The Robbie Caldwell love-fest has been fun to watch, but as he and any other coach or player will tell you, what matters is what happens on the field. The Commodores are staring down one of the nation's most brutal schedules (#12 toughest according to one preseason SOS ranking), and the slate starts with a tough test at 6:30 CST tomorrow.
Before we get to the game, let's take a look at the paper. On paper, this game doesn't set up especially well for Vanderbilt. Historically, we haven't fared too well against the Big Ten (7-17-2 all-time), with the last victory over a Big Ten opponent coming way back in 1957 over Penn State. Coming off a dismal 2-10 season, the Dores have a new and unproven head coach, a youthful and inexperienced roster that includes seven players slated to get their first ever start and a dress roster of over 50 sophomores and freshmen, and a backfield that is already banged up, with Warren Norman only 10 days removed from arthroscopic knee surgery, Zac Stacy coming off a knee injury, and Wesley Tate having also missed significant practice time due to injury. Northwestern, on the other hand, has been rolling. Coming off two straight bowl-appearance seasons and nine 6+ win seasons since 1995, they bring to Nashville a young but experienced team with 16 returning starters and 31 players who have started at least one collegiate game.
That's paper. Paper don't mean jack. This game is on our turf, it looks to be a sellout, there's pride on the line given the matchup between academically strong private schools in big conferences, and there is an opportunity here for Vanderbilt to make a statement right out of the gate that we're not just "rebuilding" and looking ahead to next year to see if CRC can be successful. To have any realistic chance at finishing .500 or better, the Commodores need to win tomorrow. Here's how we can do it.
1. Speed. Use it. Do it.
Maybe it's an overplayed record and maybe it's my anti-Big Ten bias, but looking down the rosters I think that tomorrow will be one of the few times this season that Vanderbilt will have a speed advantage over an opponent. I think that on the offensive side you take advantage of this by running outside the tackles with the speedy and shifty Zac Stacy, getting quick high-percentage passes to big TE Brandon Barden, hitting Udom Umoh on some stop-and-go and fly routes, and making use of your no-huddle schemes (which Larry Smith seems more comfortable in with some experience under his belt). On defense, the key will be getting to the football and putting a nose on it to stifle the run, which I'm sure will be the area NU seeks to exploit. If we can establish a stout run defense early, I think this game sets up well to use some blitz packages and get to QB Dan Persa, putting pressure on him in the pocket and hopefully getting some turnovers and field position as a result.
2. Execution on third down and in the red zone.
The Dores' performance in these categories last year was unacceptable at 35.42% on third-down conversions and 101st out of 120 teams in red zone offense. Making use of the sure-handed Barden and being less predictable on first and second down would certainly help. How we do in these areas will tell us a lot about how hard this team worked in the offseason.
3. Win the battle in the trenches.
I know I suggested running outside the tackles, but truly this game (as so many are) will be won or lost on the offensive and defensive lines. The SEC prides itself on being a physical conference, particularly in relation to certain others which shall go unnamed, and Vanderbilt has had a pretty hard-hitting defense the past few years. Here is a chance to show the Wildcats how things are done -- knock 'em in the jaw early & often and you've got a real chance to send Pat Fitzgerald home wishing he'd never scheduled the Dores to start the season.
Tune in for the action on CSS tomorrow at 6:30 (7:30 Eastern), and go Dores.