Inside the huddle: Def. coordinator Bruce Fowler

Vanderbilt's defense came up with two big stops in the fourth quarter in the 28-24 win over Arkansas. The Commodore 'D' limited the Razorbacks' vaunted rushing game, which had racked up 483 yards the previous week, to just 194 yards. In this VandyMania exclusive, coordinator Bruce Fowler talks about the successful defensive strategy, while end Herdley Harrison adds his perspective.

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VandyMania: Coach, could you talk about the defensive gameplan for the Arkansas game? There was a lot of talk during the week about stuffing the run, and after the first quarter, you seemed to do that very well.

Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bruce Fowler: Obviously that's where we started. They [Arkansas] ran the ball very well during the first quarter. I know they had 200 yards in the first quarter! (laughs) But I think they only had about 198 the last three. So yes, we put a lot of emphasis on stopping the run, but then obviously we got hurt by some play-action passes. We're going to have to get a lot better at defending that. But I'm proud of our guys.

VM: After that first quarter, as you said, you seemed to slow them down a lot. Could you talk about the adjustments you made?

Coach Fowler: Oh yeah. They started out doing some things that we hadn't seen them do. They were moving their backs around and giving us a lot of motion. We had come into the game with a very aggressive gameplan, so it took our guys a little while to settle down. We made a couple of adjustments, just a few minor things here and there in our alignments. We were able to slow them down in the second quarter, then they came out in the third quarter and got going again, but most of that was on play-action passes. Basically once we got calmed down, things got a little better.

VM: Jay Cutler certainly gets a lot of attention on this team... but last week your defense makes a huge stop that pretty much sealed the Wake Forest game, with Herdley Harrison's sack... this week you had to get the ball back, and your defense forces a punt. Your defense is coming up with stops now when they have to. It's got to feel incredibly gratifying.

Coach Fowler: I feel incredibly good for those guys. As you know, we've heard about and talked about and been critiqued about not being able to make those kinds of stops at the end of the game. Now, two weeks in a row we've done that. I can't say enough about our offense and Jay and all of them over there too though. Our defense believes in them. When we get the ball back to them in those situations, even if we're trailing, we know we've got a chance to win. I think that confidence is obviously growing daily.

Vanderbilt's defense stacks nine men in the box in a short-yardage situation in the first quarter vs. Arkansas. (VandyMania / Brent Wiseman)

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Senior defensive end Herdley Harrison registered a sack and two big pass breakups in the Arkansas game.

VandyMania: What did Coach Johnson say in the locker room after the big win at Arkansas?

Herdley: Basically he just said that he'd been around a lot of teams, and he's coached for a long time, but he'd never been around a team that had so much heart and wasn't willing to give up. He just knows we're a totally different team from last year. In situations like that people have been dropping their heads. This year people are hoping and cheering and keeping their heads up, everybody's praying, thinking about Kwane, thinking about everything. The emotions are running wild, and we were able to do it two weeks in a row.

VM: There was a lot of emphasis in practice last week on stopping Arkansas' run. Did you guys maybe over-emphasize that a little?

Herdley: Yeah. To a certain degree it worked, because they were able to get that bootleg going, that naked bootleg. Everybody was focusing on their zone, because they were able to hit it. They were hitting it real good inside. So everybody was crashing down, and the quarterback early on was able to get some success passing. But to a certain degree I think that worked back in our favor. They kept on trying to throw the ball when they could have been running the ball. I think they might have been able to gash us a little more.

VM: You were trying to get them to throw the ball, right?

Herdley: That's right. When we were able to get them to throw the ball, we felt like we were going to have the upper hand. He [Arkansas quarterback Robert Johnson] did a lot better than we expected him to do. He played a really nice game. We were lucky to be able to come out on top. When we forced him to pass and we knew he was going to pass, we felt like we could beat him.

VM: You've done pretty well in these first two games at beating your guy and getting into that backfield. Do you feel pretty good about that?

Herdley: Oh yeah. But last week was a little bit different. They kept on trying to reach, so I was just trying to stay outside a little more. On that one play when I had a sack, I was just trying to be a contain man, and the quarterback just happened to roll out my way. I was just able to get him down.

VM: How familiar were you with Robert Johnson?

Herdley: He has a chance to be a really good quarterback. He's a great athlete. We already knew a lot about him, because Coach Belin had recruited him from Texas. But experience is a factor. We have the most experienced quarterback in the conference, hands down. We were just thinking that if we could try to put a lot of pressure on him, we could get the upper hand. He stepped up to the plate. He played a really good game, but things fell our way, and we were able to come out on top.


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