Even with a game under our belts, it's tough to gauge just what this Commodore team is capable of. Are they the squad that allowed a quarterback who was making his first collegiate start to go 19-21 passing and made enough stupid mistakes to cost them a winnable game, or are they the team that stormed back against the Wildcats behind a diverse offensive lineup and some complementary play-calling? How this team weathers the storm after a controversial ending to their home opener may just set the tone for the Robbie Caldwell era, and I'm sure that the former turkey inseminator has been urging this team to come out and smack LSU in the mouth right off the bat.
Will the Commodores be able to? It's tough to say. The 'Dores walked a fine line between effective and impotent last Saturday. While Northwestern is a tough opponent, they don't have the personnel, athleticism, or reputation that LSU will bring to Dudley Field this week. It will be a whole new challenge for Vanderbilt, and if the team can't make adjustments on the fly in preparation for the Tigers, we could be in for a long season.
Of course, there's no reason to doubt that the idea that the second game under Caldwell will be steadier. With that in mind, let's turn to America's favorite Nashville-based, Vanderbilt Stadium-specific pundits for some predictions for Saturday's action.
Vandy did a lot of things right last Saturday, but just as many things wrong. For every Zac Stacy first down, there was an instance of Larry Smith scrambling to nowhere before throwing the ball away. However, despite the up-and-down day, the Northwestern game instilled a bit more confidence in Smith's abilities, even if it was against a defense in the midst of rebuilding. The current offense is being built around him on short passes and efficient plays - similar to what the Patriots did when they first brought Tom Brady off the bench for an injured Drew Bledsoe. While Smith isn't nearly the same kind of talent Brady is (nor does he have the ability to stretch the field with a long pass with the defense drawn in), his ability to create plays near the line of scrimmage showed some progression from last year.
The offense performed better than I had hoped - but that was against a mediocre Northwestern front and not the SEC team-speed defense of Barkavious Mingo (jackpot) and the LSU Tigers. I'm not sold that Larry can play a flawless game, which is what he would need to do to win in the current gameplan. This team is still too prone to making mistakes (missed blocks, blown coverage, inexplicable special teams failures) to inspire total confidence, but there's still lots to like. A healthier Warren Norman should help create some easy offense as well.
Defensively, I'm not sure what to think. The 'Dores held on 3rd down and limited the Northwestern rushing game to just 3.1 yards per carry, but also got lit up by QB Dan Persa in Persa's inaugural start. Can Jordan Jefferson eclipse those numbers Saturday? Will LSU's strong rushing attack expose some holes in Vandy's line? I think the Tigers will put up more yards and score more than NU did, but I'm not sold that they'll be able to cripple this defense, even with superior athletes.
Above all else, these guys showed a lot of heart, and that they aren't going to be easy to blow out. All in all, that sounds like your standard Vandy team - and I think that makes 5-7 a lot more likely than 1-11 (suck on that, Stewart Mandel). I think we'll see a similar result to last year's LSU game - where Vandy hung around and made things tough for the Tigers until eventually unraveling at the end. Prove me wrong, Larry - dink and dunk this team down the field for four touchdowns. Pull off this win and you'll get your own celebratory NCAA '11 cover.
Prediction?: Vanderbilt 16, LSU 27
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Before previewing this week's debacle, I'd like to reflect on last week's performance. The good? After a dismal first quarter, the Vanderbilt offense put together a solid 432 yard performance. Larry Smith still too often resembles a chicken with its head cut off, but he still managed to throw for 240 yards - thanks in no small part to the stellar play of Brandon Barden. The bad? The defense could not stop Dan Persa (19-for-21 with 3 touchdowns and 82 yards rushing). Amazingly, it could have been worse, but for some questionable decisions by the Northwestern coaching staff. The ugly? Ryan Fowler can make as many vows as he wants about not missing extra points, but the fact is that his miss cost the team the game. The 48-yard field goal attempt was laughable as well. Somewhere in Destin, a toll booth attendant was smiling.
