Good QB Play Crucial to Win in Oxford

The Vanderbilt Commodores are 3-0 heading into this weekend's match up with the Ole Miss Rebels, and are on a roll in almost all aspects of the game. Running game? Check. Kicking game? Check. Defense? Check. Passing game? Semi-check.

Of all the different areas of the game, this is the main one where Commodore fans are asking themselves some questions. If teams begin to completely stack the line of the scrimmage, and shut down the run, can Chris Nickson pass the ball effectively on a consistent basis? Can Nickson limit his turnovers? Can he manage the game through the air, even if the running game isn't firing on all cylinders? These are questions that will eventually be answered, perhaps even as early as this weekend in Oxford.

Let's look at Nickson's numbers so far this season: 24 for 45 through the air, for 252 yards. He's thrown five touchdowns, and more importantly, he's thrown no interceptions. While these aren't Heisman-like numbers, he's done what has been asked of him, and that's one of the main reasons Vandy is 3-0 right now. He's managed the offense about as well as you could ask for and is the leader that this Vanderbilt team needs.

And make no mistake about it; Nickson's numbers on the ground have been nothing short of outstanding for a quarterback. He's compiled 268 yards running the football, and has added five touchdowns. And once again, as with the passing game, he hasn't turned the ball over. For someone looking in on the program from the outside, they may simply believe that Nickson is primarily a running quarterback, and really isn't much of a passer. But, you've also got to keep this in mind. He hasn't had to pass too often thus far. He attempted 16 passes in the Miami and Rice games, while throwing only 13 times in the game against South Carolina. The running game has been good enough to allow these kinds of numbers. Then again, good enough may be an understatement, as the ‘Dores currently have the 17th best rushing unit in all of college football. Jared Hawkins has played very well so far this season, and looks to be headed towards a career year. Offensive coordinator Ted Cain has also done an excellent job of staying with the running game while it's working and then mixing in some play-action here and there to catch the defense off balance.

While all the statistics look good right now, we must face the inevitable, and realize there is going to come a time when this team will have to resort to the aerial game more than the running game. I would expect that to start this weekend at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. It wouldn't be surprising to see Houston Nutt try to completely shut down Nickson and Hawkins' attempts on the ground, and make Nickson throw the ball more. Ole Miss will likely challenge the Vandy offensive line, and really focus on getting pressure on the quarterback in an attempt to create turnovers.

Honestly though, this situation shouldn't be as big of a concern as it is right now for some Commodore fans. This isn't the Chris Nickson of last season, whose injuries didn't allow him to throw at the best of his ability. He's looked like a completely different quarterback in the early part of the season, and there have been so signs of his play going anywhere but up for the rest of the year. He also has some major weapons on the outside, in receivers Sean Walker and Jamie Graham, as they have already shown their ability to change games with one play. And once George Smith returns from injury, the entire wide receiving crew will be in place to provide Nickson with reliable targets all over the field.

It should be an interesting game this weekend, as both teams have lots to play for. Ole Miss can move to 3-1 on the season, and send their season heading in the right direction after a somewhat sloppy victory over Samford last weekend and a heartbreaking loss at Wake Forest the week before. For the Commodores, 4-0 is on the line. More importantly, 2-0 is on the line in the SEC. A 4-0 start would assure the Commodores even more national exposure than they have already received, and would create an even larger buzz here in Nashville.

But to assure that 4-0 start, it will take a huge effort from the entire team. The offense will likely face as tough of a task as it has all season. Will Nickson be able to deliver if he's needed to put the ball in the air to assure a Vandy victory?

Looking at his play so far, all signs point to yes.

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