Friday, October 1, 2010

VSL Gets You Ready: Previewing Vanderbilt @ UCONN

Make no mistake about it Commodore fans, Saturday's match-up with UCONN is critically important. This is, in my view, a "fork in the road" game. If the Commodores win, they put themselves in a position to earn a bowl berth. Don't misunderstand, winning does not guarantee them a game in December or January, but losing all but closes the door to such a possibility. For that, and a host of over reasons, this game is very intriguing.

UCONN enters Saturday's match-up at 2-2. It's hard to know what to make of this Huskie team given their first 4 outings. They were handily defeated at Michigan, drummed Texas Southern in their home-opener 62-3, lost on the road to Temple (a team that isn't bad, but isn't very good), and beat Buffalo at Rentschler Field 45-21. There is no doubt Randy Edall has done a great job building this program and shepherding them from a I-AA squad into a player in the Big East. In some respects, I see UCONN as a mirror image of Vanderbilt: reliant on the run, questions at Quarterback, and young at skill positions. With all that said, I think the Commodores, on paper, are a more talented team. That fact, coupled with the Commodores coming off both a win and a bye, and I have to give Vanderbilt the edge.

UCONN's Offense

The Huskies offense runs through junior running back Jordan Todman. The 5'9, 193 lbs. Todman has led the team in rushing all 3 games he's played, gaining 105 yards and a TD in the Big House, 151 yards and 3 TDs against Texas Southern, and a beastly 192 yards against Temple. Jordan missed the Buffalo game due to injury, but is expected to be ready and back to 100% when the Commodores come to town. Given his size, I suspect Todman is not going to do a lot of running between the tackles. This certainly favors the Commodores who have an excellent and experienced line-backing corps, and contained the Ole Miss running backs to just 87 yards on the ground. It is worth noting that Jeremiah Masoli netted 104 yards on the Commodores defense. Which brings us to UCONN's starting Quarterback, redshirt junior Cody Endres. The 6'4 Endres sat out the first three games of the season due to suspension, and took over the reins at the end of the 1st half in the Buffalo game with the score tied at 14. Endres led the Huskies to 31 points, with a 7-11 performance through the air, that netted 139 yards and 2 touchdowns. UCONN, like Commodore teams of yore, seem to have a difficult time picking a QB. They started the season with Zach Frazer under center, who is now listed at 3 on the depth chart. Endres does not appear to be much of a running threat, which means, unlike against Ole Miss, if the Commodores can contain the Huskies' running backs, they can effective shut down their running game. Endres will be making his 9th career start Saturday.

The wild card for me appears to be UCONN's offensive line, especially on the left side. While UCONN's linemen have made 75 career starts, returning starters who made 49 of 65 starts in 2009, all that experience comes on the right side of the line. The left side of the line is comprised of 2 redshirt sophomores, LT Adam Masters (6'4, 283), and LG Erik Kuraczea (6'2, 324). Kuraczea started in several games last season, while Masters made his first career start against Michigan. My point, is Vanderbilt's defense has a chance to get to the Quarterback if they work his blind side. UCONN has only allowed 4 sacks all season, while the Commodores have sacked opposing QBs 5 times. I would hope Bruce Fowler and the boys are scheming to get at the QB.

UCONN's Defense

UCONN's defense is young. According to their Depth Chart, UCONN's starting defense consists of 2 seniors, 2 juniors, 6 sophomores, and 1 redshirt freshman. Entering Saturday's game, the Huskies have the 34th ranked pass defense in the country, allowing just 181.5 yards per game through the air. The strength of their defense appears to be their line-backing corp of Scott Lutrus (redshirt senior, 6'3, 245 lbs.), Lawrence Wilson (redshirt senior, 6'1, 226), and Sio Moore (redshirt sophomore, 6'1, 230 lbs.). Wilson was All Big East last season, and led the Huskies in tackling. This season, he has gotten a lot of help from Moore, who made his first career start against Buffalo, made 16 tackles, and was named Big East Defensive Player of the Week.

UCONN's defensive line has 2 redshirt juniors, a redshirt freshman, and a sophomore. Only DT Shamar Stephen (redshirt freshman) is 300 lbs., but redshirt juniors Kendell Reyes and Twyon Martin are knocking on the door, weighing in at 298 and 292 respectively. There is a precipitous drop-off in size with UCONN's defensive line once you get to their second team. Comprised of 3 sophomores (2 redshirts), and 1 senior, no one on the second team weighs more than 280 lbs. If the Commodores can get first downs, their hurry-up spread has a chance to be very effective because either: a) you can't substitute your starters who will get winded or b) you can run over the second team once they do finally get in the game.

