A week after Vanderbilt posted perhaps its worse defensive performance in over a year, the Commodores rebounded to post its best statistical performance of the 2010 season in a 52-6 rout of Eastern Michigan. The unit surrendered just two field goals in the win, one of which was a result of the Commodore offense fumbling the ball right outside its own red zone, and gave up just 209 total yards of offense. The 209 yards was the lowest a Commodore defense had surrendered to a FBS subdivision opponent since the 14-13 win over Auburn on October 4th, 2008.
VandySports.com's Jesse Johnson and Chris Lee take a look at the defense in the weekly three questions feature.
1. Despite some early breakdowns, Vanderbilt held EMU to less than 210 yards of offense. What positives can VU take from the performance?
Jesse: Well the positives were pretty clear, Vanderbilt shut down the run and didn't give Eastern Michigan another ounce of hope after that first quarter. EMU did some things that confused some of the linebackers and defensive backs early on, but Coach Jamie Bryant and his defensive staff made the necessary adjustments and it took a odd botched snap hitting a Commodore running backs facemask to even put the Eagles scoring position for its final three points.
Vanderbilt could've shut out that team. I know the Eagles scored 20 points on Ohio State and averaged about 20 points through five games, but I felt like going into the game that the Commodores personnel was a bad matchup for Eastern and aside from a couple of mistakes, it proved to be.
The most positive things from the defensive performance was probably the play of Nate Campbell in place of the injured Chris Marve, the play of Kenny Ladler, in his second collegiate start and the fact that some of the defensive ends finally showed signs of getting to a quarterback. Alex Gillett nor Devontae Payne are not going to be confused with too many quarterbacks the Commodores are going to see in the next seven games, but just the fact that VU got pressure on any quarterback at this stage, is a positive to me. Maybe that could lead to more success for them down the road.
Chris: As much as I thought the first quarter was awful--the back seven were out of position more times than I could count--they were pretty good from the second quarter on. Coach Robbie Caldwell said that EMU does a lot of things that can cause confusion, but the staff made some adjustments and things were okay from there.
So, it was nice to see that VU was able to attain and keep focus in a game like this where it would have been easy to have a mental let-down after playing with such a huge lead.
On the other hand, EMU's top tailback, Dwayne Priest, and top receiver, Kinsman Thomas, didn't even play. Given that the Eagles weren't an offensive juggernaut anyway, I'm not sure I'd read too much into anything we saw on Saturday.
I guess the most encouraging thing was that VU held EMU to 4.2 yards per pass attempt. The Eagles hadn't been too bad through the air, and in a game that was a blowout from the second quarter on, you know you're going to be seeing a lot of passing attempts. Even Ohio State gave up 208 passing yards to this team, so I guess that would be a stat that means something.
2. How would you grade VU's pass rush in the game?
Jesse: I'd give it a C minus. There were still several times when a pass rusher could've made a play on the quarterback but failed to wrap him up. I believe Commodore safeties had their hands on Gillett at least three times, but failed to get the sack. I also remember that a linebacker failed to get to him once again, even though he started from the line of scrimmage. Stuff like this is what's maddening about Vanderbilt's pass rush inabilities.
I understand that sometimes it just happens, and Gillett was an athletic quarterback who had only been sacked about once per game. Still, this was a game where Vanderbilt needed to not only put more pressure on the quarterback but bring him down and know what it feels like to actually stop a guy dead in his tracks.
I felt like the defensive ends and the tackles created a good amount of pressure throughout the game. The tackles have done that for most of the season, but this was the first time all year where the defensive ends were this active. I don't know if that was a case of the Eagles just being weak on their blocks or if guys like Theron Kadri, Johnell Thomas or Teriall Brannon were actually breaking their man down and not running like they were in quick sand, as in previous games.
Vanderbilt built such a lead that they were able to sub a number of players too, so some of the sacks and pressure could've been a case of simply being the fresh team. When I watched tape of the game again, I did see some quickness by most in the unit, from the start of the game until the end, so maybe a fire had finally been lit under some of them. I guess we'll see if that continues in future games.
Chris: Well, it was great at the end. VU played a lot more players than did EMU, and it showed that their legs were a lot more fresh at the end. The team actually got three sacks from the ends, which, though I haven't looked, is probably a season high.
The biggest thing of note here was the play of Walker May, who had a sack and also a tackle for loss among his six stops. We know he's got potential to be a good one, he just needs time on the field.
But again, I think it's probably a mistake to read too much into anything we saw Saturday.
3. Nate Campbell had an active game in place of Chris Marve, how encouraging is that for the linebacking corps as a whole going forward?
Jesse: It's very encouraging to the linebacking corps. I felt like people didn't notice exactly how good a game Campbell played against UConn last week or remembered how well he played against Ole Miss a few weeks ago. On the very first series, we saw Campbell rip right through the line and close on an Eagle like we have rarely seen from a Commodore linebacker in the past couple of years. I also saw him drop back into coverage a few times and he didn't give up too much ground to the receiver.
More importantly though, he was moving from sideline-to-sideline and busting through the line to meet the Eagles ball carrier and not give up a yard. So far this year, Vanderbilt's struggled to have enough defensive players do that, so for Campbell to step up like he has, might bode well for the future of the position going forward as well as the defense overall. The Commodores are hopeful that Marve will be back for Georgia and Campbell can move back to the strong-side. Maybe he can bring a little more to the SAM position now, and maybe he'll even get some time on the weak-side.
I also felt like John Stokes also stepped up his game again and saw some positives from DeAndre Jones and Archibald Barnes. Again, I'm not going to get carried away with a game against a mediocre opponent like Eastern Michigan, but I'm hopeful that the performances of these younger linebackers will give them confidence going into future games. I'm also hopeful that the positives we've seen out of Campbell in the past three games means that he's finally about to realize the potential that he always had while a younger player and he can close out his career on a high note.
Chris: That's back-to-back good games for Campbell, who had four stops, including two for a loss. Though Campbell played the middle on Saturday, VU's philosophy at linebacker is that they like for its players to be interchangeable at different spots.
Although the Commodores have lined up the nickel a lot this season, Vandy's weak-side linebacker has been practically invisible this season when they've been in a 4-3. I'd say that Campbell has probably landed himself a spot on the starting unit for the Georgia game, and probably further, with his play the last two weeks.
On that note, I thought that John Stokes had a nice game after a rough first quarter. You know that teams are just going to run the ball right at Vandy this season.
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