I hope I'm wrong, but I have a sinking feeling that the wheels are going to come off the jalopy this week. LSU is better than Vanderbilt at just about every key position. If the Vandy defense could not stop Dan Persa, how is it going to stop Jordan Jefferson and Russell Shepard? Hint: It won't. On special teams, Patrick Peterson singlehandedly destroyed North Carolina. In order to keep the ball out of Peterson's hands, expect Caldwell to send Fowler out to handle punts with the express instruction to kick it straight at Peterson. On defense, LSU yielded only 24 yards to UNC last week. So, it likely will be up to the arm of Larry Smith to break the Tiger defense. Cue the Benny Hill music...
Prediction? Vanderbilt 9, LSU 34
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I really have no idea what to expect Saturday night. Vanderbilt's offense appeared to show a measure of improvement compared to last season, which was nice. Sure, there were some glaring miscues that left fans squirming in their seats. Fortunately, those things can be solved relatively quickly. I venture to guess that we're going to see fewer botched snaps, Larry keep his voice, better execution in crucial situations (read: two point conversions), and no more missed PATs (another epic Vandy shooting itself in the foot moment - we found a way to ice our own kicker when the fog horn blew for five straight minutes after our first TD - never seen that before).
I could see this game going two ways (subset of the infinitely limitless variations that this game could theoretically go): I could see Vandy playing LSU tight through the first three quarters, just like last season, only this time the offense completes the pass play that extends the drive that leads to a game-tying or *GASP* -winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. Or I could see LSU bludgeoning us to death, the game never truly in doubt.
Either way, this game is going to tell us so much more about the 2010 edition Commodores than the Northwestern game ever could. Unlike the Wildcats, we played LSU last season and therefore will have a comparative result with which we can measure our progress. And obviously, you can't spell "litmus test" without "L", "S" and "U."
The spread is Vandy +10. I think we'll cover. Cause that's what Vanderbilt football does, son.
Prediction? Vanderbilt 17, LSU 24 - I can only hope the ceremonial offering I make tonight of the traditional shark's blood and sacrificial velociraptors will be enough to sate Barkevious Mingo and his infamous and equally impressive disappointment-induced rage at such a small margin of victory for his army of tigers and foot soldiers.
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I couldn't decide whether to watch or not. In my head, I knew that it was plausible that we could make the 2-point conversion. In my heart, I knew that we would find a way not to make it.
When the ball sailed over Larry Smith's head, unlike everyone else in the crowd, I laughed. No, really. I let out a spontaneous, full-throated laugh. It was the only reaction that made sense to me: Vanderbilt Football, ladies and gentlemen, is a harsh mistress.
But for that comical (to me, at least) play, but for the other missed 2-point conversion, but for the missed extra-point, and but for the silly "high hit" for which the Big Ten has apologized to the SEC, the game actually wasn't that bad. I loved Robbie Caldwell's coaching throughout the game. I'm one of the few people who actually is still OK with the 3rd quarter 2-point attempt. I was really happy about the 4th-and-2 go-for-it call. And who couldn't be excited about the fact that our offense had more than 400 yards and 21 -- offensive! -- points?
All in all, our game against Northwestern was a silver cloud with a black lining, and it was the black lining that ultimately decided the game. If even only one of those "but-for" calls goes the other way, we win the game. It sucks, but it also shows improvement. And that's something upon which I can hang my (naval uniform) hat.
What about the Bayou Bengals this week in Nashville? Well, I don't think that LSU is horrible (I mean, how many 5-star recruits do they get every year). But it wasn't very impressive for them to go out and fall on their face against the UNC debilitated by suspensions. The trouble with that game being last week, however, is that LSU now sees Vanderbilt as their "statement" game to show people that, "Yes, we can and will defeat 'lesser teams' by horrible, giant margins." In other words, it could super ugly on Dudley Field on Saturday.
On the other hand, it's possible that, like a certain high-profile Vanderbilt student-athlete said this week, "They're beatable." Certainly, if it is the case that the UNC game revealed the "real" Tigers team, rather than the manifestation of a collective team brain-fart, the comment has merit.
If we put up as much offense as we did against Northwestern throughout the rest of our season, I have high hopes for some of our less impressive opponents' games. This one, though, isn't one of them.
Prediction? Louisiana State 30, Vanderbilt 21.