Even when Vanderbilt wins big in 2012, they win ugly. The Commodores struggled through much of a sloppy first half before breaking out to throttle an overmatched Massachusetts team in a 49-7 win Saturday night.
The 'Dores led 7-0 for much of the first half, buoyed more by Jonathan Krause's special teams play than their own offense. Vandy had two early drives march past the UMass 35-yard line but came away with no points as penalties and another botched fourth-down call kept the team from scoring on either. It wasn't until the Wild Dogs of the Vanderbilt defense stopped the Minutemen on fourth and four near the Commodore red zone that this team snapped out of their funk.
Jordan Rodgers responded by engineering an eight-play, 72-yard drive that swung the game's momentum directly towards the 'Dores. He was perfect on the drive, passing for 47 yards and connecting with Kris Kentera for the redshirt freshman's first receiving touchdown of his career. Wesley Tate, playing in place of an injured Zac Stacy, did a valuable job of stringing together solid runs to keep the UMass defense on their toes.
Things got out of hand from there, as turnovers and special teams keyed a scoring run that put Vanderbilt up 49-0 by the end of the third quarter. In fact, four of the 'Dores seven touchdowns were the result of defensive or special teams play. That's a big advantage for a Vandy team that needs every opportunity that it can get when it comes to scoring points in 2012. However, that's also a tree that won't bear much fruit when the Commodores match up with more talented teams in the rest of their season.
Vanderbilt's biggest issues against UMass were a lack of discipline and a reliance on unorthodox playcalling against an overmatched opponent. We saw the latter nearly cost this team a win against Auburn last week. That same flaw cost Vandy an early scoring drive on Saturday. The 'Dores faced a fourth-and-one situation at the Minutemen 15-yard line. At that point, the 'Dores had gained a yard or more on seven of their nine runs, but Stacy had left the game and Tate had been stopped on third-and-two on the previous play.
James Franklin was faced with a few options here. He could have turned to Carey Spear for a makable 33-yard field goal. He could have given the ball to Tate again and hoped that his biggest back could move an undersized UMass line. He could have even had Jordan Rodgers keep the ball and dive up the middle to move the chains.
Instead, Franklin turned to his ace in the hole; a swing pass to the receiver. Rodgers dumped off a pass to Jordan Matthews on the sideline, and the wideout was quickly stopped for a two-yard loss. Massachusetts took over on downs deep in their own territory.
It was a play that touched on the frustrations of Vanderbilt fans everywhere. It combined this team's go-for-broke attitude with Franklin's affinity for swing and screen passes all in one. When these strategies work against teams with stronger rosters than the Commodores, it's a thing of beauty. When they fail against teams that Vandy can beat with traditional, conservative playcalling, it can be the catalyst that swings this team's momentum right back into its own face.
Fortunately for Vanderbilt, the 'Dores were able to cruise to a big win by stopping UMass on a pair of fourth-down plays of their own. It's a bit different when the Minutemen press their luck, though. They're the ones who are 30-point underdogs. They're the team that can't afford to waste a single touchdown opportunity.
It's one thing to give up field position or leave points on the board against a team with a struggling offense like UMass or Auburn. It will be another if that means that the 'Dores have spotted Tyler Bray an extra 30 yards when Tennessee comes to town in November. So are Franklin's gutsy calls the product of facing some inferior competition? Were they a chance to practice this team's execution in games where they could ultimately absorb a few mistakes en route to a win? Or will we be seeing more of these trick plays and eschewed field goals against the best remaining squads on the Commodore schedule?
It's not an exaggeration to look at one of Vandy's fourth-and-one gambles or fake punts and think that a similar play could eventually dictate the outcome of a game. Whether or not that will be good or bad for this team is still up in the air.
- Brian Kimbrow and Wesley Tate slay in place of Zac Stacy. Kimbrow and Tate combined for 179 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, giving Commodore fans hope that the running game will hold up after Zac Stacy graduates this spring. Both players popped off for big scoring runs, but it was Kimbrow's 74-yard dash that got fans buzzing at Dudley Field. The freshman went virtually untouched through some strong blocking on the line, then outran everyone on his way to the endzone. It may have only been against UMass, but there are few defenders in the SEC that could have caught him in the open field on that carry.
- The Vandy defense, led by youngsters, holds up. The Commodore D gave fans everything that they could have hoped for on Saturday, pitching a shutout against an overmatched team before emptying their bench and giving up a late touchdown. Freshman linebackers Darreon Herring and Jake Sealand both had breakout games in the rout. Sealand led the team with nine tackles, including 1.5 for loss, and was a presence in the UMass backfield all day. Herring recorded the first interception of his college career and returned it 40 yards to squash a late Minuteman drive. He also forced the special teams fumble that helped put Vandy up 21-0 headed into the half.
- Special teams play. Jonathan Krause killed it Saturday night, fielding six punts and netting 96 yards on returns. That included a 28-yard run that set up Vandy's first touchdown and a 40-yarder that he took to the end zone for the team's first special teams touchdown of the season. Richard Kent bombed his punts an average of 53.5 yards. And, see above for Darreon Herring's contribution on the kickoff team. The 'Dores were solid on special teams, and that gave them a huge edge when it came to beating the Minutemen.
- Zac Stacy's ankle injury. Stacy was due for a light evening, but he left the game after only five carries thanks to an ankle sprain. While he didn't return to Saturday's game, James Franklin has reported that his absence was more of a precaution rather than as a result of his injury. He should be good to go against Kentucky, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him have his carries cut, especially if the 'Dores can handle a Wildcat team that has struggled in 2012.
- The penalties. Vanderbilt had six penalties that cost them 60 yards...on their first possession alone. The 'Dores certainly made things tough on themselves on Saturday night, finishing with 11 penalties, many of which hamstrung drives and thwarted this team's momentum early on. These were all mental mistakes that Vandy can't afford to make if they want to make another run to a bowl game in 2012.
The PiBB Ice Player of the Week: Darreon Herring
Herring was responsible for a pair of turnovers that helped lead the Commodores to victory on Saturday night. The true freshman made his presence felt all over the field, pestering UMass's runners, receivers, tight ends, and even their kick returners. His emergence has been one of the biggest reasons why Vandy's linebacking corps has developed from a preseason question mark into one of this team's strengths.