It started with the statue of liberty.
Facing 2nd and 14 in the second quarter of an ugly and scoreless game, Larry Smith dropped back and faked a pass down the middle of the field. In one smooth motion, he dipped the ball behind his back and into Zac Stacy's waiting hands. Stacy cut through and enormous hole and into the secondary, where Chris Boyd held his cornerback in check long enough for his tailback to ramble into the red zone. Two plays later, Vanderbilt was on the board.
When the Commodores scored in the second quarter, the effect was palpable. Smith's touchdown run shook off the doldrums of a terrible opening performance and sparked this team to life. The result was a frenzy of confidence and intensity, with every player contributing. Need evidence of that? Look at the blocking on Trey Wilson's 52-yard interception return for a touchdown. Every black jersey on that field is queued up to blast someone to get Wilson to the end zone. It's at the :50 mark of this awesome video from the official Vanderbilt website.
That effort is really all you need to know about this game. This team was more fired up than they've been since the end of the 2008 Music City Bowl. The offense, thanks to gadget plays and a slashing running attack, was the most fun we've seen in Nashville since the Cutler-to-Bennett days. James Franklin has these kids believing that they belong in top level of the SEC, and almost every aspect of their play, from Jerron Seymour's grinding runs to Tim Fugger's jacked-up hits reflect that.
There's still work to be done. A lot of work to be done. The first quarter suggested that this game could exceed the potential for ugliness that VU-Ole Miss usually provides. The passing game still only garnered 106 yards in the air. Penalties nearly clipped some impressive drives early in the game.
Even so, it's hard not to be impressed by Vandy's 30-7 victory this weekend. That confidence will flow through this team all week. If the Commodores can translate that into production on the field Saturday night in Columbia, then this team could climb back into the national rankings for the first time since that 2008 season.
The Good/Bad Breakdown and the PiBB ICE Player of the Week Award are after the jump...
- THAT. DEFENSE. I have never seen a Vanderbilt defense that was as fun to watch as this team was Saturday. Everyone hit like the Ole Miss players had just kicked their puppy. The secondary was flying around and leaving no room for any passes that weren't Tom Brady-grade bullets. The line chased Zach Stoudt around until he decided that interceptions were a valid alternative to getting sacked. The linebackers continued to improve despite being mostly composed of players getting their first significant SEC action at the position. It. was. awesome.
- The running game. Zac Stacy showed his affinity for big plays with his 11-carry, 169 yard performance against Ole Miss. He had five plays - including four runs - that went for double-digit yardage on Saturday. Meanwhile, Jerron Seymour proved he can handle feature tailback duties, earning 16 carries and looking solid throughout the game. While his final stats (60 yards, 3.8 YPC) don't jump out at you, the true freshman showed a knack for finding holes and falling forward for extra yardage. He was able to turn nothing into something throughout the day.
- Trey Wilson's emergence at cornerback. No one wants to throw at All-SEC corner Casey Hayward, so opponents have been targeting junior Trey Wilson instead. That hasn't worked out too well for them. Wilson has three interceptions already this year and has returned two for touchdowns. His ballhawking talents have helped turn Vanderbilt's secondary into one of the nation's best through three games this season.
- That damn first quarter. If you're catching the replay of this game on ESPN3 this week, do yourself a favor and just skip the first 15 minutes. It included just 99 yards of total offense from both teams, a Larry Smith no-blocking special (sack and fumble), and a 4th and 10 from Vanderbilt that culminated with a one-yard pass to the flat. The sooner we can forget about that first quarter, the happier we'll be.
- NO MORE PASS-BACKS TO LARRY. Last week, Smith dropped a pass in the flat that could have blown the game open against UConn and eased the pressure on the Vandy fanbase's collective ulcer. This week, Zac Stacy's pass to Smith was slightly underthrown and picked off in the end zone. While it didn't come into play against Ole Miss, the Commodores aren't a team that can afford to turn the ball over in the red zone. Gimmicky plays like this, the end around, and WR screens are a big part of what has been a successful playbook for Vandy in 2011, but the option-pass doesn't look to have much of a future with this team.
- Downfield passing. Aside from one great touch pass from Smith to Wesley Tate for a 20 yard gain, the offense didn't do much to spread the field vertically. They didn't need to against Ole Miss, but the team's trouble getting the ball downfield could come into play next week against South Carolina. If Vandy is playing from behind, Smith or Jordan Rodgers will have to find guys like Boyd, Tate, and Jordan Matthews for big gains in order to put points on the board while keeping the clock from winding down.
The PiBB ICE Player of the Game: Zac Stacy
This could have gone to several members of the defense, particularly Trey Wilson after his two-interception, one-touchdown day. However, Zac Stacy's career day won the esteemed PIVPOTW title this week. His 169 yards on the ground were a personal best. Stacy finished the day with an insane 15.4 yards per carry average. He's helping ensure that Warren Norman isn't rushed back into action for the Commodores. When he returns, Vandy will have a staunch three-headed attack at tailback.