January 4, 2014

Compass Bowl Game Day Report

BIRMINGHAM, AL -- Vanderbilt celebrates their third consecutive bowl appearance today with a noon Central kickoff at Legion Field in Birmingham. The Compass Bowl selected Houston of the AAC, also known as the former Big East football conference.

When Houston runs

The Cougars boast an experienced offensive line that has four of five returning starters from last year's campaign. The front is anchored by 6-foot-6, 299-pound left tackle Rowdy Harper.

Houston's run game took a huge and unexpected hit at the end of last year, when Charles Simms announced his decision to transfer to West Virginia for his final (graduate) year of eligibility. Sims was a preseason first team All-AAC player after rushing for 851 yards in nine games in 2012.

Houston plits their run game between two players of opposite skill sets. Speedster Ryan Jackson (reportedly runs the 100 in 10.3) and the beefier Kenneth Farrow carry the load for the run game. Both backs can catch the ball out of the backfield.

Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has again molded his group into a solid, if not special, defensive team. Their strength is in the defensive secondary, where eventual NFL safety Kenny Ladler locks down the run attack and cornerback Andre Hal anchors things at the corner. Shoop mixes things up, and at times will send one or both of them on blitzes. But against a running back as quick as Jackson, Shoop will have to be careful to not give up the big play: Houston has gashed opponents for

When Houston passes

Houston plays the spread offense, and has put up giant offensive numbers this season.

UH boats one of the most prolific wideouts in college football in Deonte Greenberry, who had 47 catches for 564 yards in 2012, led the team with 76 catches for 1,1106 yards and 10 scores. Greenberry was a 5-star Rivals recruit out of high school, and has been the Cougars' go-to player since Day 1.

The guy throwing Greenberry the ball is is one of the nation's most surprising freshmen in John O'Korn. O'Korn took over the starting job in the Cougars' third game of the year versus Rice and never looked back. O'Korn has thrown for 2,889 yards, 26 touchdowns, eight interceptions and a 59.9 percent completion rate.

O'Korn is incredibly poised for a true freshman: His turnover numbers are low (just eight interceptions to 26 touchdowns) and he'll tuck and run if need be to make sure he's getting positive yardage instead of wasting a down.

Greenberry rightfully gets a lot of the publicity, but O'Korn will throw the ball around. Larry McDuffey (16-118-0), Xavier Maxwell (28-405-4) and Daniel Spencer (50-764-6) all play big roles in the passing game.

Houston is a high-powered offense that plays fast and runs out of the spread. That said, Houston has padded their offensive numbers against the weaker teams on their schedule. UH put 62 points on hapless Southern; 59 on D1 newcomer Texas San Antonio; 49 on a Rutgers team that was the last team to be picked for a bowl game; and 34 on SMU.

Conversely, the Cougar offense struggled on offense against all of the better teams they've played this year. Apart from their first loss of the season--a 47-46 barn burner vs. BYU at Reliant Stadium--Houston failed to crack 20 in any of their other three losses: UCF (14), Louisville (13) and Cincinnati (17). All three of those losses came in the three games prior to the SMU game. UH coach Tony Levine benched O'Korn in the Cincinnati game for freshman Greg Ward. The Cougars had only 33 yards on the ground against the Bearcats.

In addition to the early season personnel hits, Houston also took two big blows to their coaching staff during bowl preparations. Offensive coordinator Doug Meacham, left the Cougar staff for the same position at TCU. And offensive line coach Glen Elarbee took the co-offensive coordinator position at Arkansas State.

When Vanderbilt runs

VU's run game has been a disappointment this year, with the departure of potential NFL Rookie of the Year Zac Stacey now running for the St. Louis Rams. The Commodores have simply never been able to get into any rhythm, with Wes Tate, Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow sharing a disparate and unpredictable number of carries per game all season long.

The word is that head coach James Franklin expects to get Jerron Seymour back into the center of their run game tomorrow. The 5-9 redshirt sophomore is shifty and very, very quick. If Seymour can return to the form he has had at his peak, he will prove to be the key to a Commodore offense that depends disproportionately on the passing game.

VU will have a big size advantage up front. Outside of 320-pound defensive tackle Joey Mbu (27 tackles), the Cougars average less than 250 pounds a man at the other three defensive line spots.

The concern for anyone facing Houston is hanging onto the ball. The Cougars recovered 17 fumbles and recorded 23 interceptions this season, and the biggest play-maker were the safeties Trevon Stewart, who has a nation-leading 10 takeaways (four interceptions and six fumble recoveries). Adrian McDonald (five and one) and Cornerback Zack McMillan (four picks) also contribute mightily to the offense getting a lot of short fields.

Houston's defensive philosophy is to play for the strip. That may mean that Kimbrow will have a short leash, as he has been by far the most fumble-prone back on the VU team.

Junior linebacker Derrick Matthews has more than 100 tackles for the third-straight season. He's the nation's leading career tackler among underclassmen. Efram Oliphant is another linebacker who runs sideline to sideline and fills the gaps in the middle.

When Vanderbilt passes

Vanderbilt lost its senior quarterback when Austyn Carta-Samuels tore his ACL in the Commodores' win over Gator Bowl invitee Georgia. Carta-Samuels missed two games, but actually came back to play in the team's final three contests. Carta-Samuels eventually turned the reigns over to redshirt freshman Patton Robinette, who has been an equally good threat running the ball as he has been throwing it.

Robinette won't be mistaken for John Elway in the arm strength category, but he has made giant strides in reading defenses and making good, quick decisions as his season has progressed. The former Maryville, TN Gatorade Player of the Year is tall, athletic and poised in the pocket.

Robinette's main target is 6-foot-6 senior wideout Jordan Matthews. As everyone now knows, Matthews owns almost every receiving record in school and SEC history, and will no doubt get as many chances to touch the ball as humanly possible. Offensive coordinator John Donovan loves the screen passes to Matthews with senior Jonathan Krause blocking the corner, and that combination has led to some of the biggest plays of the year for the offense.

Krause is no slouch either, especially on the slant over the middle when teams double or even triple team Matthews. This season, Krause has had receptions (with YAC) of 56, 55, 44, 42, 41, 35 and 31 yards.

Special teams

Vanderbilt appears to have a giant advantage in the kicking game. Houston Punter / kicker Richie Leone is just 11-of-17 on field goals this season, and 1-of-5 from 40 yards and beyond. Three of those misses were blocked.

Ayers (26.8 yards per kickoff return, one TD) is a dangerous return man, though the Cougars averaged just 3.7 yards per punt return.

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