Half A Loaf

We've made it into October, and it seems quite apparent that while Vanderbilt football's gameday efforts are anything but half-baked, Bobby Johnson and his staff are playing with half a loaf. A defense can only do so much. It's time to think about the long haul as 2009 comes into focus.

As the Saturdays come and go—the latest one delivering a 23-7 loss at the hands of an Ole Miss team that's still not firing on all cylinders—the identity of this year's Commodores is rather clear… certainly less murky than a lot of the schizoid teams (Georgia, Michigan State, Oregon) that have been going up and down depending on the way they got out of bed. Vanderbilt's football team seems to get out of bed in the same way and in the same place every gameday morning. At the end of 60 minutes, the defense achieves something significant, while an offense, stuck in first or second gear, can never manage to rev up the engines against a credible opponent from a BCS conference.

Say what you want, then, about last season's emotionally-taxing rollercoaster ride with Chris Nickson, McKenzi Adams, and the late-year appearances by Larry Smith; while the Dores' offense cruelly teased the Vanderbilt fan base on dozens of occasions during the 2008 campaign, VU was able to at least occasionally mount something special when in possession of the ball. This year's group might produce less overall tension when compared to the '08 offense, but that's partly a function of the fact that expectations have been dialed downward with Larry Smith in charge of pigskin propulsion.

With recent Vandy offenses, the agonizing aspect of Autumnal Saturdays lay primarily in the exquisite torture of mounting a drive, with the game's outcome in the balance, only for a bad turnover to sabotage the best-laid plans of mice, men, and Bobby Johnson. This dynamic briefly entered the 2009 season in Alex Washington's untimely drop-turned-interception during the LSU game, but for the most part, this VU attack has been rendered impotent by three defenses from the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana and Mississippi.

Just in case this article might feel like a "let's-pile-on-Larry-Smith-after-praising-him-in-the-offseason" riff, it's not. Mr. Smith hasn't been surrounded by the weapons he needs in order to succeed. Surely, the paucity of playmaking from the Dores' skill people is partly at issue here—a factor influenced by injuries and academic eligibility considerations—but even when one accounts for those "what are you going to do?" deficiencies, this offense is underperforming for another reason: The men up front aren't getting the job done.

First, a bit of background: This 23-7 loss to Ole Miss witnessed a Vanderbilt offense that could never get going until the Rebels attained a decisive advantage. Yes, one could claim (this will be a central debate among Vandy fans in the coming weeks) that the Commodores drove the ball as early as the second quarter, but with Houston Nutt's club already owning a 17-0 lead, it's hard to assign the same value to a set of aborted, close-but-not-quite drives. Had VU marched downfield when trailing by 10 points or fewer, perhaps the teases of 2008 and prior seasons could still be said to exist, but since Ole Miss gained a quick upper hand, a good measure of the statistical production attained by this offense has to be seen with discriminating eyes, and not taken at face value.

So, back to the offensive front: If there was one drive in which Vandy still enjoyed an appreciable measure of competitive parity, it came with the Dores down 10-0 midway through the second quarter and driving at the Ole Miss 15. VU needed points to get back into the fray, but in a handful of plays, everything came apart, with the offensive front being substantially responsible for the untimely implosion. A false start, followed by two conceded sacks, prevented Larry Smith from having a chance to deliver a dart. Ill-fated fourth-quarter drives might have fizzled in this contest because Smith made bad decisions and threw into tight windows, but the tone for this tilt was firmly established when VU's brawny blockers were bowled over on that significant second-quarter march that wound up producing a goose-egg.

Beyond this Ole Miss game, the bigger issue with the offensive line concerns the way in which that "other" Mississippi team performed against VU's offense.

Yes, the Dores might be smarting from this 16-point pasting at the hands of the Rebels, but the human mind can't help but wander a few weeks into the past, back to the scene of that 15-3 crime (and yes, a defense was robbed of another win in that game, too) against Mississippi State.

Anyone else notice what another pass-challenged team achieved during the Vandy-Ole Miss game? Yes, when the Rebels were busy putting the Dores to bed, Mississippi State's defense was summarily shredded by Georgia Tech and quarterback Josh Nesbitt, not the kind of man you'd call a particularly polished or accomplished passer. Larry Smith could be molded into a quarterback as good as or better than Nesbitt, but it was Tech, and not Vandy, who lit up Dan Mullen's Bulldogs for 42 points.

Now, not so fast, the skeptic in you might reply: Mississippi State coughed up five turnovers against Georgia Tech, making the job easier for the Yellow Jackets. Well, turn that around, then: The Dores plucked three picks from Ole Miss in this contest and made Jevan Snead look bad, much as they did last year in Oxford. Vandy got turnovers, all right, but this black-shirted offense couldn't do anything with them. Georgia Tech—against the same MSU defense that essentially shut out Vanderbilt—found the end zone on five occasions (the Yellow Jackets' defense scored once).

What does this say? It doesn't just speak to Larry Smith's inconsistency and lack of development; it speaks to the fact that Mississippi State's defense is hardly an overwhelming football force. LSU—not a terribly consistent offense, as Vandy fans saw first-hand on Sept. 12—posted a low-20s point total against the Bulldogs (with a Chad Jones punt return supplying seven extra points to the Tigers' scoreline). Auburn went for 49 against them. Vandy? Nothing.

That says one thing: This offensive line isn't imposing itself the way it can or should. While skill people need to elevate their game to a considerable extent, and the offensive braintrust needs to do a better job of player development, the men up front have to "man up" if a half-loaf is to become a whole one.

Vandy's defense is carrying its fair share of the load in 2009. Unfortunately, it's not complemented by an offense that's ready to join the party. Don't blame everything on Larry Smith; the half-loaf missing from the Commodore Bakery must be provided by everyone on the offensive side of the ball… especially on the front lines of SEC combat.

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