on a platoon system where each QB has differing strengths, which helps tip the defensive playcalling...Counts has shaky arm strength…Zolman is the most complete|
|Running Backs||MTSU||Hicks has proven he can run against top defenses...VU will be relying on RB by committee...Between Hicks, Lee, and Calloway MTSU comfortably has the edge...FB's will not be a factor for either team|
|Wide Receivers||Even||MTSU has reliable hands and some big WR's, and so does VU...the only difference may be in depth, where it appears each team has viable backups...Just too close to call|
|Offensive||Line Vanderbilt||Superior size, strength, depth, and experience belong to VU and will be a key to the game...VU has this position by a wide margin|
|Defensive Line||Vanderbilt||VU's line is not dominating, but MTSU's line is thin in more ways than one...Neither line is likely to dominate the game, but VU's is most able to control the gaps|
|Linebackers||Even||VU's linebackers have a lot to prove, and MTSU's group may be surprising to some VU fans...MTSU features more quickness at this position than VU, but not the size or strength|
|Secondary||Vanderbilt||MTSU featured one of the worst pass defenses in the nation last season...Vanderbilt returns a deep and experienced group...VU by a wide margin|
|Special Teams||MTSU||MTSU returns a solid place kicker, while VU will rely on a true FR and walk-ons...punting and kick returns should be even|
|Intangibles||Even||Neither team will be lacking for motivation or inspiration...Each team will have ample fan support...Mindsets and head games will not win or lose this game|
The Golden Guess Neither offense sparkles initially, as each offense probes the limits of their capabilities versus the opposing defense. MTSU tries to open things up with the passing game early with quick-hitting routes and passes intended to ease the new and inexperienced offensive line into play and offset the expected Vanderbilt pressure. Meanwhile the Vanderbilt offense tests its ability to run the football early, sprinkling in some long shots down the field. Neither strategy produces a high number of first half points. Defensively, each strategy is very similar. Vanderbilt attempts to test the green Blue Raider offensive line with multiple looks and blitzes. In an effort to stop the running game and short passes, Vanderbilt gambles with the safeties, opting more on the side of run support than over-the-top help for the cornerbacks. Between the two offenses at least two gimmick plays will be tried by halftime.
As the game wears on MTSU finds the rushing yards more difficult to come by than last season, but they are still able to pick up two or three ten to twenty yard bursts. Meanwhile Vanderbilt begins to open up the offense in the third quarter as Zolman becomes more comfortable and establishes a rhythm with plenty of time to pick and choose receivers. Even though MTSU is blitzing in an effort to generate pressure, the long plays do not materialize due to soft coverages being played by the MTSU secondary. Intermediate gains are consistently available. As the game wears on, each offense turns more toward its natural tendencies, especially Vanderbilt's. The passes begin to outnumber the runs. Meanwhile, each run becomes more effective though the frequency has decreased.
The third quarter is the decisive period. It sees Vanderbilt score a couple of unanswered touchdowns. As the fourth quarter ticks away, the Vanderbilt fans never get comfortable, and the MTSU fans and teams do not succumb to the deficit. A mid-fourth quarter VU drive stalls, and results in a field goal that puts the game out of reach.