Is Vandy football improved over 2003?

Progress. The 2004 Vanderbilt football season was supposed to be about progress, lots of it. Two two-win seasons were not much to build on, but with 21 starters returning for coach Bobby Johnson's third year, optimism abounded. This was going to be the season Vanderbilt made progress. The ‘bowl' word was thrown around liberally this summer.

After six games, Vanderbilt stands at 1-5 with heavyweights LSU, Florida and Tennessee still on the slate. With Eastern Kentucky coming to Vanderbilt this weekend, win No. 2 should be in the books sometime late Saturday afternoon, but the possibility looms of a third straight two-win season.

A reporter flat-out asked Johnson at his Monday press conference if his team is better than it was last year.

"It's pretty close," Johnson said. "We have to play extremely well to win and we've played well but had not gotten wins. We did the same thing last year. This can be debated either way. Injuries and casualties on the offensive line have affected us more than we thought it would. It's pretty close."

True Freshman Cassen Jackson-Garrison (22) continued to impress against the Bulldogs. (VM/ Bryan Hufalar)

Two victories, with one coming over a Division 1-AA team and the other to an SEC team, would be identical to the 2003 season, one that none of the Commodores players or coaches would like to repeat.

Johnson said despite the struggles, it is up to the staff to keep the players focused on the task of getting better.

"(The coaches) have to prepare to practice, let the guys know we're preparing for the next game and that we're not going to give up," Johnson said. "You will appeal to their pride; pride as people, pride as football players (to keep them motivated). You just go out and keep swinging as hard as you can. That's all I know to do. I think our guys have been very resilient this year and have come back and fought and I expect them to do it again."

The Commodores will find themselves favored for the third time in four weeks as Eastern Kentucky comes to Nashville this weekend. The Colonels enter the game 3-3 on the season after winning their last three games.

Jay Cutler completed 12-of-22 passes against the Bulldogs. (VM/ Bryan Hufalar)

"I think the big challenge is that Eastern Kentucky is going to come down here thinking they have a great chance to come in here and win the game," Johnson said. "They are going to be fired up and our guys have got to know that."

Vanderbilt has won its last six games against Division 1-AA opponents, including easy wins over Furman and UT-Chattanooga under Johnson.

Johnson said Norval McKenzie and Kwane Doster as running backs 1 and 1A against Eastern Kentucky after freshman Jeff Jennings got the start against Georgia. Johnson would not comment on a report stating McKenzie and Doster were late for a team meeting and that is why they were benched.

Jennings and fellow freshman Cassen Jackson-Garrison got 11 carries against the Bulldogs with Jackson-Garrison gaining 37 yards and Jennings struggling for just one.

Punter Kyle Keown got his first start of the season in his home state of Georgia. (VM/ Bryan Hufalar)

"Cassen has a good explosion, he can get in the hole and hit it pretty hard," Johnson said. "He has some meat behind him too. I'm very pleased with that. We're pleased with both of them, Cassen and Jeff (Jennings). They work hard and try to do exactly what we tell them to do."

Johnson did not display confidence in his running game late in the second quarter against the Bulldogs, however. With just under two minutes to play and the ball at the Georgia 40-yard line trailing 16-3, Johnson decided to punt to the Bulldogs rather than go for a first down.

"My thinking is that we weathered a pretty good storm," Johnson said. "They had us 16-0 in the first quarter and we fought back to make it 16-3. We played a lot better on defense. We had played something like 40 or so plays on defense so I really didn't want to put the defense back on the field in a situation where they go in the short field. If they stopped us, they would've had the ball on the 40-yard line. I'm sure it's debatable but at that time I decided that was the thing to do."


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Bill Trocchi is Interactive Editor for Athlon Sports. Top Stories