If you read this blog regularly, you probably knew that I was going to come out with my ’5 Keys to the Game’ segment for the Vanderbilt Commodores. With it being a bowl game, this will have a little twist. Instead of providing an overview of the opposing team then doing the 5 keys to victory later, you’re getting two-posts-in-one but split between the offense, defense, and special teams. First and most appropriately, the offense.
The Commodores average about 26 points per game ranking 60th nationally. They aren’t exactly tearing it up offensively but keep in mind that two-thirds of their games are against SEC foes like Alabama and South Carolina that are very stout on defense. Vandy put up 28, 21, and 21 points respectively against Arkansas, Florida, and Tennessee. Those are very respectable numbers against the semi-pro competition they face week-in and week-out. These defenses certainly have taken advantage of Vandy’s oft-injured offensive line that has had trouble protecting Jordan Rodgers (Fun fact: brother of Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers) this season. Pass protection can sometimes be attributed to having an immobile Drew-Bledsoe-like quarterback but Rodgers appears to be a pretty solid runner being entrusted with 108 carries this season. So most of the Commodores’ 74th ranked 26 sacks allowed definitely have to go on the massive shoulders of the offensive line. This is encouraging with the Bearcats boasting the country’s #1 overall pass rush and 300 lbs DT’s Derek Wolfe and John Hughes leading the charge. But like I mentioned Rodgers is a good scrambler and UC has had trouble bringing these types of quarterbacks down in the past.
The Commodores’ three-headed monster consists of said quarterback Jordan Rodgers, All-SEC runningback Zac Stacy, and young but explosive wide receiver Jordan Matthews. Not one of these players are seniors and should be an intriguing bunch next season. Think of them as Vanderbilt’s version of Collaros-Pead-Woods. Anyways, like I mentioned Rodgers is a pretty good scrambler but is also an effective passer as well. While still somewhat new to the James Franklin system, Rodgers supplanted incumbent Larry Smith right around when SEC play began in late September. He has displayed moments of brilliance like in his game against Florida where he passed for almost 300 yards and two touchdowns but is still going through his own growing pains, which was evident against Army where he only completed 10 out of 27 passes for just 186 yards, one touchdown, and two picks. On the season, Rodgers has thrown for 1,500 yards and only 9 touchdowns to 9 interceptions. I don’t see him being much of a threat passing the ball, especially if Cincinnati has a consistent pass rush, but his running abilities will definitely keep the Bearcats defense on its heels.
The star of the Vanderbilt offense is All-SEC tailback Zac Stacy who is having a tremendous season rushing the ball for about 6 yards per touch, 1,136 yards this season, and 13 touchdowns. The Commodores run a single-back scheme be it out of the Ace formation with the quarterback under center and the halfback behind him or out of the shotgun much the way Cincinnati sets it up. He doesn’t have a fullback blocking for him so he has to use his quickness, vision, and speed to burst through the offensive line. This is one of the reasons why he reminds me of Isaiah Pead and I’m sure their similarities will be a storyline in this game. Just look at this run:
How many times have you seen Pead run to his right/left, sneak through a gap in the offensive line, put a move on a helpless defensive back, and outrun everyone to the endzone? Stacy has the ability to do the same thing and is definitely a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball.
Vandy’s primary receiver is Jordan Matthews. Only a sophomore, his stats went off the charts when Rodgers took over permanently at quarterback. Matthews caught over 450 yards and 3 touchdowns over a three game stretch nearing the end of the season. It’s clear they have developed a good rapport and at 6’3″ 203 lbs, Matthews is an easy target to find downfield. That size also makes him a mismatch for smaller defensive backs and should command double-teams every time he steps onto the field.
Now that you have a handle on what Vanderbilt’s all about when they have the ball, what does Cincinnati need to do to stop them?
1. Be Aggressive on Passing Downs: Vanderbilt’s offensive line has been both injured and flat out not very good. Cincinnati leads the nation with 44 sacks this year and will be facing a quarterback that has only started a handful of games at the FBS level. As it has been all year, the Bearcats’ defensive line will dictate how all 11 players on that side of the ball will play. I believe UC’s front four is good enough to bring pressure on their own but adding in a few blitzes from J.K. Schaffer and Chris Williams will go a long way to stopping Vandy drives in their tracks.
2. Gap Control: It seems like a broken record at this point but the linebackers need to penetrate the gaps that the defensive line will surely provide. Zac Stacy is a good runningback that will exploit any openings he sees in the offensive line. When opposing runningbacks have run well on the usually stout Bearcats, it’s because the linebackers aren’t doing their job in run support. While young behind vets J.K. Schaffer and Maalik Bomar, UC will have to play well against Vanderbilt who move the ball very well on the ground.
3. Shutdown Jordan Matthews: He is the Commodores’ primary receiving threat and Jordan Rodgers will probably look to him first when passing the ball. If Cincinnati makes Matthews a non-factor, there’s a good chance Rodgers won’t have many other players to check the ball down to. This will only give the Bearcats pass rush more time to get to the quarterback. Plus it always helps to shutdown the other team’s #1 receiver.
4. Stay Disciplined in the Passing Game: The Commodores run a traditional single-back system and with a back like Zac Stacy, defenses will key in on him. But he also allows Jordan Rodgers to utilize the play-action passing game to open up the offense vertically. Rodgers is an accurate enough quarterback to hit those routes that attack the safeties. Wes Richardson and Drew Frey on Cincinnati will have to trust the linebackers and defensive line to contain the run and stay deep no matter what, or they might find themselves chasing a receiver down from behind.
5. Force 3-and-Outs: There’s no better way to get an offense out of rhythm and take the crowd out of the game than by getting quick stops on defense. Vanderbilt is not very good in this department converting only about 3 of 10 third-down opportunities. That’s 105th in the country. This goes back to the idea that the Commodores don’t have many receiving threats outside of Jordan Matthews and his quarterback Jordan Rodgers is still adjusting on the fly to playing quarterback at this level. Keeping the defense fresh and allowing Isaiah Pead to touch the ball more will go a long way to ensuring a Bearcats victory.