In many ways, the script was heartbreakingly familiar in Vandy's 45-38 loss to Ole Miss-- the Commodores fought valiantly, only to fall short at the end. But in losing to the Rebels, the Commodores appeared to find something that's been missing since Jermaine Johnson departed in 1995-- a consistent, potent rushing attack.
During the Rod Dowhower / Woody Widenhofer / Steve Crosby years, the emphasis was always on a sophisticated passing attack. It's not as though the Commodores didn't attempt to establish a running game-- they did. It was just mostly ineffective. Vanderbilt appeared to lack the offensive linemen and the stud running back necessary to run over and around defenses. Last year Vandy averaged only 134 rushing yards per game; two years ago it was a meager 96.
Entering the 2002 season, the Commodores had lost their best two running backs (Lew Thomas and Rodney Williams) to graduation, as well as two key offensive linemen (Pat Green and Duncan Cave). On paper, the team still appeared to lack the linemen and the backs necessary to generate any kind of consistent rushing attack.
Despite the key personnel losses, head coach Bobby Johnson adamantly refused to deviate from the offensive system that had been so successful for him at Furman. "We like to run behind a fullback," Johnson said. Fans groaned-- Vanderbilt had not used a fullback extensively since Paul Morgan in 1997.
"We like to run a little option," said Johnson. "We feel like it's a great talent equalizer." Fans groaned some more, especially those who remembered the days of Gerry DiNardo's mind-numbing I-bone attack. An option attack may have worked at Furman, they said, but it can never succeed in the modern-day SEC.
Offensive linemen had to be re-taught the fundamentals of run-blocking. In the backfield Johnson and his offensive staff had only raw material to work with-- of the potential quarterbacks, tailbacks and fullbacks on the roster, not a single one had any meaningful playing experience.
Granted, the rushing attack didn't start out like a house afire. The Commodores opened with only 109 rushing yards against Georgia Tech. They exploded for 344 rushing yards against Furman, but as skeptics correctly pointed out, Furman is a Division I-AA team without an SEC-caliber defense. (Also that night, starting tailback Ronald Hatcher went down with a season-ending injury.)
Not until the Auburn game did the offense begin to make a few believers. Although the Tigers successfully kept Vandy out of the end zone, Auburn struggled all afternoon with Cutler and the option. The Commodores rolled up a respectable 169 yards on the ground and entered the Ole Miss game an uncharacteristic fourth in the SEC in rushing yardage.
Saturday against Ole Miss, the ground game seemed to come into its own. In the 45-38 loss the Commodores racked up 257 rushing yards. Two Commodore backs, Kwane Doster and Norval McKenzie, had 100-yard games. (That happened once last year against bantamweight Duke, but hadn't happened against an SEC opponent since Gerry DiNardo was coach.)
By reinstating the fullback and going to a two-back base set with the threat of the option, Johnson has transformed the Commodore offense into a much tougher unit. An offense that was primarily a pro-style, finesse offense for the past seven years has developed under Johnson's leadership into a unit capable of pounding the ball on the ground against SEC defenses. So far, that's been this team's nicest surprise.
Significantly, it's been a different back each week leading the way. Saturday Doster led the way, with 101 yards, one TD, and a dynamo performance on kickoff returns (243 yards). Against Furman it was Cutler with the big night; against Auburn Matthew Tant shined. McKenzie quietly picks up tough yards up the middle and occasionally bursts for a long gain. Bara Cola has had his moments.
With old-fashioned values and a hard-nosed, bruising rushing attack, Johnson has quickly left his brand on the Commodore offense. He has yet to win an SEC game, but trust me, the resurgent rushing game is a hopeful sign. Suddenly, the Commodores are getting it done on the ground... and Johnson and his offensive staff are slowly proving his doubters wrong.
The stars of Vandy's rejuvenated ground attack thus far have been:
· Norval McKenzie - The sophomore tailback has 256 yards in four games and leads the team with just over 8 yards per carry. He went over 100 for the first time against Ole Miss, and was just short of going over the century mark against Furman (99 yards).
· Kwane Doster - The true freshman with sub-4.4 speed entered the Georgia Tech game as the third-string tailback. After four games he is an essential part of the ground game, with 225 yards and 5.7 yards per carry. As the single kickoff return man, he gets plenty of other "touches" and had a spectacular 95-yard return against Ole Miss.
· Jay Cutler - The quick-footed freshman quarterback from Santa Claus, Ind. has given the Commodore offense a dimension not seen since Eric Jones roamed the Astroturf in the late 1980's. Masterfully executing the option, Cutler has 197 rushing yards-- take away the sacks, and he'd have a lot more. In addition, Cutler has scored five of Vandy's total 12 touchdowns himself on the ground (and passed for four more).
· Bara Cola and Matthew Tant - The Commodores' two fullbacks each have a touchdown on the season, and have combined for 110 yards. Tant, the redshirt freshman, has shown the ability to pick up yardage on the quick-hitter; Cola, a senior and former walk-on, is best known for laying down a devastating block.
· The offensive line, coached by Robbie Caldwell - The line had to learn a new scheme and a new blocking technique, and suffered a crippling blow when right guard Jordan Pettit was lost for the season in the first game. The performance in that game was nothing to speak of, but the line has made steady improvement in run-blocking and seemed to have plenty of leg drive left late in the Ole Miss game.