Scouting report: Eastern Kentucky at Vanderbilt

An SEC team should always beat an Ohio Valley Conference team, right? And a Division I-A school, now matter how ordinary, should always beat a Division I-AA team... right? Right?<BR><BR>Let me get back to you on that. <BR><BR><i> Vanderbilt (1-5) hosts Eastern Kentucky (3-3) Saturday at 1 pm CT (no TV; 104.5 The Zone).

NASHVILLE-- An SEC team should always beat an Ohio Valley Conference team, right? And a Division I-A school, now matter how ordinary, should always beat a Division I-AA team, with the advantages it enjoys in budget, scholarships and attendance figures... am I right?

Let me get back to you on that. In the meantime it's time to break down Saturday's contest between Vanderbilt (1-5) and Eastern Kentucky (3-3) at Vanderbilt Stadium. When the two teams kick off at 1 p.m. CT at Vanderbilt Stadium (no TV; 104.5 The Zone), the more appropriate question becomes... can a team picked to win the OVC play well enough to overcome a struggling SEC team?

No one would rightly contend that EKU will bring the same caliber of team that Vanderbilt saw on the road last week in eighth-ranked Georgia. And few would dispute that EKU, one of those so-called "directional" schools, has played a team on the level of Vanderbilt. But that's not to say that Coach Danny Hope (right) won't bring a team to Nashville that's capable of beating the Commodores-- far be it from me, in fact, to say such a thing.

(For the record, Vanderbilt has never in history lost to an OVC team. But as it learned in 2001 vs. MTSU-- a former OVC team to which it had never lost-- there's a first time for everything.)

Handicapping contests between I-A and I-AA teams is thorny, since both teams are playing removed from their familiar milieus. Odds-makers don't typically issue point spreads for such games. The Sagarin ratings, however, which rank all 239 Division I-A and I-AA teams, indicate Vanderbilt would be approximately 9-1/2 points better than Eastern Kentucky if the two teams played on a neutral field. Sagarin also customarily awards 3 points to the home team, so make the Commodores about a 12-1/2 point favorite at Vanderbilt Stadium for what that's worth.

Rest assured that the two schools, though meeting for the first time on the gridiron, have exchanged tapes and are intimately familiar with each other's schemes and personnel. The Colonels have been sparked the last few weeks by a big-play defense and special teams units. A telling stat: opposing teams have outgained EKU 394-333, but the Colonels are still outscoring their opponents, 30-26.

"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," Bobby Johnson said earlier this week. "They are going to be fired up, and our guys have got to know that. They are going to get Eastern Kentucky's best effort.

"Eastern Kentucky is a program that has been used to winning for years and years," he continued. "They had eight players drafted in the NFL in the last ten years. They have some good players and good players that expect to win."

The Colonels have done something Vanderbilt hasn't done since 1999-- string together three wins. EKU opened the season with losses at Appalachian State (49-21), at home to tenth-ranked Western Kentucky (21-8) and Jacksonville (Ala.) State (30-23). But the Colonels have since bounced back with wins at Samford (39-36, OT), at home vs. Eastern Illinois (49-6), and at Southeast Missouri State last week (38-13).

Injuries at the quarterback position doubtless figured into EKU's first three losses. The Colonels lost Louisville transfer Adam Ellis before the season began, and projected starter Matt Guice went down in the opener with an injured shoulder. Hope was forced to go with untested freshman Josh Greco in the first three games, all losses. Greco, in fact, threw SEVEN interceptions vs. WKU.

Vanderbilt is not likely to be so lucky. Guice (6-1, 208, a senior from Coral Springs, Fla., No. 8) is now recovered and has thrown seven touchdown passes in the last three games. Guice gives the Colonels a confident, calming presence calling the signals, and could remind some observers of Rutgers' Ryan Hart. Should he falter, which is unlikely, the Colonels are likely have Ellis back after a six-month layoff (just Vandy's luck!) due to surgery to repair his rotator cuff.

When Guice drops back to pass, keep one eye on receiver Andre Ralston (5-11, 170, No. 81). Guice certainly will be! Ralston is Guice's favorite receiver, and the two are said to have a special chemistry. Last year Ralston caught 59 passes for a 90-yard per game average. In the past three games, with Guice back, Ralston has caught five touchdown passes, several of the highlight-reel variety. He is also a breakaway threat on kickoff returns.

The Colonels use a one-back offense, and the main ball carrier is C.J. Hudson (No. 28), a 5-7, 200-pound bowling ball of a tailback. The durable Hudson is averaging over four yards per carry and over 100 yards per game.

Most football players could play a lifetime and not have the kind of game strong safety Pierre Wright (6-1, 210, No. 2) had last week vs. SEMO. The senior blocked a punt AND a field goal, intercepted two passes, and came up with a key tackle on a goal line stand. One week earlier he'd also blocked another punt. The Commodore offense and special teams had best keep an eye out for No. 2!

Where Vanderbilt could have a huge advantage is in running the football; the Commodore offensive line should out-weigh the Colonels' defensive line by somewhere around 50 lbs. per man. Given that fact, it is probably not the week for Jay Cutler to put the ball in the air a whole lot unless he has to late. Look for Ted Cain to go with a very conservative strategy early in the game. Against a defense that has proven capable of making the big defensive play, there's really no need to get fancy. The Navy approach is probably the best: value the football, try to squeeze out long drives, and press one's physical advantage against an undersized defense.

For the Commodores, the most disconcerting factor this season has been the casualties (to injuries, academics and defection) along the offensive line. The line surrendered four more sacks last week against Georgia, and the coaches are justifiably concerned about their ability to protect Jay Cutler in the passing game. Consequently, Jay's attempts, completions and yardage are all down from this time a year ago. It all might have been different if the offensive line had been at full strength all along.

Freshman Jeff Jennings was a surprise starter last week at tailback, and Cassen Jackson-Garrison (right) played a considerable amount in relief of Matthew Tant. Don't be surprised if some other young players begin popping up in the two-deep as the season progresses. Coach Johnson insists he is "looking for players" that can help the team toward wins, and alert fans may catch some glimpses of the program's future in the next few weeks if the season continues on a downward trend.

Vanderbilt's recent struggles may have caused even some loyal fans to jump ship-- but looking at the season as a whole, the Commodores have not played that poorly. Fans are right to expect some wins, however, and with a tough four-game stretch coming up after EKU, those three 3-point losses (to Ole Miss, Navy and Rutgers) are looming larger and larger.

Eastern Kentucky will have some intangibles working in its favor Saturday. Vanderbilt is a mentally drained football team after the last two weeks. The home field advantage is unlikely to amount to much, as the home crowd should be small and lethargic. For the Colonels, it's the biggest game of the year, a prime opportunity to make a statement on behalf of OVC football. The EKU offense is capable of giving Vanderbilt's porous defense some nervous moments.

Nevertheless, provided Vanderbilt avoids costly mistakes, this game still shapes up as the Commodores' second win of the season. How easily it will come? That's a different question altogether.

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