Vandy was going to be more experienced, a year older and stronger. School officials had just announced they had locked in their coach to a new, long-term contract. Could this be THE year?
Unfortunately, a few old problems were not factored into the equation:
- Vanderbilt still has trouble slowing tough, physical offenses.
- Its defensive scheme is not willing to be aggressive enough to stop it and overcome its physical disadvantage.
- The Commodore offensive line is not physical enough to produce an adequate running game.
- Vandy's red-zone efficiency, which was one of the conference's best in Coach Johnson's first season, had dipped to anemic levels last year.
- The team's turnover ratio still languished in the conference standings.
As it turned out, the old problems trumped the new hype against South Carolina and its physical rushing attack and hardnosed defense. The Vandy running game took another step backward, continuing the trend of last season.
The defensive line added numbers, but has yet to develop to the point that it can stop a bruising offensive line and a stable of runners. Without the time to react to a ball being handed off, Vanderbilt is not quick enough to the edges when the quarterback runs. Our defense is still content to sit back, read, react, and get run over.
It was the first game of the year, and there is still plenty of time for a successful season. There are still pieces of the puzzle in place for Vanderbilt to improve upon the past two seasons, but if we do not turn up the pressure on opposing offenses with a more aggressive defense, take advantage of scoring opportunities, and cut down on turnovers, it could be a long season.
Make the Play, Jay: If you look at Jay Cutler's stats, it looks like a pretty decent passing day-- until you get to where it really counts, touchdowns and most importantly interceptions/turnovers. Despite nearly 300 passing yards, Cutler did not have a good game.
He fumbled near midfield on a quarterback keeper. He forced two passes, one of which resulted in a 98 yard interception return. Those mistakes were clear, but it is the plays that do not appear in the stat line that tell the real story of his day. Cutler failed to see a wide-open Erik Davis streaking down the seam on the game's opening play, instead opting for a throw to McKenzie in the flat for a modest gain. He missed Marlon White on a wide-open post route for a sure TD, instead throwing behind him. He also missed White crossing open across the back corner of the endzone in a play prior to the big interception return.
There seemed to be several other missed opportunities down the field throughout the game, where he settled for smaller gains. Cutler will have to prove he sees the entire field for the Commodores to have success this season.
Why Pass?: Quarterbacks who run the ball have hurt Vandy more than prolific passers over the last few seasons. Saturday, Dondrial Pinkins became a repeat offender, as he weaved and broke tackles on his way to a 77 yard rushing day (4.5 ypc). This was on the heels of a big rushing day against the Commodores in 2003. In 2004, South Carolina decided the game plan worked once, so why not again? Of the opening drive's 13 plays, 12 were rushing plays. South Carolina rushed 23 times, while passing just 20.
Other Dangerous QB Feet: In the past few seasons VU has seen quarterbacks run up and down the field, even while the defense has done a decent job containing some of the nation's most prolific passers. Of course Dondrial Pinkins is fresh on our minds, but who can forget Reggie Ball's devastating running ability as Georgia Tech stole a game in Nashville last fall?
Navy's Craig Candeto ran the option very effectively as Navy's offense steamrolled the Commodores in 2003. TCU's unknown freshman fill-in Brandon Hassell moved effectively on the ground after their starter Tye Gunn went down with an injury. In 2002 South Carolina's Corey Jenkins racked up nearly 100 rushing yards from behind center, while Alabama's Tyler Watts ran for nearly 5 yards a carry.
Year of the Mobile QB: Running quarterbacks tend to have their way with the Vanderbilt defense, and that could be a bad thing. This is the year of the mobile quarterback in the SEC and especially for Vanderbilt's future opponents.
Ole Miss's Michael Spurlock is an extremely dangerous runner. Navy will employ their spread option scheme, and even without Craig Candeto their QB will run often. Mississippi State's signal caller, Omar Connor, was a wide receiver last year, as they wanted to get his athleticism on the field. LSU has two mobile quarterbacks. Kentucky's Shane Boyd has played running back, wide receiver, kick returner, and quarterback since he arrived on campus. Tennessee's Brent Schaeffer is being talked up as Michael Vick Lite.
This is an issue that has to be fixed in order for this season to turn around.
Inefficiency: The game was essentially won by South Carolina in the first half due in part to the Vanderbilt offense's inability to keep South Carolina's offense off the field. In the first quarter consisted of six true offensive plays and two punts, while South Carolina's first drive covered 13 plays. South Carolina amassed 48 offensive plays to Vanderbilt's 23 in the first half.
Running on Empty: The Vanderbilt rushing attack broke an embarrassing streak with Kwane Doster's second-quarter touchdown run, but it did not evade an embarrassing game. Doster's touchdown was Vanderbilt's first rushing TD since the Commodores fell to Navy six games ago, a span of more than 16 scoring drives. It was no cause for celebration though, as Vanderbilt could only muster 36 rushing yards on 22 rushes for a paltry 1.6 yards per carry.
Quote of the Day: Walking to the stadium prior to the game I was talking with a friend while passing the huge gathering of freshmen preparing to run onto the field. My buddy asked if the Vandy vs. Ole Miss game would be on ESPN2. One of the assembled freshmen overhead and quipped, "We should be on ESPN 8."
Following the game, all I could think was, at least that proves Vandy only accepts the best and brightest students. (For the record, Jefferson-Pilot Sports will televise the contest.)