Third-down play calling ignites Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson says one of the secrets to his team's offensive success this season is the fact that he has three former offensive coordinators on his staff. Through four games it shows, especially on third down.

Vanderbilt stands fourth in the nation in third-down conversion percentage (one slot behind national champ USC), converting at a 56 percent clip.

"If you are that efficient on third down, you had good execution and good play-calling," Johnson said. "Ted Cain does a great job for us calling the plays."

The Commodores are not just successful on third-and-short, either. In wins over Ole Miss and Richmond, Vanderbilt is an astounding 8-for-13 on third-and-seven or longer. In fact, the lone failed attempt against Richmond came in the game's final minute with back-up quarterback Chris Nickson at the controls.

Those conversions all start with quarterback Jay Cutler, who is showing his three-plus years of starting experience in 2005. Cutler is first in the Southeastern Conference in total offense and owns the Vanderbilt school records for career touchdown passes and total offense.

"He is very sure of what is going on and that allows him to stay cool," Johnson said. "He knows what the coverages are and where the pressure is coming from. He can avoid the rush. He is just what you want."

Cutler is excited with the young skill position players Vanderbilt has added to the arsenal this season. Sophomore running backs Cassen Jackson-Garrison and Jeff Jennings both own 100-yard games in the last two weeks, and freshman wide receiver Earl Bennett chipped in with a 100-yard receiving effort in his first start against Richmond.

"We knew (the running backs) were going to be big guys for us," Cutler said. "Cassen is still growing. He is going through some growing pains. This game is going to help his confidence. And with Earl, we knew we needed to find another receiver. Earl is coming of age right now."

Johnson said his offense is a nice blend of youth and experience, with seniors like Cutler, tight end Dustin Dunning, tackle Ryan King and receiver Erik Davis leading the way for the youthful skill position players.

"Those two running backs are certainly capable and Earl Bennett has shown he is certainly capable," Johnson said. "George Smith made some good plays. We are excited about those young guys and what they can do. We're anxious to get them some opportunities."

The next opportunity comes Saturday when Middle Tennessee State visits Vanderbilt for the third time in five years. MTSU beat Vanderbilt in 2001 and 2002, and the third victory would be the sweetest for the Blue Raiders since it would halt Vanderbilt's perfect season.

"Middle Tennessee will come in here fired up and want to ruin our record," Johnson said. "That is what is going to make it fun. That is how it ought to be."

MONDAY PRESS CONFERENCE NOTES:

Johnson would not comment on the health of the three players involved in the on-campus incident Saturday night. He said wide receiver George Smith, safety Reshard Langford and defensive end Derrius Dowell were day-to-day.

"I'm pleased it did not turn into something worse than it did," Johnson said.

Marlon White is expected to be back in the lineup for MTSU.

Bill Trocchi is the interactive editor for Athlon Sports.


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