AUBURN, Ala.-- Vanderbilt's offense committed some costly turnovers, and mostly struggled on a wet day at Jordan-Hare Stadium. It's a work in progress, but give offensive coordinator Ted Cain credit. The Commodores' diverse scheme, which looked very vanilla in Vanderbilt's opener, has shown new looks from week to week, and its diversity has to be keeping opposing defenses on their toes.
The Commodores' first play of the day had running back Norval McKenzie split wide as a receiver, and Dan Stricker lined up in the slot. At several points Saturday the Commodores used an unorthodox three-back look, with tailbacks Kwane Doster and McKenzie lined up just behind and outside the tackles, with fullback Matthew Tant lined up behind the quarterback.
Another new look involved the greater utilization of sure-handed receiver Brandon Smith. Cain inserted Smith frequently as a third receiver alongside starters Dan Stricker and M. J. Garrett, and Smith responded with four catches, a career high. (I still have yet to see Smith drop anything that's remotely catchable.)
Then there's the "jumbo" package for short-yardage situations, which involves the use of three tight ends. Cain brings in Tom Simone, Nick Getter and Curtis Brancheau, with Matthew Tant as a single back. (Unfortunately this unit failed to convert a fourth-and-one against Auburn when Tant lost his footing in the wet turf, but the group had good success against Georgia Tech.)
Vanderbilt's most effective play Saturday was the option. Jay Cutler improves each week at running the option. Just having the option in the arsenal forces opposing defenses to spend a good bit of practice time on assignment football.
Under Steve Crosby the past four years, the Commodores used a variety of personnel groupings, but sometimes were slow to get the right personnel in the game. Under Cain, the personnel groups look well-rehearsed in getting into the game at the proper time. Only once did the offense need a time-out due to personnel confusion.
COACHING: For longtime Vanderbilt fans, losing on the road to a big SEC school has become a ho-hum thing. But for Vanderbilt's coaching staff, the loss went down hard. I rode the elevator down with five members of the Vandy coaching staff, and it was obvious they were very upset about the Commodores' poor performance.
Meanwhile in the post-game press conference, Bobby Johnson seemed much more upset about the loss than he had previously after the blowout at Georgia Tech. As always, he handled all the questions deftly, but his answers seemed to conceal a measure of both anger and determination to fix the problems. I got the impression that this will be a tough week of practice for the young Commodores.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Justin Giboney's block of a Damon Duval field goal was the Commodores' first kick block in ages. Giboney told me after the game that the coaches had noticed a seam in the Tigers' placekicking formation, and Giboney had shot through it.
Walk-on junior Abtin Iranmanesh made the trip and kicked off on Vandy's first two kickoffs. Last week against Furman his kickoffs had been nice and deep, but this week his second one barely made it past the Auburn 20. He was replaced on Vandy's third and final kickoff by true freshman scholarship kicker Greg Johnson, who had handled kickoffs in the opener against Georgia Tech. (Vanderbilt had no kickoffs in the second half.)
Speaking of Johnson, he is now 3-of-4 on field goals on the year. (And the one he missed, against Georgia Tech, went off the upright.)
PERSONNEL MOVES: Backup quarterback Benji Walker, who had played in spots in the first two games, didn't get into the game until halfway through the fourth quarter, when the game was out of hand.
Senior tight end Tom Simone got his first start of the season, ahead of Nick Getter, who had started the first two games at tight end. Vandy went with Simone, the better receiver, ahead of Getter, who had impressed the coaches with his blocking.
Redshirt freshman Matthew Tant had his best performance yet. The fullback from Harpeth High School carried nine times for 43 yards, and was especially effective on a fullback trap play that helped keep Auburn's defense honest.
Linebacker Moses Osemwegie, who had been hobbled during the week by a knee injury, didn't start, but played roughly half the game at linebacker. He was replaced in the starting lineup by Brandon Walthour, who got the first start of his career.
FASHION NOTE: For the first time this season, the Commodores wore their white road jerseys-- and matched them with white pants. (Vanderbilt wore gold on gold in the opener at Georgia Tech, and black jerseys and white pants in the home opener last week against Furman.)
In addition, the coaches debuted new black sideline polo shirts.
THE AUBURN EXPERIENCE: Auburn has a number of great traditions. "Tiger" the War Eagle IV, mascot of Auburn, typically makes a pre-game flight and lands with one of the caretakers. On this day, however, Tiger made a few extra laps around the stadium before making an unexpected landing a good distance away from the trainer. It was one of the few things that went awry for Auburn Saturday.
Seriously, even if it didn't go perfectly, Tiger's pre-game flight is one of the most electrifying and impressive pre-game rituals in college football.
Another great Auburn tradition is the toilet-papering of trees near Toomer's Corner after a win. However, did you know... that Auburn has a sports heritage museum just minutes away from Toomer's Corner... and among the exhibits in it is a scaled-down model of Toomer's Corner... and that you can "celebrate the tradition" of Auburn by helping to toilet-paper the trees inside the museum? (No, I am not making this up.)
And in the "Did I hear that right?" department, one corporate sponsorship that Auburn might want to consider rethinking is the "Waste Management Scoreboard."