The Peiser Michigan-Vanderbilt game report

The Michigan Wolverines used a pounding rush to set up quarterback Chad Henne on the play-action pass and defeat Vanderbilt 27-7 Saturday at Michigan Stadium. Several dropped passes prevented the Commodores from converting multiple first downs, and it forced the defense to stay on the field too long.

Vanderbilt could never get untracked on offense, scoring their lone touchdown on a trick play, a backward pass from quarterback Chris Nickson to Earl Bennett, who then located a wide open Marlon White at the Michigan two. The lob pass fell into White's hands, who then waltzed into the end zone. For much of the day, whenever Nickson dropped back to pass, one or more Michigan players was in his vicinity. After the first couple of series, Michigan began blitzing heavily, believing Vanderbilt couldn't sneak a run through the holes. "I don't want to say that we lacked the running game, but if we had been more successful, I'm pretty sure it would have opened up a few more lanes for us," Nickson said. "The running game always helps. It takes a lot of pressure off you."

Michigan found success early running off left tackle behind tackle Jake Long and guard Adam Kraus with the lead blocking of fullback Obi Oluigbo.

The Wolverines marched 81 yards in 10 plays on their first possession of the game. On the first scrimmage play, Michigan revealed their intention to run left. Tailback Mike Hart carried behind Long's block for 12 yards and a first down.

A few minutes later, a Henne pass to Steve Breaston for 17 yards moved the ball to the Vanderbilt 37. Hart then pounded through the Commodore defense three consecutive times for 18 yards. Needing a blow, backup tailback Kevin Grady replaced him and promptly rushed 19 yards up the middle for the game's first score. Garrett Rivas's extra point made it 7-0 Michigan with just four minutes and 48 seconds elapsed.

Vanderbilt picked up a first down on its first possession and moved the ball into Wolverine territory before being stopped at the 43 yard line. Brett Upson's first collegiate punt was downed at the 12 yard line.

Late in the opening period, Michigan picked up its second score on a 33 yard field goal by Rivas. A near miss quarterback sack by Ray Brown could have pushed the maize and blue out of field goal range, but Henne escaped for a first down at the Vandy 22.

Michigan appeared to have a 1st and goal at the two yard line, but what was ruled on the field as a Henne completion to Mario Manningham and a fumble, was overturned by the season's first instant replay; it came about when Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson decided to challenge the play. The replay official ruled Manningham did not have possession, and Michigan settled for the field goal to take a 10-0 lead as the first quarter ended.

Michigan's next drive appeared to be headed toward more success. Starting with an interference penalty on D.J. Moore for running into the punt returner, Michigan's third string tailback Brandon Minor broke loose for 24 yards, again slanting off left tackle. Three Michigan mistakes resulted in no scoring. First, Henne overthrew a wide-open tight end Mike Massey inside the 20; it probably would have been a touchdown if the pass had been on target. Next, Breaston dropped a pass after getting open on a quick slant pattern. It would have been a first down and possibly a touchdown. Finally, Rivas's field goal attempt was low, and Commodore linebacker Jonathan Goff got a hand on it. The block gave the ball to Vanderbilt at their 41 yard line, and it led to the Commodores' only score of the day. Goff noted the Commodores knew early they had a chance for a block. "We got a little more push on the ball, so then we just tried something a little different and tried to get some more hands up in the air. I was able to come out and make a play for a momentum swing," he said.

Chris Nickson completed 11 of 25 passes for 99 yards in his debut as starter. (VM/Stan Jones)
Following an incomplete pass and three-yard completion to Steven Bright, Nickson hooked up with Bennett for a 15-yard completion and first down. He followed it with a quick pass to Sean Walker who sprinted down the sideline for an 11-yard gain. The trick play touchdown occurred on the next play to make it 10-7 Michigan with 12:26 to go until half.

Michigan closed out the first half scoring when Rivas hit a career-high 48-yard field goal five minutes later. The Wolverines benefited from a couple of missed tackles on that drive, the crucial one being a possible stop on a Breaston reception for three yards, which turned into a 28-yard gain. The half ended with Michigan up 13-7.

Vanderbilt threatened to score only once in the final half. That came in the fourth quarter, with Michigan up 20-7 following a Henne to tight end Tyler Ecker pass in the back of the end zone. Starting at their own 38, Nickson hooked up for 13 yards to Bennett. An option pitch to Jared Hawkins went for 11 on 2nd & 13, and a third down pass to George Smith converted the first down on a nine yard completion to the Michigan 32. Nickson took one of his six sacks on the day, and then he threw incomplete to Smith. On 3rd and 19, he spotted Bennett for a 14-yard completion. On 4th and five, Nickson went deep to Bennett in the end zone. The ball was a little wide, and Bennett bobbled it. It would have been out of bounds if he had been able to catch it.

