It certainly wasn't pretty, but it was effective. Vanderbilt used a controlling defensive performance and a flurry of big plays on offense to record the first conference road win of James Franklin's career with a 19-15 victory at Missouri Saturday night.
Jordan Rodgers and Zac Stacy overcame slow starts to put together solid performances, but the catalyst behind Vandy's win was a defensive effort that came together after Mizzou starting quarterback James Franklin was knocked out of the game. The 'Dores held backup Corbin Berkstresser to just nine completions in 30 attempts to shut the Tigers down long enough to pull off the comeback victory.
The Commodore defense showed what they can do late in games when they're buoyed by long drives by their offense. One of the team's biggest weaknesses this season had been their propensity to run out of gas in the fourth quarter. These players, after being pressed into constant action by an offense that often failed to chain together first downs, had allowed late leads against South Carolina and Northwestern to evaporate into losses.
The 'Dores had a chance to repeat that trend on Saturday, but flipped the script around thanks to strong play on both sides of the ball. Vandy moved the ball for drives of 75 and 78 yards to allow their defenders to get some much needed rest in the fourth quarter. The D responded by shutting down the Tigers when it mattered the most.
After Missouri drove to the Vanderbilt 24 yard line, the 'Dores came together to stop Kendial Lawrence for a one-yard loss and then forced Berkstresser into three straight incompletions. All four plays were the result of a huge effort across the defensive line. The 'Dores were able to penetrate into the Tiger backfield and put significant pressure on the quarterback to force a turnover on downs. It was the superlative performance that this team had been waiting for throughout September.
There are still questions that linger about the team's ability to stop high-level offenses. Vanderbilt held Missouri to one touchdown (on a busted coverage play) on Saturday, but they are also the same team that allowed Georgia to start their matchup off with four straight touchdowns in a 48-3 rout. Being able to stop Missouri's redshirt freshman backup quarterback is much different than being able to stop an efficient Jeff Driskel and Florida next weekend. While last week's win was a strong step in the right direction, this week's matchup with the Gators will be a true test of whether this team can sustain that level of play.
If Vanderbilt is going to pass that test, they'll need a big showing from their offense as well. The 'Dores proved that they could move the ball sporadically against the Tigers, but it will be tougher for Rodgers to buy time and find receivers against a faster and stronger Florida defense. Franklin and his staff will have a busy week preparing for a tough Gator squad, even after a momentum building win like Saturday's. They'll have to be even better than they were last week if they want to notch a huge home win over their fourth-ranked opponents.
- Vandy's receivers. The Commodore offense moved the ball best when Rodgers was playing pitch-and-catch with Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd. The wideout tandem made Missouri pay for their single-coverage schemes by getting open downfield throughout the night. By the time the fourth quarter rolled around, it became clear that a little extra time in the pocket meant that Rodgers was targeting one of his two big-play receivers. Matthews and Boyd combined for 174 yards this weekend - 59 percent of Vanderbilt's total offensive performance.
- Carey Spear: Perfect on field goals, nailed a pooch punt, lit up T.J. Moe. Here's a little backstory for this tackle. After putting a 21-yard field goal through the uprights to extend the Vandy lead to 19-15, Spear got roughed up on the follow through. He picked himself up, limped around angrily, and stared wild-eyed at the Mizzou sideline for a bit before eventually heading back to the huddle. After we cut back to the game from a commercial break, viewers were treated to a shot of Spear pointing down the field at Moe like a lunatic. Then, this happened:
I will never, ever get tired of this. Please play it at my funeral.
- The defensive effort. Vanderbilt's win was predicated on strong play across every unit of the defense. The defensive line got a strong push to keep Berkstresser on his toes all evening. The linebacking corps - aided by true freshman Jake Sealand - kept runs from breaking through to the secondary and provided strong blanket coverage when Berkstresser looked to check down through his targets. The team's corners and safeties put together their standard strong performance as Vandy's biggest positional strength. All in all, it was an impressive performance that had to have made Bob Shoop a happy man this weekend.
- Zac Stacy shows up when Vandy needs him. The stats are ugly: 29 carries for 72 yards. However, Stacy came up BIG when Vanderbilt needed someone to make a play on Saturday. When 3rd and one came up deep in Mizzou territory in the second quarter, Stacy ripped off seven yards to keep the drive alive. One play later, he took a direct snap up the middle to give the 'Dores the lead. He had a similar performance in the fourth quarter, capping off a touchdown drive with runs of eight and 14 yards against a tiring Mizzou defense. Finally, he sealed the game with a huge 13-yard, first-down gaining run that allowed Vandy to run out the clock with under two minutes to play. As the Tigers wore down, Stacy stayed fresh, and his impact went way beyond what the stats will tell you.
- Jordan Rodgers's pocket awareness. Rodgers's skittishness rose to new highs in the first half of Saturday's game. The player who used to step up in the pocket while defenders clipped into his peripheral vision was gone, replaced with an inexperienced looking passer who ran backwards in the face of pressure. He took two sacks in the first half, and each dropped the team back a drive-killing nine yards. Thankfully the redshirt senior was able to recover, but his inability to handle pressure early in the game brought back plenty of Larry Smith memories.
- Conservative playcalling. It's tough to determine whether or not John Donovan's gameplan was a net benefit or negative for the 'Dores. Vanderbilt stuck to a run-heavy offense that veered away from hot starts by Boyd and Matthews. However, that also helped Jordan Rodgers develop confidence as the game wore on by luring more Missouri defenders into the box and creating openings for Matthews and Boyd downfield.
Should Rodgers be passing more? It's clear that he isn't comfortable in the face of a strong pass rush and that his accuracy still isn't exceptional. Still, receivers like Boyd and Matthews have proven that they can make plays and help dig this team out of bad situations. A few more passing plays would make this team much more dynamic down the road.
The PiBB Ice Player of the Week: Zac Stacy
Stacy's stats may seem underwhelming, but he was able to string together big runs when the team needed him the most. He was the only Commodore to find the end zone, and his man-strength powered 13-yard run in the fourth quarter shut down any chances of a Mizzou comeback. The senior was hindered by some occasionally suspect blocking and a Missouri gameplan centered around stopping the run, but he was still able to put together a MVP performance. Without him, Vandy's chances of winning Saturday's game would have dropped significantly.