Head-to-Head: Inside Vanderbilt vs. TSU

Vanderbilt faces Tennessee State Saturday for the first time ever. Howell Peiser gives us an in-depth look at the game matchups and provides us with a prediction on the game score.

Vanderbilt Vs. Tennessee State

Game 4

Saturday, 23-September-2006—6:00 PM CDT

 

Radio: WGFX 104.5 FM & Eight Affiliates + Sirius Radio

 WNSR-AM 560 (Tennessee State broadcast)

          TV:      None

 

Note: Please note that I-40 Eastbound from I-440 to I-65 will be closed this weekend.

 

The Statistics

 

Vanderbilt 0-2 in the SEC, 0-3 Overall

Tennessee State 1-0 in the OVC, 2-1 Overall

 

This is the first game in the series.  Tennessee State has played numerous times at Vanderbilt Stadium and for a period of 15 years worked out at Vanderbilt.

 

Tennessee State has one of the most storied football traditions in the nation.  For a period in the 1970's there were more Tiger alums in the National Football League than any other college.  Henry Kean established the school as one of the elite small college programs back in the 1940's, coaching what was then known as Tennessee A&I to a 109-15-2 record in 11 years. 

 

In 1955, Howard Gentry (the father of Nashville's distinguished Vice-mayor and sports talk show host Howard Gentry, Jr.) took over for Kean and further built the program into a small college national power.  His 1956 team went 10-0 including a win in the school's first bowl game.  He left the field for the school's athletics director position after 1960, ending his coaching career with a 42-10-1 record.

 

After a short down period, the legendary John Merritt took over the program in 1963.  Immediately, TSU once again became not only one of the most successful small college teams, they became one of the most exciting teams to watch.  Merritt's wide-open offenses and dominating defenses produced winning records in all 21 years of his rein.  The personable coach attracted more attention to the program and became a cult favorite on Sunday morning television.  The Tennessee State football highlights with Merritt and Channel Five's Hope Hines became must watch TV for sports fans.  Merritt could fill up the entire show's timeslot by answering just one or two questions.  One of the more hilarious moments occurred when Hines asked the coach why when his team led an opponent 42-8 with a minute to go in the game, and TSU scored another touchdown, he chose to go for two to win 50-8.  Merritt replied, "We already had lost six footballs kicking the extra points, and we just had one left."

 

Of all Merritt's teams, his 1966 squad was probably the best.  That Tiger edition went 10-0 with a Grantland Rice Bowl victory over Muskingum by a score of 34-7.  The Tigers outscored their opposition 381-51.  That team was loaded with future NFL players. Twenty-two Tigers from that team were picked in the NFL draft, including the very first African-American quarterback to be selected in the Draft.

 

Eldridge Dickey was a superior all-around athlete who could run and pass equally well.  He had a cannon arm and a quick release.  In 1966, he passed for 25 touchdowns and more than 200 yards per game.  After his senior year in 1967, the Oakland Raiders made him their first pick in the 1968 draft; they selected Ken Stabler with their next pick.  Dickey was converted to a wide receiver, suffered numerous injuries, and played sparingly for the Raiders in 1968 and 1971.  When he was able to play, he became another long-bomb target for Raiders' quarterback Daryle Lamonica.

 

Other notable players on that team included Alvin Coleman, who started as a cornerback for the Cincinnati Bengals in the early 1970's; Elbert Drungo, who started at guard in tackle over a 10-year period with the Oilers and Bills; Cid Edwards, who started at running back for the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Chargers; Claude Humphrey, who starred for 13 seasons as a defensive end, 10 with the Falcons and three with the Eagles; cornerback Jim Marsalis, who was a key contributor in the Kansas City Chiefs' Super Bowl Title; and Noland Smith, who became one of the league's top kickoff and punt return specialists with the Chiefs.

 

The Matchups

 

When Vanderbilt Runs The Ball

 

The Commodores started annexing ground last week via the running game.  Jared Hawkins and Cassen Jackson-Garrison rushed for 166 combined yards on 24 carries (6.9 avg), as the Commodores finished the game with 240 yards on the ground.  The Vanderbilt coaching staff noticed a flaw in the way Arkansas's defensive ends feathered outside on sweep action and stopped blocking him.  Instead, Brian Stamper pushed the next inside defender into the middle of the field, and CJG and Hawkins made sharp cuts after faking wide.  The resulting hole created was wide enough to drive a Zamboni machine through.  The Razorbacks finally adjusted and plugged the leak.

 

Tennessee State, even using I-AA standards, does not stop the run all that well.  Their three I-AA opponents (Alabama A&M, Murray State, and Jackson State) have rushed the ball at a 4.4 yard average for 180 yards per game.  Former Vanderbilt Commodore Lamar Divens is currently a backup defensive tackle for the Tigers after suffering a sprained ankle earlier this season.

 

Look for CJG and Hawkins to combine for 30 carries and 150 yards or more.  If Gaston Miller is going to play this year, I expect to see him play in the second half of this game.  Throw in another 50-100 yards rushing from Chris Nickson, and Vandy should top 200 yards rushing for the second consecutive week.

 

When Tennessee State Runs The Ball

 

The Tigers have an impressive offensive line that averages 300 pounds per starter.  State likes to run stretch plays, especially to the left; Vandy has seen that maneuver used against them in all three games thus far, and they have had moderate success stopping it. 

