The Commodore Review: How Vanderbilt Really Looked Against Auburn

Chris Boyd isn't hurtling this Auburn defender. He's preparing a Hulk Hogan Atomic Leg Drop after things got a bit chippy between them. - Don McPeak-US PRESSWIRE

Vanderbilt escaped with a win on Saturday, but was almost done in by their own trickeration. When can the Commodores believe that they are the better team on the field?

When you're Vanderbilt's all-time leading rusher, you're a pretty recognizable guy. So recognizable, in fact, that other teams are going to notice when you're lined up where the punter normally would be.

That didn't stop James Franklin from throwing Zac Stacy 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage in a fourth-and-nine fake-punt that was so obviously awkward that it could have doubled as an Andy Kaufmann skit. Stacy, the player that Auburn had been game-planning for since their week began, stared down the Tiger special teams unit as they shuffled into prevent mode. Once Stacy was made, the only way that the fake could have been a surprise would have been if Stacy actually punted the ball.

The ball went to Wesley Tate at the upback position, who swept to the right, met an Auburn defender, and fired off a bad pitch that was intended for Stacy but ended up on the ground. If the pitch had been on-target, Stacy would have had to cover 15 yards against a Tiger D that was swarming to the ball. While he had an open lane, the Commodore tailback still had about a 50/50 shot to convert this 4th-and-nine opportunity even if everything had gone right.

Instead, the Tigers got the ball at Vandy's 37-yard line, and an Auburn team that struggled on offense all day was given the short field they needed to get on the board.

It was another odd play in a season that has been full of them. Vanderbilt's use of the trick play has been apparent throughout this fall. Their mastery of these unusual calls has not. The Commodores have struggled with these gadget plays in 2012, and instead of lifting the team up like they had in upset bids of the past, they're helping teams like Auburn compete in games where Vanderbilt clearly looks like the better team.

That second part is the most frustrating. Vanderbilt has one of their most talented squads in school history, yet the 'Dores are playing like they need gimmicks to survive in games that they can win with traditional football. James Franklin went unorthodox to extend his first-quarter touchdown drive by converting a pair of fourth downs that covered one and two yards. Then, he handed a team that struggled to sustain drives great field position by going for it on fourth-and-nine and fourth-and-one and failing. The 'Dores squandered one last fourth down play on a Zac Stacy pass out of the wildcat formation in lieu of a 48-yard field goal attempt that would have pushed the Vandy lead to seven points late in the fourth quarter.

If nothing else, Franklin was consistent with his risk taking this weekend. Unfortunately, he won't be able to escape with a win if something similar happens against the SEC's better teams. Vanderbilt handed the Tigers plenty of opportunities on Saturday afternoon, but pulled out the victory when Auburn couldn't capitalize. The Vandy defense gave this coaching staff plenty of reasons to believe in them against a struggling opponent, but their leadership still chose gadget plays over field position when it came to fourth downs. That's not a sign of a confident team.

Maybe that's a product of playing a loaded front-half of the schedule and slipping to 2-4 early. Maybe it's just the kind of unpredictable play-calling that James Franklin wants the Commodores to be known for. Either way, it's becoming a trend in Nashville, and it is limiting an improving team that doesn't need trick plays to survive in 2012.

That's a pessimistic rant on a series of fourth-down conversions that ultimately led to seven points and a 40 percent success rate, but it's still a nagging flaw of a team that can't afford to add mistakes. There were plenty of things for Vandy fans to be happy about on Saturday, including:

The Good:

  • Zac Stacy, leader amongst men. All hail Tsar Stacy, undisputed leader of Commodore tailbacks. Stacy continued his assault on Vanderbilt's football history with a 27-carry, 168 yard performance that secured his place atop Vandy's all-time rushing records. Stacy now holds the school records for most career rushing yards, most rushing yards in a single season, and most touchdowns in a single season (non-passing). If he keeps up this pace, he'll also finish in the Vanderbilt all-time top 10 in statistics like total offense, career scoring, single game rushing yards, longest run from scrimmage, rushing yards by a senior, and most 100-yard games as a rusher.

    Stacy bullied the Auburn defense all afternoon, shrugging off tackles and moving the chains for a Vandy offense that was paced by its running game. As the Commodore offensive line gets stronger, so does the All-SEC senior. Can he put together another strong second half and lead his team to a bowl game? He should be able to put together monster performances against teams like UMass and Kentucky along the way.
  • Jordan Rodgers: adequate and upright. Rodgers put together a "game-manager" performance on Saturday, but that was all that the Commodores needed to beat Auburn. The redshirt senior made good decisions all day, avoiding the Tigers' rush (zero sacks in a Rodgers start for the first time this season) and finding his big targets Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews when he needed to. James Franklin's gameplan de-emphasized the passing game this weekend, but Rodgers showed that he is capable of sustaining drives when he gets a little time in the pocket. His performance will quell the calls for Austyn Carta-Samuels for another week.
  • That defense, though. The Commodore defense exploited Auburn's disjointed offense on Saturday, allowing just one drive of over 30 yards on the afternoon. Chase Garnham had a career day at linebacker, notching three sacks including one that pushed Clint Moseley out of Vandy territory and squashed a potential scoring drive. The 'Dores held Auburn to just 212 yards on the day and were the biggest factor in Vanderbilt's second SEC win of the season.
  • Wesley Tate, special teams ace. Tate showed off his versatility against Auburn, rushing for a seven-yard touchdown out of the wildcat QB spot while also making a big special teams tackle on the tail end of a Richard Kent punt. Tate has done everything this team has asked of him throughout his Vanderbilt career, and he's become an enormous asset for the Commodores.

The Bad:

  • Gimmicks and gadgets. See above. This Commodore team is getting better every week, and they could have eliminated some of Saturday's drama by exercising caution against a team that they were clearly better than. James Franklin needs to trust his defense and traditional playcalling more, because they're both developing into strengths for this team.
  • Student turnout. This was my first Vandy home game in the James Franklin era, and while the rest of the stadium was packed with passionate fans, the student section held to its tradition of only filling about 60 percent of its benches. It's understandable that the early kickoff and Auburn's struggles may have tempered expectations, but leaving full rows of empty seats during a sellout is inexcusable. Plenty of other fans are able to get sufficiently drunk for a 11:21 kickoff. It's just a matter of effort.

The PiBB Ice Player of the Week: Zac Stacy

Stacypotwauburn_medium

As if it would have been anyone else. Frank Mordica's all-time rushing record stood for over 30 years before Stacy broke it on Saturday. He was able to become Vandy's most-decorated tailback in school history despite playing in a platoon for his first two seasons in Nashville. Long live the Tsar.

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