Vanderbilt's defense had an opportunity to score some points on the ensuing Michigan drive. Henne avoided a hard pass rush and threw off-balance. The ball aimed directly at freshman cornerback Dalron Spead, but Spead couldn't make the catch. Had he intercepted the ball, only striped lines were in his path to the goal line.

A late Michigan touchdown at the end of the game made the score look better for the Wolverines. Henne spotted Manningham in the left corner for a 27-yard score. The point after gave the Wolverines the final 20-point victory margin.

After the game, Coach Johnson commented on Michigan's hard-hitting play: "We did not react very well to the aggressive play by Michigan, and they played aggressively all day. They really put us in some tough situations and we did not react very well."

Johnson was asked for his views on Vanderbilt's offensive woes and said, "The three-and-outs were tough. They did a good job of stuffing us. We just were not physical enough. You have to convert, especially when you get a third-and-one, to keep the drive alive and get the defense off the field. They played a lot today. We were not doing the little things today. Chris (Nickson) made some good throws and we dropped them."

The overall defensive play drew Johnson's praise. "We played better after the first drive on defense. We seemed to be in position several times but missed key tackles. Most of the time we answered the bell on defense. We forced the turnover and held them to a field goal. We caused a fumble with them in a short field. I thought we played hard the whole game," he said.

The final stats showed just how out-manned the Commodore offense was against Michigan's tough defense. Vandy picked up just nine first downs, two via penalties. They rushed the ball 26 times for 42 yards, with six of those sacks by Nickson for 38 lost yards (20 for 80 without the sacks). Nickson completed 11 of 25 passes for just 99 yards, but he was plagued by numerous drops by his receivers. He did not throw an interception, but he did lose two fumbles on the day. Bennett was one of one for 30 yards and a score.

Michigan's bull-like rushing led to 246 yards in 51 attempts. Henne passed for 135 yards and two touchdowns on 10 of 22 passing; like Vanderbilt, Michigan's receivers dropped numerous catchable balls.

The final stats showed Michigan with 73 plays for 381 yards and Vandy with 52 plays for 171 yards. The 125 total scrimmage plays represents about 20 below the average last year. The new rule dictating the clock to be started when the referee places it ready after all changes of possession shortened the length of the game by about 15 to 20 minutes.

Individually, Hart nearly matched Vanderbilt's total offensive output. He finished with 146 yards rushing on 31 carries and caught a pass for a couple more yards. Breaston caught four balls for 68 yards, while Manningham grabbed three passes for 44 yards and a score.

Over half of Vanderbilt's total yardage belonged to Bennett. Besides his 30 yard scoring pass, he caught six passes for 58 yards. Nickson was the gold men's leading rusher with just 22 yards on 16 attempts. Removing the six sacks, he rushed for 60 yards on 10 attempts with the two lost fumbles. Cassen Jackson-Garrison never got it going, and only part of the reason could be attributed to his recent appendectomy. He rushed eight times for two yards; on five of those attempts, a Michigan defender was ready to tackle him just after he received the handoff. His only real gain of the day came on a five yard scamper on 3rd and long during the third quarter. The run did give Upson room to punt, as the Commodores were backed deep in their own territory.

Defensively, Goff registered 14 tackles in addition to his blocked field goal. Chris Booker added seven solo tackles. Broderick Stewart picked up a nine-yard sack on Henne, while Reshard Langford, Curtis Gatewood, and Kevin Joyce recorded tackles for loss. Theo Horrocks recovered a fumble.

Rondell Biggs and Jamar Adams led the Wolverines with six tackles apiece. Biggs and LaMarr Woodley both sacked Nickson twice.

Vanderbilt won the battle of the special teams. Aside from the blocked field goal attempt, Upson punted seven times for a 36.3 average, placing two inside the 20 yard line. Breaston never threatened to break loose on a return, netting just seven yards on three returns. Most impressively, Michigan failed to reach the 20 yard line the two times Vandy kicked off. Alex Washington averaged almost 23 yards per kick return, including a 34-yarder.

Vanderbilt plays at Alabama next Saturday, while Michigan hosts Central Michigan.

#31 Jared Hawkins, #72 Brian Stamper, #64 Merritt Kirchoffer and Chris Nickson (rear) (VM/Stan Jones)

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