The Vanderbilt offense amassed nearly 560 total yards in Saturday's 52-6 victory over Eastern Michigan. The 560 yards were the most for the Commodores against a FBS subdivision opponent since Vanderbilt racked up 621 yards in a loss to Kentucky in November of 2006. The 52 points were the most points scored by the Commodores against a FBS opponent since the Commodores beat Ohio University 54-10 on September 23rd, 1989. The Commodores were favored in the game against EMU by 24 points but nearly doubled in margin of victory.
Following each game this season, VandySports.com publishers Chris Lee and Jesse Johnson will present a series of questions to recap both the offensive and defensive performances.
1. Vanderbilt scored 52 points, had 24 first downs, and amassed 558 yards of offense against Eastern Michigan on Saturday. Does this show that the offense is getting better?
Chris: You've got to be careful about drawing a lot of conclusions about a game like this one. The Eagles had already given up 523 yards to Central Michigan three games ago, 643 to Ohio State two weeks ago, and 412 to Ohio the week before, and just aren't very good.
If you'd drawn similar conclusions about Vandy after the Rice game last season (VU had 36 points, 23 first downs and 484 yards that day), you'd have said the offense had turned a corner. From that point on, the Commodores scored 13 points or less in six of their last eight games, and topped 300 yards just twice more, with one of those being a 304-yard effort against Army.
A better way to look at it would be to compare things to a year ago. Through five games (Western Carolina, LSU, Mississippi State, Rice and Ole Miss), VU averaged 20 points and 342 yards a game; this year, those numbers are 25 and 350.
Now, I think that last year's schedule was probably a bit easier through this point, in that you had a pair of sacrificial-lamb defenses in WCU and Rice, whereas the 'Dores have only played one (EMU) to this point of the season. LSU's defense this season is much-better than last year's, but Ole Miss's is much worse, and the Connecticut-Mississippi State swap is probably close to being a trade-off.
What's interesting, though, is this: the team was averaging 18.4 first downs per game through five games last year, vs. 15.2 this season. What that tells is that this year's offense is about the same as last year's, except that this team makes many more big plays that last year's.
The concern, obviously, is consistency. With VU posting three games of 12 or fewer first downs, it's probably going to continue to be an issue with such little depth on the offensive line.
But at least you can see some hope this season, whereas there wasn't much last year.
Jesse: Nothing about this game was really a surprise to me. In fact, a few days leading up to the game, I predicted Vanderbilt would win by 49 points and have at least five plays of 20 plays or more. In the end, Vanderbilt was a field goal away from winning by 49 points and the Dores had 8 total plays of 20 yards or more, including seven by the offense. So did this performance show the offense is getting better? Maybe.
My belief is that the offense was already getting better. I know that people got so down on the unit after the fourth quarter collapse against UConn, but aside from just the scoring flurry that fans point to, Vanderbilt did also drive on the Huskies on a few more possessions in that game too. People forgot that VU had over 150 yards against UConn that didn't result in points too, and that's why VU had 300 yards through three quarters. Not that those numbers should inspire talk of offensive brilliance, but that's still production that should lead to wins for most BCS teams.
Outside of the that collapse, the sluggish penalty ridden start to the Ole Miss game and Vanderbilt's performance against the SEC's best overall defense in LSU, the offense has shown more signs of getting better than it was last year by far. This game to me just further indicated that the offense is capable of doing good things, even against subpar teams. Vanderbilt couldn't say as much last year against teams like Army.
Even with the final numbers though, Vanderbilt still struggled to execute in the first quarter against Eastern Michigan. Offensive coordinator Jimmy Kiser scripts most of the teams first couple of possessions, so what does it say when there continues to be a problem with executing those first couple of series? The slow starts can't continue against better offensive teams from here on out, so maybe Kiser needs to draw up some different plays for his offense to start the game.
So I believe that maybe the EMU game was a sign of the unit getting better but I tend to believe that the signs were already there, it was just good to see them take care of a defense that has been one of the worst in the nation for the better part of the past three years.
2. Statistically, Saturday was one of Larry Smith's better days: 16-of-27 passing, 253 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions. Was this another step forward, or just a good day against a bad team?
Chris: I think it was one of many small steps forward for Smith. I was hard on him for his second-half performance last week, but listening to Caldwell talk about a receiver running a bad route to cause a pick-6, and thinking about how little time he had to throw, some of the criticism he took was unwarranted.
On a game-by-game basis, he looked good against Northwestern and EMU, and was great for a half against Connecticut. Statistically, it was hard to call his performance against Ole Miss "good," but VU played with a lead and he did everything asked of him. LSU was a team-wide train wreck, and so it's hard to put a disproportionate amount of blame on the quarterback for that one.
The bad of Smith is the inconsistency, which seems to come in bunches. He missed two receivers who didn't have a defender within a zip code of them on a pair of should-have-been touchdown passes on one drive, and was nearly picked in the end zone on the same drive as well.
