Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin doesn’t mind taking risks, and when you’re a smaller team in the SEC, that makes a lot of sense.
Just last weekend against Auburn the Commodores went for it on fourth down a ridiculous five times. The risks paid off as Vanderbilt came away with the victory, but as every gambler knows, you’ve got to know when to fold them: Vanderbilt botched a fake punt and halfback pass during the game as well.
This weekend Vandy probably won’t have to take many risks against an 0-7 UMass team. The Commodores have an impressive running game and a secondary that is one of the best in the SEC. That combination spells trouble for the Minutemen.
Zac Stacy has reached legend status in Nashville.
Last week against Auburn, Stacy became Vanderbilt’s all-time rushing leader and helped the Commodores beat Auburn with a 27-carry, 168-yard performance. The 5’9, 210-pound senior now holds school records for most career rushing yards, most rushing yards in a single season, and most non-passing touchdowns in a single season.
In short, Stacy is the heart of Vanderbilt’s offense and is the best running back on UMass’ schedule.
The Commodores like to run a two-back set out of the spread, and when Stacy doesn’t get the ball, Vanderbilt has a stable of athletes that can get the job done. For example, freshman Brian Kimbrow has seen action in every game this season and has nearly 200 yards rushing on the year. Vandy also uses Wesley Tate (6’1, 215 pounds), a back with a similar running style to UMass’ Mike Cox.
While Vanderbilt relies on the run, it can get the job done through the air.
The Commodores were unable to choose a starting quarterback early in the season, but eventually settled on Jordan Rodgers, a redshirt senior out of Chico, Calif. Rodgers has been adequate, but most football purists would call him more of a “game manager.” He hasn’t put up spectacular numbers (1,241 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INT), but he has done enough to keep his team in games.
When Rodgers airs it out, he has a pair of high quality receivers downfield. Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews have all but 327 of Vanderbilt’s receiving yards this year and possess enough size and speed to frustrate any defensive coordinator. Matthews (6’3, 205 pounds) leads the way with 663 yards and three touchdowns, and Boyd has 482. Both are legitimate deep treats – each has a catch for more than 50 yards this year.
Vanderbilt doesn’t have SEC-like size on its offensive line, but the big guys up front have done a pretty good job protecting Rodgers and opening holes for Stacy. Leading the way has been Wesley Johnson, Vandy’s 6’5, 285-pound left tackle, who has been both durable and versatile. Johnson has started at guard, center and tackle, and has more than 30 consecutive starts. Right guard, senior Josh Jelesky (6’5, 295 pounds), has played in 40 games for the Commodores and is accustomed to the rigors of SEC defenses.
If there was ever a time for UMass to run the ball, it would be this weekend.
While the Commodores have had a respectable year on the defense, they have had major problems stopping the run. Vandy ranks second to last in the SEC in rush defense and have allowed nearly 190 yards per game. Like UMass, Vanderbilt’s major deficiency has been stopping quarterbacks that get out of the pocket and use their legs: just ask South Carolina’s Connor Shaw and Florida’s Jeff Driskel.
Conversely, Vanderbilt is absolutely lights out against the pass. The Commodores are second in the SEC, allowing a meagre 142 yards per game and only three passing touchdowns. That’s pretty over-the-top impressive when you consider that Vandy has already played the likes of Georgia and South Carolina, both of which have been decent through the air.
Vanderbilt doesn’t intercept the ball a lot, but it does break up passes. Leading the way has been cornerback Andre Hall, who has broken up six passes this year to go along with 27 tackles.
At free safety, Kenny Ladler has been tremendous. Ladler leads the team with 48 tackles to go along with a sack, a pass breakup, an interception and a forced fumble. Ladler seems to be cut from the same cloth as Sean Richardson and Casey Hayward – two former members of the Vanderbilt secondary who are now playing for the Green Bay Packers.
Chase Garnham leads the linebackers and has done a decent job so far. He has 47 tackles and five sacks this season, and has a good frame (6’3 and every bit of 235 pounds) for the position. He isn’t the greatest in coverage, but Garnham does a nice job disrupting things in the backfield and drawing additional blockers.
On the defensive line, defensive end Walker May has good speed off the edge and does a nice job hurrying opposing quarterbacks. He has height (6’5) and a good instinct for the ball, which keeps quarterbacks honest when they throw the ball to the flats. Jared Morse, Vandy’s nose tackle, is the enforcer on the defensive line and can penetrate if not respected.