Despite having the 34th ranked pass defense in America, I think their secondary is a potential weak spot for the Commodores to exploit. Given Vanderbilt's undersized starting wide receivers, their advantage does not lie in height. Rather, it's inexperience. The Huskies' entire secondary is comprised of sophomores (3 redshirts). To be sure, Vanderbilt's receivers are also young. Still, receiver is a position that seems to require less of an adjustment than most others (including cornerback). Hopefully, Vanderbilt can stretch the field and take advantage.

Bobby's Keys to the Game

Establish the pass to set up the run

Vanderbilt was successful against Ole Miss because they were able to pick up first downs through the air. Vanderbilt picked up 12 first downs against the Rebels: 7 on the ground, 4 in the air, and 1 via penalties. It doesn't matter that the passing numbers were a pedestrian 9-19 for 73 yards. What is important, is the threat of going to the air, and the ability to gain yards that way, prevented Ole Miss from stacking the box. The Commodores need to do the same thing Saturday. They don't have to win the game through the air, but they should certainly try and take advantage of a young secondary early to loosen things up for their running backs (all of whom appear healthy for the first time...ever). The Commodores gained 227 yards on 41 attempts for a 5.5 yards per carry average. It should be noted, however, that that average is incredibly inflated by Warren Norman's 80 yard scamper in the 3rd quarter. Still, 3.7 yard per carry isn't a bad average and puts the team in a position for very manageable 3rd downs.

3rd Downs on both sides of the ball

Vanderbilt's 3rd down defense is respectable. Opponents are converting 36% of 3rd downs against the Commodores this season. Compare that to UCONN, whose opponents are converted 44% of their 3rd down opportunities. Already, the Commodores have an advantage. But coming back to my point above about getting into manageable 3rd downs is critically important against the Huskies. This season, UCONN's defense has allowed their opponents to convert 64% of 3rd downs of 6 yards or less. Conversely, UCONN's offense is pretty ineffective at extending drives when facing a 3rd down. When needing 4 or more yards, UCONN has only converted 7 of 37 opportunities.

Rapid Fire Final Thoughts:
- Special Teams/Winning Field Position: Cole Wagner, a redshirt freshman, is UCONN's punter. On the season, he's averaging 38.5 yards per punt on 19 attempts. He's pinned 7 inside the 20, as compared to just 2 that have resulted in touchbacks. One of the things that helped the Commodores vs. Ole Miss was the play of their punter, Richard Kent, who's second half punting forced the Rebs to start 4 of 5 drives inside their own 15.
- Red Zone Efficiency: Vanderbilt is best in the SEC in both Red Zone efficiency categories. The Commodores have converted on all 4 trips, while stopping their opponents 30% of the time (opponents are 7-10). UCONN has also been good in the Red Zone, scoring on 17 of 19 trips, including 11 touchdowns. On the road, if the Commodores bend, let's hope their defense doesn't break.
- Scoring Early: UCONN is outscoring opponents 41-14 in the 1st quarter. Against Ole Miss, the Commodores scored first (albeit in the second quarter), and never trailed. Vanderbilt's offense is best when it's gaining yards on the ground; that can be difficult if you are trailing, especially on the road. UCONN has come out of the gate strong, and it is important for Vanderbilt to not let that happen Saturday.

Should be a great game, but ultimately one the Commodores win. Bobby's prediction: Vanderbilt 27 - UCONN 17


Anonymous said...

dancing with the stars blows but american idol still sucks

Anyway, VU should win this game. If they can't gain a split in the NW/Uconn duo of games, there is no hope at all for a .500 season. They got the split in the LSU/O.Miss duo, time to even things up again. VU will need to sweep the remaining OOC games (EMU/Wake) to have a realistic shot at .500

Vandygal78 said...

Agree that we need to win this game for a six win season. Also agree that they can do it! Go Dores!

Chuck Heston said...

If Larry is going to establish the passing game, now is the time. Even if he only connects a small % of the time, it will open up the running game. Larry still hasn't shown his ability to hang in the pocket and connect w/ receivers. I know that hinges on the o-line holding up, but if we start airing it out from time to time, that opens up lanes for Norman & Co.

Anonymous said...

I agree that Vandy should and needs to win this game. Some of us Vandy loyalist should stop making excuses for not winning games like this and expect the Dores to win this game. Uconn is good but based on who Vandy plays on a regular basis (SEC teams), Uconn should not be a game that we don't win even on the road. Larry Smith needs to show us something by managing the game, when needed, and hopefully getting the ball to Krause. The running game should be solid again. I really like Caldwell.....don't think much of "OC" and "Wr" assistant coaches though. Go Dores !