Analysis: Dores lacking toughness

VandyMania grid analyst Ray Knotts takes his weekly statistical look at the Commodores. "The coaches have a checklist of things that need to be done to move this program forward-- but no other items can be accomplished without completing the first," Knotts writes. "The first item is developing toughness and a winning attitude. That item remains unmarked."

NASHVILLE-- John Wayne was known worldwide as a "tough" man. Beating that guy from Utah in Jeopardy! is "tough." A steak from Ponderosa is "tough." Dick Butkus was football "tough," but none of these can compare to Joe Vanderbilt Football Fan. He is the toughest of the "tough" for enduring heart wrenching loss after loss, yet he still shows up for more. We will know exactly how many "Joes" are left at the next home game against Eastern Kentucky. It could be a frightening sight.

As "tough" as Vanderbilt football fans are, it is a shame that they cannot cheer for a football squad with the same level of toughness. This is the group which has folded in too many late game situations to count. We have seen three of them already this year, with plenty of other supporting evidence having accumulated over the last two seasons.

In the Rod Dowhower and Woody Widenhofer eras it was pretty familiar to hear comments about the coaching staff not doing enough to create a disciplined and tough team. The two lost plenty of tough games between them as well. Isn't this what Coach Johnson and his staff were supposed to be changing in the program? The plan was that with renewed discipline, fundamentals, and physical training, Vanderbilt would be mentally and physically tougher, and that this would start paying dividends in late-game situations. When we added to that a physical running game, there is no way we should be wilting mentally and physically in the fourth quarter time and again.

It has not materialized, and the coaching staff's number one priority for improving the program has gone unfulfilled.

It is no surprise that the game slips away and that the squad lacks the resiliency needed to compete for an entire game and to perform in the clutch. While they are trying to overcome history and their own personal experiences of football at Vanderbilt, they are receiving mixed messages from the coaching staff. Instead of challenging the Rutgers offense to throw more difficult passes, our defensive coaches let them pick us apart with short and intermediate passes because they were afraid that a longer pass might be completed. Instead of putting away the game by sticking with the option and passing game that had allowed us to move the ball effectively, the staff decided to go with a low-risk offering of fullback dives, between-the-tackles running, and quarterback draws. In critical situations the staff does not seem to show confidence in its team, and the team reciprocates with a lack of confidence in itself.

There is a time to put your foot on the throat of an opponent when one is ahead and to maintain the position as the aggressor. Once one loses that mindset, it is difficult to get it back. Most of the time we refer to it as momentum, but it is more than a series of positive or negative events. Sometimes it can be more about how you are going about what you are doing. If the coaches and players can not become more mentally resilient, physically tough, and confident, we will see the same painful scenario played out time and time again.

The coaches have a checklist of things that need to be done to move this program forward-- but no other items can be accomplished without completing the first. The first item is developing "toughness" and a winning attitude. That item remains unmarked.

A Look at the Stats

Offense Improving / Defense Inconsistent: Having been a major critic of Offensive Coordinator Ted Cain's offense during his first year as coordinator in 2002, the offensive side of the ball has shown steady improvement over the last two seasons and even during this season. Coach Johnson's typical modus operandi has been a conservative offense based on the running game and basic cover-two zone out of the 4-3 set that tries not to give up the big play. The basic theory is to limit mistakes on both sides of the ball by keeping the schemes fairly simple and perfecting the technique and knowledge of the schemes that we do employ.

The offense, while still fairly conservative, has matured right along with starting quarterback Jay Cutler. The offense has steadily gotten more productive. Case in point, the Commodores have scored more points than the previous week each game this season. Vanderbilt opened the season by being stymied by the South Carolina defense for just six points, but since that time there has been dramatic improvement. Thus far this season the offense has scored 6, 23, 26, 31, and 34 points, moving the offense into SEC respectability. Hopefully the trend will continue as the team moves into the much tougher portion of its schedule.

Defense has been a completely different story. Coach Johnson and Defensive Coordinator Bruce Fowler came to the program with a conservative defensive game plan, but there has been little if any improvement or adjustments. The defense has consistently had difficulty stopping the run and short passing game, while they do a relatively good job defending the deep pass game.

This has resulted in opponents being able to sustain long, productive drives at any point during the game. The defensive backs play very soft in coverage whether they are in zone or man-to-man coverage, which is one reason that we have difficulty stopping the short passing game that teams have been using against us. If that were not enough, the defense has not developed into a unit physical or aggressive enough to stop most rushing attacks. Major changes need to be made on the defensive side of the ball, as the offense is finally producing enough points to win.

Scores by Game
South Carolina 6-31
at Ole Miss 23-26
at Navy 26-29
Mississippi St. 31-13
Rutgers 34-37

Start Slow and End with a Whimper: One streak ended against Rutgers on Saturday night, but another disturbing trend continued. For the first time in the Bobby Johnson era, the Commodores led a D1-A opponent after the first quarter. During that time there had been four ties, but in the other 22 games Vanderbilt was playing from behind early. That streak was broken with a 10-3 lead over Rutgers. However, Rutgers turned the tables with 21 unanswered fourth quarter points, continuing a new and much worse trend of fourth quarter collapses. So far this season the Commodores have been outscored 51-7 in the fourth quarter. Curiously, Coach Johnson's squad had dominated the middle two quarters, and they have scored three times as many points in the second and third quarters versus the first and fourth.

1st Qtr.2nd Qtr.3rd Qtr.4th Qtr. OTTotal
Vanderbilt23573370120
Opponents341731513136

Vanderbilt vs. the SEC: When comparing Vanderbilt to the rest of the SEC, the Commodores rank somewhere near the bottom quarter of the league in everything except special teams play. Other than kickoff returns, the Vanderbilt special teams has performed extremely well this season.

SEC Statistical Ranking (Vanderbilt's Rank out of 12)

Scoring Offense – 9th
Total Offense – 10th
Pass Offense – 9th
Rushing Offense – 10th

Scoring Defense – 10th
Total Defense – 10th
Pass Defense – 9th
Rushing Defense – 10th
Sacks – 8th

Kickoff Returns – 9th
Punting – 6th
Punt Returns – 3rd
Field Goals – 2nd

Turnover Margin – 7th
Penalties – 6th


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