 

Tailback Javarris Williams was the Ohio Valley Conference Freshman of the Year last year, gaining 872 yards.  He has continued to improve this season, picking up 355 yards in the first three ball games.  Williams averages 5.5 yards every time he carries the pigskin, and that average hasn't been inflated with a 50 or 60 yard run.  He's more likely to burst through the line for 12 yards four or five times in a game than break away for an 80-yard run.

 

When Vanderbilt Throws The Ball

 

This is the week for Chris Nickson to relax in the pocket and locate Earl Bennett, Marlon White, George Smith, Sean Walker, and Bryant Anderson.  Bennett and White need to both enjoy productive nights in the same game.  If the passing game can earn a little more respect and the players can gain a little more experience the next two weeks, teams will have to back off against the run and allow our backs to perform much better.

 

The offensive line needs to put it all together and give Nickson four seconds to locate his receivers.  Nickson needs to work on not telegraphing his passes and not focus on just the primary receiver.  That should be corrected with a little more experience and by trusting his blocker to protect him. 

 

Nickson also needs to learn to trust his ability to throw the ball and not be so quick to take off and run.  A few times last week, he could have thrown the ball to open receivers, but he ran the ball when a small lane developed.

 

This may not be the week Nickson gets 200 yards passing.  For starters, I expect Vandy to run the ball at least 67% and possibly 75% of the time.  Also, there is a chance another quarterback could see action in this game if the score gets lopsided.

 

When Tennessee State Throws The Ball

 

This is where the Tigers have a chance to stay in the game.  Quarterback Antonio Heffner is a transfer from the South Carolina Gamecocks.  He started against Auburn last year connecting on 15 of 23 passes and a touchdown, and he played in the Gamecocks' Independence Bowl game.

 

Heffner has done well in his opening three games at TSU.  His 145.2 efficiency rating leads the OVC, and his 9.1 yards per passing attempt rates fifth in Division I-AA.

 

The Tigers will fake the stretch play to Williams and have Heffner roll back to the opposite side and throw the intermediate to long pass.  It is a great weapon because it forces the defense to stay at home until they can completely read the play.  If Williams starts running the ball with success, and Vandy has to bring their linebackers over in rapid pursuit, Heffner will sting the Commodores with 20-yard completions to Jeremy Stephens and Chris Johnson.  Williams is another excellent pass receiving option.  He has caught five balls for 128 yards (25.6 avg) and a score.  Look for TSU to throw the ball 25-30 times and at least 225 yards through the air.

 

Special Teams Play

 

To date, the Commodores have been fine on the defensive end of special teams, but lacking on the offensive end.  The kick off and punt coverage has been about as good as it can get.  Opponents have not been able to benefit from kick and punt returns.  Most of Brett Upson's punts have not been returnable, and most of Bryant Hahnfeldt's kickoffs have been high enough to force opponents into short returns.

 

Vanderbilt needs a great deal of improvement from their return game.  Earl Bennett has not been able to field most of the punts, and it has resulted in a good 10 to 15 yards of roll.  When he has fielded punts, there has been nowhere to run.  Perhaps, Vandy could do better by placing a second back deep in the coverage.

 

The Commodore kick return team has not been as inadequate as the punt return team, but only one return out of 11 has been beneficial to the offense.

 

Tennessee State is the mirror opposite.  Their return teams are excellent, but their defense against the returns is not all that strong.  Upson may want to punt away from Jarrett Morrow, who is a threat to break one any time he catches a punt.  Stephens and Morrow can also break a kickoff return.

 

The big difference in special teams is the punting game.  Vandy's Upson can change the momentum of a game with a 55-yard net punt.  Tennessee State's Miceah Streiff and Tim Ehret rarely punt the ball 40 yards and frequently fail to achieve 35 yards.

 

The placekicking is about equal.  Hahnfeldt and TSU's Eric Benson are both above-average field goal kickers.

 

The Predictions

 

PiRate: N/A (estimated difference in power ratings is 30 points)

 

Vanderbuilder's Guess: Vanderbilt by 18 points

 

Average of 13 Computer Rankings: Vanderbilt by 34 points (41-7) Only 13 computer ratings supply predictive scores for I-AA teams.

 

Summary:  If this were Vanderbilt versus Missouri State, I would feel confident in saying the Commodores would have a chance to top 45 points and win by more than five touchdowns.

 

This isn't a typical I-AA opponent.  This game has been talked about for 40 years.  It's rather obvious that many Tennessee State teams of yesteryear would have run the Vanderbilt counterpart off the field.  The 1966 team I told you about might have been able to go toe-to-toe with 11-0 Alabama that year!

 

Multiple generations of Tigers' fans want their team to play this game like it's their last.  TSU does not have the talent they once had, as the players they used to recruit (The Claude Humphreys, Ed "Too Tall" Jones', and Richard Dent's) now go to Tennessee and Alabama.  However, this group of Tigers will play well above their level of competency.  Vanderbilt may actually find themselves in a tough game for at least the first half.

 

Eventually, the Commodores will control the game with superior interior line play.  Tennessee State's starters will wear down, and depth will be a major factor.

 

I see the teams heading to the locker room at halftime with one team leading by no more than seven points.  Vandy will score three times in the second half and pull away for a 17 to 20-point win.  My gut feeling predicted score is: Vanderbilt 35  Tennessee State 17.


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