The final score of Vanderbilt's season opener tells a very different story than the statistics. 45-14 suggests a blowout, when Commodore fans know the game was a bit too close for comfort. Larry Smith's 4.6 yards per pass attempt suggest that he performed worse on Saturday than he did in 2010, but anyone who watched the game should have come off impressed by his improved accuracy and confidence. Even the highlight reel, which shows Casey Hayward's ninth interception as a 'Dore is a bit disingenuous, as the All-SEC corner had fits with FCS stud Aaron Mellette all night.
The truth behind Vandy's opener lies somewhere at the intersection of all this.
The team wasn't as good as the final score indicates. The team's offense stalled repeatedly and had trouble finding their rhythm until Elon was gasping for air in the second half. However, they were better than the statistics show. Despite the Phoenix' outgaining Vanderbilt 323 yards to 309 on the night, the Commodore offense improved on last year's half-conceived system. Dropped passes and opening night mistakes kept the team from unlocking their full potential against an outmatched FCS foe, but the ceiling for what they can accomplish may not be as high as fall practices led us to believe.
Defensively, missed tackles and a standout Phoenix wide receiver kept Vandy fans sweating until the fourth quarter. Elon, an undersized squad compared to the brutes that will visit Dudley Field during the SEC season, shrugged off arm tackles to generate first downs and threaten Vanderbilt's lead throughout the first half. Although the defense will be the heart of this team in 2011, Saturday's display of ineffective tackling was troublesome.
Let's break down the good and bad in bullet point form after the jump. Also included: our officially sponsored player of the week award.
- Larry Smith looked better. The stats won't reflect this, partially due to a surprising amount of dropped passes, but Smith was solid in his fifth-year debut. The captain was accurate with his passes and a true presence in the pocket. Though he wasn't spectacular, he showed that he can adjust to James Franklin's new offense. Growing pains will continue for Smith, but he proved Saturday why he's still the starter for Vanderbilt.
- The passing game was diverse. Jordan Matthews showed that can be a true #1 wideout and Chris Boyd broke onto the scene by posting a 100% catch-to-touchdown rate, but Vandy's ability to spread the field helped keep Elon on their toes as the game wore on. Nine different players had receptions for the 'Dores, all of whom will be counted on to be regular contributors throughout the season. Hell, Fitz Lassing (!) was the first player to score for Vanderbilt in 2011. Who saw that coming?
- Chris Marve is a one-man Mongol Horde. After the first half, he was on pace for a projected 360 tackles this season, just short of our preseason prediction of 512. That production slowed in garbage time, but Marve got his point across beautifully - this defense runs through him. The senior captain had two tackles for loss and a few menacing hits across the middle, showing SEC offensive coordinators that he'll be there to blow up anything they've got planned inside the hashmarks.
- The team's most impressive runs came from non-tailbacks. Remember two years ago, when Vanderbilt opened up against a SoCon team and saw Zac Stacy and Warren Norman each rush for over 100 yards? With Norman out for this season's opener, the 'Dores gave just 15 carries to their running backs, generating only 55 yards from the position. Most of the team's damage was done on WR end-arounds and QB sneaks. That can be great against unprepared opponents, but the team's position of strength on offense is supposed to be at tailback. Does the lack of a dominant ground game against a weak team suggest that Vandy will struggle to gain yards in 2011, or was the team just trying to get Smith into the groove by putting him in more passing situations to start the season?
- Jordan Rodgers's pocket awareness. Rodgers's first NCAA pass was an awesome 30 yard touchdown strike to Chris Boyd (hell. yes.). Unfortunately, he followed that up with a nine yard loss on a sack that saw him running backwards under a collapsed pocket. Vanderbilt's offensive line is still going to have its problems, especially in SEC play, and if Rodgers can't adjust to a steady stream of 300 pound men coming to murder him he'll have trouble usurping Smith - no matter how solid his arm is.
- Arm-tackling. See above. If Vanderbilt's defenders make stops on first contact against Elon, the Phoenix wouldn't have gotten their score into double-digits. If they do that again against an FBS opponent, the 'Dores will have to get used to playing from behind.
The PiBB ICE Player of the Week Award*:
Marve ruined Elon's day, stopping drives and crushing running backs throughout the first half. He's a needed presence amongst a core of inexperienced linebackers and a legitimate All-SEC talent. He finished with 12 tackles - 2 for losses - on the day.
In all, it was a solid experience for a Vanderbilt team that came into their season opener with several questions. Though the win against Elon didn't give us any rock-solid answers, it did suggest that the team we're seeing in 2011 will be better than last year's abomination. However, we won't know more until we see what these boys can do against a legitimate FBS squad like Connecticut this weekend.
*This award is officially sponsored by Pibb Ice - the only alco-pop with the taste of spicy cherry inside. Looking for a buzz with BITE? Grab a Pibb Ice! Find it in your local grocer's beer aisle. Or maybe soda aisle, if they get confused. Whatever.