At the same time, he could have easily had another 80 yards (or more) added to his passing total were it not for some drops, especially one on about a 50-yard throw that was slightly under-thrown, but still hit Udom Umoh squarely in the chest. And that's happened a lot in his career.
VU hasn't had a quarterback since Jay Cutler-and few before him-who can throw the longball with the distance and accuracy that Smith has shown. He has shown that he's more-than-capable of making big things happen down field when he is on, and he's also an excellent runner who has protected the ball very well considering the number of plays that end with it in their hands.
The next step up for Smith will be to become more consistent with accuracy, and he's probably never going to remind anyone of Peyton Manning there. While Smith may never become an SEC superstar, I think people sometimes put a disproportionate amount of blame on him for when things go wrong, and don't balance it with giving him credit for some things he's done well.
Jesse: It was a little bit of both. Again, Eastern Michigan wasn't going to give a terrible amount of resistance against the pass, the Eagles clearly came into the game looking to stop the run and tried several run blitzes throughout the night. Still, Smith did show more patience in the pocket overall, made better decisions and distributed the ball throughout the offense during the game. I think that's everything you want to see from him and from the quarterback overall.
His numbers could've been better than they were, he could've not gunned the ball too high on a pair of passes during the second quarter and he did force another sideline pass that could've resulted in an interception. However, I see the same things happen during almost every football game across the nation, even by guys who are considered to be the very best at the position, so I don't let the three or four negative things overshadow the entire body of work.
Probably the biggest thing for me in this game with Smith though, the most positive thing, was the two-minute style drill that he led to end the first half. I thought it was not only a well-called drive, but I thought Smith made several smart decisions and I dare say it was the best two-minute drill I've seen a Vanderbilt quarterback have since that the Cutler days. I think that drive could potentially do a lot for Smith and the offense's confidence going forward.
With all that said though, I'm not going to over emphasize what happened against Eastern Michigan because the offense did what it should have done, so I don't want to get carried away with the unit doing its job and executing against one of the nation's worst teams.
3. Did we bury John Cole and Udom Umoh too early after slow starts to the 2010 season?
Chris: Saturday night was the best and the worst of Umoh, all rolled into one. He displayed run-after-the-catch ability that we hadn't seen in the 65-yard touchdown against EMU, and against UConn last week, showed a beat-the-DB-deep ability that he showed in practice early in his career, but had really been absent since his one huge catch in the Music City Bowl.
On the other hand, there was the drop of the bomb, and those are the kinds of plays that Vandy has to make to beat SEC teams.
The coaches love Udom's blocking and leadership ability. But he came in averaging 1.5 catches per game for just 19 yards, and caught just one ball outside of the touchdown play on Saturday. That just won't cut it in a spread offense, especially with the Commodores really needing to get Jonathan Krause and Jordan Matthews some chances.
I'm more optimistic about Cole. Coach Robbie Caldwell said that knee injuries had hampered the sophomore, and that he was just now getting back a burst that he had before.
It showed when Cole broke two plays of 50 yards or more, and his ability to find daylight between a crowd of opposing defenders on each play was equally impressive.
Cole also has to work on catching the ball more consistently, which once again bit him on a drop of a third-down conversion he should have caught. Like Udom, his production coming into Saturday (2.3 catches a game for 17 yards a game) is also unacceptable. But unlike Udom, at least we have an answer for his struggles, as well as a reason to think that his best football may be ahead of him.
Jesse: Well, I never buried either of them, nor felt they really were off to slow starts. First, I could only recall about a handful of times in the previous four games where either were targeted and the ball was actually thrown to them, where a play wasn't made. So I think their stats were skewed a bit by offensive line breakdowns or sacks as well as Smith targeting Brandon Barden a lot more than either.
Still, Umoh and Cole had good games, though both had drops that we hadn't seen all season by them, especially Umoh. Now, too his defense, two of the deep passes were underthrown, which does make it difficult on the receiver to react. Still, Umoh should've attacked the ball a little more in both situations rather than trying to basket catch the ball. That kind of approach to the ball has got to be better from a fourth year junior. Still, he did redeem himself with the catch and run as well as taking a big hit on another short catch during the two-minute drill to end the first half.
Cole had a pretty good all-around game, despite the one drop on a third down early in the game. His punt return gave the team some early momentum and replays show he would've scored a touchdown had he not tried to brace himself with his left arm. He broke a few would be tackles on a key catch during the two-minute drill and followed that up a few plays later with a nice catch against the sideline. Those plays are what VU believed it would get from Cole when he signed with the school a few years ago, so it was good to see. The breakaway run at the end of the game also showed the pure speed that he has, and why he could be a difference maker in the SEC even if he's still an undersized receiver.
Hopefully this game will cause Smith to target both men more in future games and perhaps open things up for other receivers like Krause, Matthews or the surprising Turner Wimberly. Umoh and Cole showing some big play ability could also help free up space for the running game as well.
Even if VU does face anywhere close to as bad a defense as Eastern Michigan's again, future opponents will still review tape of the game and see that they have to at least respect Umoh and Cole a little more.
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