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The Commodore Review: How Vanderbilt Really Looked in Their 40-0 Win Over Kentucky

Vanderbilt thrashed Kentucky in a 40-0 blowout on Saturday. Has this team grown since their 1-3 start, or has their three game winning streak been the result of an easier schedule?

If you're a Vanderbilt fan, he's not just your Kim-bud. He's your Kim-bro.
If you're a Vanderbilt fan, he's not just your Kim-bud. He's your Kim-bro.

Well, we got Joker Phillips fired.

That, of course, wasn't entirely Vanderbilt's doing, but a 78-8 margin of victory over Kentucky in the past two years certainly didn't give their head coach a vote of confidence. The Wildcats announced on Sunday that Phillips, who took over for Rich Brooks three years ago, would be relieved of his duties when the 2012 football season ends.

The news came after the Commodores dismantled UK 40-0 at Commonwealth Stadium. The historic blowout was equal parts Vanderbilt efficiency and Kentucky awfulness. Jordan Rodgers was able to control a balanced Vandy attack while the Wildcats followed up moments of offensive explosiveness with drive-killing mistakes. The Vandy defense allowed Kentucky to rip off some big plays and drive into Commodore territory, but never broke to preserve their first shutout since beating Western Carolina 45-0 in 2009 earlier this season against Presbyterian (oops).

The biggest story in Saturday's win was Vanderbilt's ability to finish drives. The Commodores didn't get anything especially different from Rodgers and this team's skill players than they had in weeks past. They only totaled 65 more yards in their 40-0 blowout against Kentucky than they did in their 17-13 nailbiter versus Auburn earlier in October. This time, however, the 'Dores were able to make the most of their third-down conversions and ride long possessions to touchdowns. Vandy used big pass plays to Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews and scoring runs from Zac Stacy and Wesley Tate to show off a killer instinct that this team has lacked in 2012.

There were problems, of course. Rodgers made a few of his trademark mistakes in the second half, losing a fumble and throwing an interception when the game was already out of hand. The defense gave up four runs of 10 yards or more - three in the first half - against a team that had few other options than to run the ball heavily. Still, it was hard not to be impressed with Vanderbilt's performance.

The conundrum now is figuring out just how much this team has grown since the beginning of the season. Was this the same unit that struggled in the second half in losses to South Carolina and Northwestern? Is Vandy's three-game winning streak the product of a schedule that took a significant turn down an easier path after the Florida game? Or have the Commodores evolved into a better team in that span - one that could have pulled together the sustaining drives they needed back in August and September?

The answer lies somewhere in between those extremes. The Commodore offense looked better than they have against a BCS opponent all year, but it's difficult to glean much from dismantling a 1-9 Kentucky program. There has clearly been some progress made on a few fronts, though. The offensive line has evolved from porous to reliable, at least when they aren't facing defenses like USCe's and Georgia's. The linebacking corps, which faced plenty of questions following the departure of Chris Marve, has developed into one of this team's strengths despite a relatively inexperienced lineup.

That won't amount to much, however, if this team can't wring every drop of talent out of a top-notch group of skill players on offense. Stacy, Boyd, and Matthews give this team playmakers who can find the end zone and come up with the big plays that help keep a growing defense off the field. Rodgers is a solid vessel who can deliver the ball to all three while limiting his mistakes behind center. All four will have to come together in order to put points on the board against Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Wake Forest to end the season.

There are no more mismatches left on the Commodore schedule. Each of Vandy's three remaining opponents play at a similar level as James Franklin's team. That means that playcalling and management will be paramount to this team's success in November. It also means that we'll get a chance to see what these 'Dores are really made of.

The next three weeks will define Vanderbilt's 2012 season. Fortunately, this team has the players to escape with an undefeated record over that span. Will this be the year that the "same old Vandy" stigma gets buried by an eight-win season? Or will the armor cracks that have shone through even in 2012's wins keep a talented Commodore squad from fulfilling their potential?

The Good:

  • Brian Kimbrow, home run threat. Kimbrow showed why he was the most highly rated recruit in school history with one run on Saturday, hitting the line of scrimmage at full speed and running untouched up the middle of the field for a 33-yard touchdown. Kimbrow is still facing a steep learning curve - he's great at outrunning defenders but needs to better adjust to the team speed of the SEC - but he's shown that he can be the guy who carries this offense in the future. He's got three touchdown runs of over 30 yards so far this season.
  • The offensive line continues to improve. Vanderbilt's weakest link at the beginning of the year is slowly coming together. Herb Hand has groomed a ragtag offensive line into a cohesive unit as 2012 has worn on, and that shone on Saturday as the 'Dores allowed just one sack and ran for over 4.5 yards per carry. Joe Townsend is one guy who has really stepped up his game since taking over at center, but the contributions of Jake Bernsatein and Andrew Bridges are also laudable. Those three guys - all sophomores - should help give Vandy a solid foundation on the OL into the future.
  • Carey Spear, accomplished kicker. Spear drilled two field goals on Saturday, connecting from 40 and 48 yards in the win. If he can kick four more over the course of the year, he'll set the school record for most field goals in a single season. That's quite a comeback from a player who missed chip-shot kicks as a sophomore and appeared to have last his job as the 2011 season came to a close. Spear has hit 13 of his 16 attempts this season and has been perfect on kicks inside of 44 yards so far.

The Bad:

  • Jordan Rodgers's turnover problems. There wasn't much to be too pessimistic about in this 40-0 win, but Rodgers added an additional two turnovers to his season tally in the blowout. The redshirt senior fumbled in UK territory but was redeemed when his defense held Kentucky at the Vandy 27-yard line. Rodgers then backed that up with a quick interception that threatened to erase Vanderbilt's shutout bid.

    Rodgers had a great day, but those two plays are ones he'd like to forget. He's done a great job of limiting his interceptions in 2012 - he threw picks about three times more often in 2011 - he he's also fumbled nine times this season, losing five of those. He'll have to be steadier with the ball as Vandy hits the home stretch of their season.


The PiBB Ice Player of the Week: Jordan Rodgers

Rodgers wasn't perfect, but his first half touchdown passes to Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews were. The captain has grown more confident as the season has worn on thanks in part to an improved offensive line, and Vanderbilt's offense has grown as a result. He's completing nearly 10 percent more of his passes in '12 and imposing a steady presence behind center. After years of volatility at the quarterback position, Rodgers seems to have stabilized things as the leader of this offense.