On Tuesday I highlighted some of things to look out for from Vanderbilt on the offensive side of the ball. Today I’ll delve into what makes the Commodores defense tick and the best ways for the Cincinnati Bearcats to get into the endzone against them. Overall, Vandy plays very well on defense averaging about 21 points per game (26th nationally). They have played extremely well on that side of the ball considering they only start three seniors. While two of them are at key positions to directly prevent big plays (defensive back), the majority of the Commodores defense is made up of juniors and sophomores. As a team Vanderbilt ranks highly against both the run and the pass, giving up only 123 yards on the ground (26th) and 202 through the air (33rd) per game. By contrast, the Bearcats are a Top-10 team against the run but 106th against the pass. Basically, is all around very tough on defense and, by the numbers, it’s difficult to do much of anything against them offensively.
It helps to have an All-American cornerback in Casey Hayward shutting down the opposing team’s #1 receiver. The NFL prospect has a team leading 5 picks this season and forces quarterbacks to not even throw to his side of the field. On the opposite side, fellow corner Trey Wilson should also be accounted for because of his 3 picks this year, two of which he’s taken back for touchdowns. At strong safety, Sean Richardson is a big 6’2″ 220 lbs force that can lay the wood on runningbacks who break into the secondary. He’s second on the team with 58 tackles. Like I said, as a unit the secondary and pass defense is solid and you can attribute that to them containing the big pass play. Vanderbilt is T-23rd nationally with only 11 plays of 30 yards or more allowed this season. By and large, you’re not going to get behind this secondary.
Statistically, the Commodores are even better against the run and you can chalk most of that up to the play of linebacker Chris Marve and defensive linemen Tim Fugger and Rob Lohr. Marve leads Vandy in tackles and has also forced a turnover or two. He’ll likely be keying in on Isaiah Pead all game. The biggest threat against the run I think is Tim Fugger who is a massive 6’4″ 250 lbs defensive end. The senior leads the team in sacks (6.5) and tackles for loss (13.5). He’s also pacing the Commodores with 3 forced fumbles. Cincinnati’s offensive tackles will have their hands full with him. Not to be forgotten on that defensive line is tackle Rob Lohr who leads all Vandy defensive linemen in tackles and is second on the team in tackles for loss and sacks. He’s a nice compliment to Fugger on the edge.
That’s a pretty imposing unit Cincinnati will face on New Years Eve. But the Bearcats still have an explosive offense that can take advantage of any weaknesses a defense has:
1. Hold the Edge: Like I mentioned, Tim Fugger is a force off the edge. With a month to heel up his leg, Alex Hoffman should be as close to 100% as he’s been all season. That’s great news for the Bearcats but he and right tackle Eric Lefeld (who I’m assuming will still start over Sean Hooey) will have to play very well to keep UC’s quarterback upright. Whether it’s Collaros or Legaux taking most of the snaps, the name of the game here is to give them time to get the ball to their receivers.
2. Short Passes: Vanderbilt’s not going to get beat deep and they have the corners to cover in man-to-man the length of the field. Luckily Coach Jones/Bajakian’s offense use those short and intermediate passes to move the ball upfield which should help negate any advantage Vandy has at DB. Don’t be surprise, though, if UC goes deep once or twice to keep the Commodores’ secondary from sneaking up on pass plays and jumping routes.
3. Feed the Pead: He is bar none the best player on the team and, as I’ve said all season, it only makes sense to get the ball in his hands early and often. There’s not much more to say here because you already know how dynamic of a player Pead is and is dangerous rushing, receiving, and returning the football.
4. Avoid 3rd and Long: The one thing offenses need to avoid when facing teams with good secondaries is to not get into any obvious passing situations. Defensive lines can pin their ears back and come after the quarterback and good defensive backs like the ones on Vanderbilt only have to watch the quarterbacks’ eyes to see where the ball is going and go for the interception. 3rd and short makes it a guessing game for the defense as Cincinnati doesn’t necessarily need to pass but instead swing the ball out to Pead or hand it to him on draws. He’s more than capable of getting 3 or 4 tough yards.
5. No Turnovers: Vanderbilt has a solid +2 turnover margin and is 12th in the nation with 17 interceptions this season. Cincinnati has dominated when they play a clean game and keep the ball in their offense’s hands. Plus not allowing the Commodores young offense the benefit of short fields will swing the game in the Bearcats’ favor. Overall, playing mistake-free football is all I’m asking for.