Vanderbilt vs. Duke Post-Mortem

The polls one week ago showed that a change might be on the way. The Commodore voting bloc, otherwise known as Vandymaniacs, was ready to start anew with a new candidate. The previous executive numbers of 4-15-2 did not sit well with all the Monday morning political pundits.

What a difference a week makes!  Chris Nickson went from producing statistics that brought up comparisons to Hi Lewis one week to statistics that Eric Jones might have pulled off during the final weeks of the 1987 season.  It is rare when a quarterback produces 400 total yards by running for 150 and throwing for 250.  Since modern records have been kept in Commodoreland, only Jones ever enjoyed a day like the one Nickson had yesterday.  Against Rutgers in 1987, Jones rushed for 101 yards and passed for 267.  The rushing statistic wasn't as good, and he didn't count for five touchdowns that day.

 

For the season, Nickson now has 564 rushing yards and over 600 if you factor out sacks.  He has taken over as the leading rusher on the team.  His open field running and ability to make people miss can be attributed to many things, but there is one that you would never think about until you experience him running just a few feet away from where you are standing.  Nickson doesn't appear to be moving fast, but when you get up close to him, he is going faster than he looks.  It's sort of like watching a knuckle ball pitcher surprise a batter with a fast ball.  By the time he approaches the defender, the defender doesn't have the time to adjust to the fact that Nickson is going three to five miles per hour faster than he looks to be moving.  Throw in a great ability to make tacklers miss.  It's a magnificent talent to able to change gears and directions on a dime.

 

This brings me to another point.  Imagine if Nickson was a tailback in an I-formation offense.  Place a fullback who can block like another guard and also run counter, trap, or dive plays.  To this, add Earl Bennett and either Sean Walker, Marlon White, or George Smith wide.  I believe the result would be an offense that is capable of averaging close to 200 yards rushing every game and 200 yards passing every game.  Nickson might not only be the leading single season rusher in Vandy history, he could be an all-American tailback who might eventually find himself on the Heisman Trophy watch list, as Jones was prior to his senior season in 1988.  Opposing teams would be forced to respect his ability to throw the halfback option on every play.  With an extra blocker leading interference, Bennett would discover more room to run and get open on pass plays.  The offense might be as close to unstoppable as it could ever be at Vandy. 

 

This offensive line would be allowed to double team block more at the point of attack thanks to the fullback being used to kick out or in at the hole.  Linebackers could not cover their passing zones until they knew for sure that it was a pass and not a run.  Give Bennett an extra half second to find a seam between the underneath and deep defenders and he will be open at 15 yards most of the day.

 

Now, it's time to come back to reality.  None of this will happen.  Well, none of it will happen exactly like I just related.  However, put Nickson back in the shotgun with Cassen Jackson-Garrison or Jared Hawkins in the backfield with him, and include a tight end with three receivers, and you just about have the same thing, only better.  Now, the defense has to spread the field because there is an extra wide receiver.  CJG or Hawkins can become either a lead blocker or counter runner.  Nickson can sprint wide with the option of running or throwing  That, my fellow Vandymaniacs is what offensive coordinator Ted Cain must be thinking.  Nickson has become the dual threat tailback that teams from yesteryear utilized.  When in a shotgun formation, Vandy is basically no different than many teams from the 1930's and 1940's who used either the double wing or spread formation.  Ray Morrison would be comfortable coaching this same offense.  Enjoy it while you can the next couple of years.  It should only get better the next two seasons.  Good things may indeed be on the horizon as long as the team can stay healthy.

 

Speaking of healthy, I have talked at length about Vanderbilt's history of depth concerns.  Even though this season finds the Gold Men being deeper than many recent teams, yesterday's near collapse can be attributed somewhat to the "F-word."  Yes, fatigue reared its ugly head, and many of the starting defensive players wore down after getting banged up.  Many of the backups showed they need a little more seasoning and to get a tad better.  This will only continue to be a problem in the final three weeks.  Having no off-week in a 12-game schedule is about as brutal as a baseball team having to play two double-headers in consecutive days prior to starting a new 4-game series 500 miles away with no day off.  And in football, every player is like a starting pitcher, except for the kicker and punter (they are more like the kooky closing relief pitchers with all the idiosyncrasies).

 

So, that brings Vanderbilt home sporting a 4-5 record and with East Division leader Florida coming to town for an 11:30 AM Kickoff this Saturday.  An upset, revenge win would make the Vandy-Kentucky game a virtual repeat of the 1999 season.  Let's hope Nickson has one more comparison game to Jones this weekend.  It was Jones who last piloted the Commodores to an upset win over number 20 Florida in 1988.  That game was also a morning-starting televised contest.  The Commodores won 24-9.

 

Another Pearl for Earl: With Bennett's nine receptions for 184 yards Saturday, he is now on pace for a 1,000-yard receiving season.  Only three Commodores have ever turned that feat—Dan Stricker in 2001; Boo Mitchell in 1988; and Bob Goodridge in 1967.  Bennett needs to average 8 2/3 catches in his final three games to top last year's 79 receptions and become just the second black and gold receiver to catch 80 passes in one season (running back Keith Edwards led the nation with 97 catches in 1983.)

 

Interesting Note:  The last Commodore to rush for 150 yards in a game was Rodney Williams.  He did it in 2001 against Duke.


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