Maybe it's time we stopped predicting shootouts when it comes to the Vanderbilt offense.
The Commodores retreated back to 2009 on Saturday night, failing to score a touchdown in the final 55 minutes of regulation during a 23-13 loss to Northwestern. Vanderbilt couldn't hold on to an early 10-3 lead as failed possessions and big Wildcat plays drained the team's defense in defeat. However, the biggest disappointment for Vanderbilt fans this weekend wasn't just that this team lost - it's that they looked so familiar in doing it.
Head Coach James Franklin may preach that this is a Brand New Vandy, but Saturday's playcalling was certainly a throwback to the days of Ted Cain. The Commodores ignored Northwestern's shoddy secondary, instead focusing on plays around the line of scrimmage in an ineffective display. Rodgers ran the Larry Smith option-sneak to perfection, occasionally gaining seven or eight yards in between plays where he'd be dropped for a loss. Zac Stacy had even more difficulty, gaining just 36 yards without the threat of Vandy's passing attack to help draw defenders away from the box.
It's one thing when that happens against a school like South Carolina, where future NFL cornerbacks have become the norm. On Saturday, Vandy refused to throw downfield against a Wildcat team that Syracuse had burned for 470 passing yards a week earlier. Northwestern had even lost their best cornerback, Nick VanHoose, to a back injury early in the game. If the green light was ever going to turn on for Vanderbilt's passing game, that was the time.
Instead, the Commodores fed Northwestern a steady diet of bubble screens and runs up the middle. The playcalling sent a clear message to Vanderbilt fans, players, and opponents; we aren't confident in Jordan Rodgers.
Rodgers reflected that projection into his on-field performance. The captain looked consistently rattled behind the line, failing to identify open receivers and moving backwards in the face of pressure rather than stepping up into the pocket. He made bad situations worse by trying to outrun defenders behind the line of scrimmage rather than just throwing the ball away. For two straight quarters, he looked like the untested junior college transfer from early 2011 rather than the player who sparked an offensive turnaround and brought Vandy to the Liberty Bowl.
As the contest progressed, the coaching staff did all that they could to take the game out of Rodgers's hands. They aborted downfield passing plans and turned every other play into low-risk, low-yield ventures that were more effective in moving the ball laterally than towards the end zone. Franklin and his staff tasked his backs and receivers to make a superhuman effort in order to break a big play against a defense that knew what was coming every time. If Zac Stacy hadn't heeded that call, the 'Dores might not even have gotten to 13 points.
Rodgers started the game 5-9 for 61 yards. He finished it by going 12-24 for 156 yards and two fumbles. If you take away Stacy's 55 yard run after catching a screen pass behind the line, then Rodgers's yards-per-attempt number drops all the down to 4.4. While a big part of that Smith/Adams/Nickson-esque statistic is related to the team's shift to short passes and screen plays, it's fair to say that JR's skittishness played a big role as well.
Ultimately, that's what was the most disappointing takeaway from Saturday's loss. It's not just that this team surrendered another fourth-quarter lead - it's that they looked helpless in the process. We know what these players are capable of. We know that Vanderbilt has home run threats at tailback and wideout. We know that the defense can make a lead hold up if they're given the chance to get off the field late in the game. What we don't know is how Franklin and his staff can apply this talent to actual games.
Last year, Vanderbilt was able to win contests like these thanks to superhuman efforts from senior stalwarts like Casey Hayward and Chris Marve. There was no better example of that than in 2011's comeback victory over UConn. This year, the 'Dores have lacked the leadership to overcome a crapstorm of weak playcalling and ineffective efforts. Does that mean that we've over managed our expectations for this team in 2012? Or is this just an overreaction to a handful of correctable mistakes early in the season?
Either way, the Commodores have a lot of work to do when it comes to their offense. That effort won't be limited to just the players.
- Going big on fourth down. Vanderbilt converted two of their three fourth down attempts on Saturday, including a fourth-and-nine that helped lead to the team's only touchdown. Franklin was aggressive when it come to putting points on the board early, and those calculated risks paid off.
- Brian Kimbrow's role increased a bit. Kimbrow only had four carries in the game, but one of those included a nifty 14-yard run that showcased the freshman's elusiveness. He also had the opportunity to return kickoffs, and performed well despite muffing the last kick he saw. His growth could be a huge story for a Vandy team that is desperately in need of big plays this season.
- Jordan Rodgers regressed into Larry Smith. Rodgers didn't take a step backward in his development on Saturday. Instead, he was thrown there by Northwestern linemen after backpedaling into Vanderbilt territory and failing to throw the ball away. James Franklin's lack of confidence in his quarterback seemed to reverberate through Rodgers's play against the Wildcats, as he was skittish, ineffective, and sometimes downright bad on Saturday.
The redshirt senior lost control of his offense late in the game, and his 217 passing yards are a deceiving statistic. Rodgers came up big on Vandy's first drive of the contest, but never seized the confidence that should have come with a big fourth-and-nine conversion early on. Instead, he fell back into bad habits and gave his coaching staff good reason to start preparing Austin Carta-Samuels for playing time.
- Warren Norman rides the pine...again. Norman must have done something to end up in Franklin's doghouse, because he still hasn't seen the field for the Commodores in 2012. The team has been entirely ineffective on the ground this season, but the former SEC Freshman of the Year continues to be a presence in name only for Vandy. If he fails to see the field in what should be a blowout against Presbyterian, then it'll be safe to assume that there is more to this story than what Franklin is telling the media in his press conferences.
- No breaks...ever. Jordan Rodgers fumbled away an early red zone opportunity. Archibald Barnes tipped a sure-fire pick six to himself...then dropped it. Jordan Matthews fell down on a play that could have been an easy six points. Javon Marshall separated Rashad Lawrence from the ball on 3rd and long late in the game...and it was ruled a catch and fumble that put Northwestern in position to win. There were plenty of 50/50 plays that the Commodores failed to capitalize on, and these miscues kept the Wildcats in the contest long enough to make their comeback.
The PiBB Ice Player of the Week: Richard Kent
Yes, it was that kind of game. Kent punted six times and pushed the Wildcats back an average of 45 yards each time. That performance helped keep the Northwestern offense stagnant until late in the game.