With a veteran team returning, the question has to be asked: what went wrong? Digging into the stats, it is easy to see some of our problems. If Vanderbilt is to turn this season around, Coach Bobby Johnson needs to find solutions to the following glaring issues:
(1) Cutler getting sacked too much
Vanderbilt has attempted the fewest number of passes in the SEC to this point, yet they are the most sacked team in the conference (ten sacks through three games). It is a curious problem considering the mobility, size, and strength of Jay Cutler.
The problems have come from every angle. Cutler has held onto the ball too long at times. The line has missed some assignments. The line and the running backs have done a poor job picking up blitzes.
However, another issue seems to be the fact that Vandy's passing game relies on longer-developing patterns and does not seem to utilize so-called "hot routes" to get the ball away quickly against the blitz. The only quick-developing pass plays we routinely run are quick outs and stop routes. There are very few quick slants or passes to the backs, which leaves Cutler in the pocket relying on his protection and waiting for routes to develop.
At this point Vanderbilt is being sacked every eight passing attempts, whereas the conference leader is passing 38 times per sack allowed.
(2) Not taking care of the football
Vanderbilt is the only SEC school with a negative turnover margin, at -2 turnovers per game. The Commodores have fumbled five times in three games, while giving up three interceptions during that time. Nearly three turnovers per game has been a hurdle too large for Coach Johnson's team to clear. Vanderbilt should feel fortunate to have only lost five fumbles thus far, as it has fumbled ten times already this season. Vandy's opponents have fumbled just three times total, losing only two.
Kwane Doster has seen considerably less action since his fumbling problems last season. However, he has yet to cough it up this season in his 19 rushing attempts and 11 kickoff returns. Meanwhile, Jay Cutler and Norval McKenzie have fumbled twice each in their 79 combined touches. Doster has been more productive in yards per carry, and he deserves a second chance.
(3) Not making the big plays
Vanderbilt is the only school in the SEC without an interception thus far, and the defense has only generated two turnovers total. The rest of the SEC is averaging seven turnovers on the season as of Week Four. Defensive Coordinator Bruce Fowler needs to turn up the pressure on opposing offenses, reduce the amount of time quarterbacks have to survey the defense, and show some defensive wrinkles from game to game.
On offense, Vandy's longest rushing attempt this season was 29 yards by Norval McKenzie against Ole Miss. It did not result in a touchdown. Its longest passing play covered 46 yards to Erik Davis, but it did not result in a touchdown either. The offense has to execute play after play after play to grind its way into scoring position.
(4) Getting off to a fast start
Over the last 27 games there has been a disturbing trend of starting each game off very slowly on both sides of the ball. Coach Johnson is in his third season at the "helm" of the Commodore football program, but he should feel like he is more at the aft. Vanderbilt is always playing from behind.
Against Division I-A competition Vanderbilt has failed to score in 17 of 25 first quarters, and the Commodores have only scored twice in the opening quarter once (against Ole Miss this year). Changes to game planning, motivation tactics, and aggressiveness early in games need to be considered to keep from playing catch-up every week.
(5) The rushing load is distributed poorly
In Coach Johnson's first season, the staff appeared to want to take the pressure off of their freshman quarterback by simplifying the offense. The run to pass ratio was nearly 3-to-1, and Cutler appeared to be coached to hold onto the ball more often than not when running the option. The offense was not productive and Cutler took quite a bit of punishment, culminating in his inability to finish the first half against Tennessee.
Cutler is already showing signs of wear and tear this season, as he is the team's leading rusher with 42 rushing attempts. In fact, he has more rushing attempts this season than his starting running back and fullback combined. To this point in the season, Vandy's highly touted fullback Matthew Tant has only two rushing attempts for three yards, and three pass receptions. Cutler cannot be expected to finish the season running the ball at this rate, and it is not fair to expect him to maintain a high level of passing accuracy with that many hits and falls to the turn on his throwing arm.
Vandy has to get Tant and its running backs more carries, while employing Cutler as an occasional change of pace running the ball. We need to let Cutler focus on getting a passing rhythm each game.