Game 6 preview: Vanderbilt Commodores
I’ve got to start off by saying that, since I place a high value on schedule strength, especially the non-conference schedule, I give Vanderbilt a fair bit of credit for being the only Southeastern Conference team not to schedule a Football Championship Subdivision opponent this year. Cynics will argue that they didn’t need to, since they’re playing EMU, which from the perspective of a guaranteed win is just as good. But Vanderbilt took it one step beyond that; their non-conference schedule this year includes three opponents from AQ conferences: Northwestern from the Big (11) Ten, Connecticut from the Big East, and Wake Forest from the ACC. Jeff Sagarin currently rates their schedule the second-hardest in the county.
Record: 1-3 (2-10 in 2009)
Recent games: After opening the season with a 21-23 loss to Northwestern (which doesn’t look quite so bad now that the Wildcats are 5-0), the Commodores fell 27-3 to LSU. Then they surprised an awful lot of people with a 28-14 win at Ole Miss, but after a week off, they lost 40-21 at Connecticut.
Quality wins: 28-14 at Ole Miss. None in 2009.
Embarrassing losses: For this year, losing 40-21 to Connecticut and 27-3 to LSU are embarrassing for an SEC team. Last year they lost to two 5-7 teams: a 13-16 overtime loss at Army, and a 15-3 loss to Mississippi State. They also lost by 25 to Georgia Tech and by 24 to Georgia.
Last meeting: On September 29, 2007, Vanderbilt won 30-7, en route to a 5-7 season.
All-time series: EMU has only played Vanderbilt once, in 2007. EMU is 0-5 against all SEC teams.
Coach: Robbie Caldwell is in his first season as a head coach, following Bobby Johnson’s surprise retirement in July. Caldwell spent the last eight years as Vanderbilt’s offensive line coach. In fact, looking at his entire resume, Caldwell has never done anything beyond the offensive line until this year: from 1974-76 he played center for Furman, in 1977 he coached high school football and baseball, from 1978-85 he coached Furman’s offensive line, from 1986-99 he coached North Carolina State’s offensive line, from 2000-01 he coached North Carolina’s offensive line, and from 2002-09 he coached Vanderbilt’s offensive line.
Offense: Vanderbilt has a young offense, with 14 freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep, six of whom are starters. They have a run-first offense; despite never holding a lead against Northwestern or LSU, and only briefly holding a lead against Connecticut, fully 60% of their plays have been rushes, and they’ve scored six rushing touchdowns, compared to only 3 passing touchdowns. They’re averaging 18.3 points per game, but they’ve played the #6 (LSU), #29 (Northwestern), and #44 (Connecticut) scoring defenses. Only Ole Miss (#102) really has a bad scoring defense, and the Commodores won that game.
Carries seem to be divided among junior quarterback Larry Smith (42 rushes for 124 yards, a 3.0 average), sophomore running back Zac Stacy (30 carries for 151 yards, a 5.0 average), and the leading rusher, sophomore Warren Norman (39 rushes for 252 yards, a 6.5 average). Yeah, you read that right, Norman is averaging 6.5 yards per carry. Norman is only getting about 10 carries per game, but every time he touches the ball, there’s a possibility of him running it in for a touchdown. Norman and Stacy will probably light things up against EMU’s terrible run defense.
In contrast with the running game, Vanderbilt’s passing is less than stellar. When Smith does throw the ball, he favors short tosses to junior tight end Brandon Barden, who leads all receivers with 15 catches for 153 yards. Other key receivers include freshman wide receiver Jonathan Krause (7 catches for 104 yards), and sophomore wide receiver John Cole (9 catches for 69 yards). But again, Smith has thrown only 3 touchdown passes this year, and matched that with three interceptions. He also hasn’t gotten particularly good protection from his offensive line; he’s been sacked 13 times for 92 yards (3.25 for 23 yards per game average).
Defense: Like the offense, the Vanderbilt defense is young, with 12 freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep, but only four are listed as starters. The Commodores are allowing 26 points per game. They held the #19 offense (Ole Miss) to just 14 points. The worst offense they’ve played is LSU, ranked at #81, and the Tigers scored 27. Statistically, they are not a very good defense, particularly for an SEC team, and they may even be weaker than any defense EMU has faced yet; the weakest so far was Miami University, and while Vanderbilt allows 1.4 fewer points per game, they allow 60 more yards per game than the RedHawks.
The Commodores do have several notable injuries on defense. Junior middle linebacker Chris Marve will be out due to a torn meniscus he suffered in the game against Connecticut last week; he is expected to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his knee today. Marve was a preseason first-team all-SEC selection, is tied for second in the SEC with 39 tackles through four games, and is — or was — on pace to become the first SEC player in a decade to record 100+ tackles in three consecutive seasons. In addition to his physical ability, Marve’s absence will probably leave an on-field leadership void; Marve is a team co-captain, and the middle linebacker is often the leader of the defense, responsible for making sure everyone knows their assignments and watching for offensive adjustments. Caldwell indicated that the Commodores may make extensive use of their nickel package with just two linebackers. Vanderbilt also has some injuries in the defensive line: defensive tackle T.J. Greenstone is expected to miss the game due to a high ankle sprain, while defensive tackle Adam Smotherman is still recovering from an ACL injury and may see limited action.
I also came across an interesting comment from Robbie Caldwell. A common complaint of EMU fans (myself included) is that English’s offense is too plain, too simple. Caldwell specifically mentioned that the toughest thing about preparing for EMU is the variety of sets and personnel changes the Eagles use.
They’ll go with two tight ends, they’ll go with two wings, they’re going to have a power running game, the quarterback runs it a lot as well as throwing it. It’s a little bit like Northwestern as far as the quarterback running and throwing, but their formations are a little bit different. A little unusual.
Keys to watch: As in every EMU game, the question is whether the Eagle defense can hold the Commodores to four touchdowns or fewer. If Vanderbilt scores 30 or more points, they should have a safe win. Vanderbilt’s run-heavy offense points towards a relatively short game, so if EMU is to have a chance, they’ll need to make the most of every possession. If the Eagles start to fall behind early, even by as little as 10 points, the game will be over.
Predictions: As SEC teams go, Vanderbilt is not much, but they should still be more than enough for EMU. Exact numbers vary, but the betting lines seem to have EMU as a 14 to 26 point underdog. My prediction: Vanderbilt wins, 37-21; EMU win probability: 5%.