October 9, 2006

Changes needed if VU is to salvage season

Around Vanderbilt, hope rarely springs eternally. In fact, hope usually dies around the second week in October.

Such is the case this year, as the Commodore football team finds itself in fantastically familiar territory yet again. Sitting at 2-4, and winless in the SEC at 0-3, Vandy is again staring down the barrell of the toughest part of its schedule with the slimmest margin for error.

It's that margin for error that needs to get narrower, and fast. Saturday's bizarro debacle against Ole Miss saw Vanderbilt thoroughly dominate an SEC opponent in ways we've rarely if ever seen. And yet,
somehow, the Commodores managed to find a way to lose to what is certainly one of the worst teams on their schedule.

Consider these head-shaking numbers.

• On Saturday, Vandy out-gained Ole Miss 400 yards to 179, with the Rebels converting just one third down in 12 attempts.

• The Commodore offense racked up 23 first downs -- its largest number of the season -- while the defense held Ole Miss to just seven. Only one of those first downs came on the ground.

• Through the air, Vanderbilt's offense was 21-33, for 271 yards -- an average of over eight yards per catch. Previously, VU's biggest passing day was 155 yards against Alabama. Ole Miss, by comparison, was a paltry 3-9, for a grand total of 31 yards.

• VU had just two penalties in the game. Against Temple, in a blowout win, VU had a season-high nine penalties.

• Time of possession tells a big tale: VU held the ball for over 35 minutes.

• Backup quarterback Mackenzi Adams completed the longest pass of the season for any Vandy QB, a 44-yard slant on the final drive of the game to Earl Bennett. And Bennett, for his turn, had a season-high 179 receiving yards.

And yet, when you look at the scoreboard, the stat that matters tells an opposite story. Ole Miss17, Vanderbilt 10. It's the sort of result that leaves even the most loyal Vanderbilt football fan shaking his head in disbelief.

Why? That's an obvious one. Vanderbilt had a season-high five turnovers -- four fumbles lost, and one interception. That doesn't count a de facto blocked punt, and two other fumbles that were recovered by a Commodore player.

With the new clock rules, where the play clock starts immediately on a change of possession, those are numbers that are unacceptable. Put simply, if you take what most prognosticators believe are eight plays off the chart at kickoff, and add six more on fumbles, you basically put yourself in what is quite literally a no-win situation.

Against Mississippi, Vandy literally handed the worst offense it has faced this year the opportunity to put points on the board with almost no effort whatsoever. This was a game Vandy should have won in a blowout, and had they done it, everyone would be buzzing about the much-improved Vanderbilt program. Now, people are buzzing about whether this is just the same old Vanderbilt, always finding a new way to beat themselves.

Perhaps one of the truest tests for Bobby Johnson's tenure here is whether he will draw a line in the sand, and demand that the insanity stop. Here and now. It's said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. At 0-3 in the league, Vanderbilt's football program needs a wake-up call. Any other SEC program with a winless conference record would send notice that things are going to change.

You can't really fault sophomore quarterback Chris Nickson for his performance Saturday. After sputtering and perhaps taking a step back against Tennessee State and Temple, Nickson confounded Ole Miss' defense both through the air and on the ground. Before leaving the game late in the second quarter with an ankle sprain, Nickson had gained then a team-high 50 yards on the ground, and was a nearly-flawless 11-13 through the air for 95 yards.

For his part, Adams shook off early jitters by going 10-20 through the air for 176 yards.

Defensively, what can be said other than the obvious. The Commodore defense stuffed and stomped Ole Miss' offense at almost every opportunity. Eighteen yards through the air is probably the single best SEC performance during the Bobby Johnson era. The only blemish to an otherwise standout day was the 104 yards given up to tailback Ben Jarvis Green-Ellis, though that sort of yardage on 24 carries may be considered acceptable.

So, if you are going to make changes, how do you evaluate Saturday's head-shaker? Well, here's a couple of obvious starters.

Give the ball to Hawkins
First, the running back situation has to get some serious attention. Cassen Jackson-Garrison is a stellar athlete with perhaps the biggest up-side of any Vandy running back of this decade. He has the physical stature of an SEC running back, and once he gets a head of steam he can steamroll a linebacker into the turf. But that's the problem: Cassen isn't getting a head of steam. He hesitates and stutter steps almost every time he is handed the ball, which gives opposing linebackers and safeties just enough time to make a quick adjustment and clog up the holes.

Against Ole Miss, Jackson-Garrison had 18 carries for 62 yards (not including a 17-yard loss that should be pinned on a terrible pitch by Adams). That's just about his season average of 65 yards, which is not going to make any SEC defensive coordinators shake in his Nikes.

By comparison, redshirt freshman running back Jared Hawkins has put up eye-popping numbers with a fraction of the touches. For the season, Hawkins has just 20 carries, but has gained 182 yards -- a nine yard average. Hawkins has three touchdowns, tied with Nickson for the team-high, and among his 20 carries is the team's longest run fron scrimmage, 41 yards.

So why isn't Hawkins getting more carries? The reasoning has been that Jackson-Garrison, he of much larger stature, is a more formiddable blocker. But, perhaps Vandy wouldn't need their starting tailback to chip block in the backfield if they were getting more third and shorts. Against Ole Miss, Vandy converted an astounding eight of 16 third downs, compared to Mississippi's one-for-12. But seven of this third downs were for middle or long yardage.

The book on Hawkins was always that he was too small and too "unathletic" to be a major conference tailback. When all the attention was lauded on fellow classmate Daniel Dufrene, all Hawkins did was bury him on the field. Dufrene, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, quit the team last spring after burning his redshirt season.

Hawkins may not look like a tough guy to bring down, but you don't have to be Mel Kiper to be able to see why he is succeeding. Whereas Jackson-Garrison could be faulted for stalling out plays with indecision, Hawkins makes quick reads and charges through holes. And, once he breaks through the line, Hawkins makes another quick read, and takes off like a rocket. Hawkins is quick, but he's no shrinking violet. He is a tough kid with a no nonsense attitude, and has consistently played through a series of undisclosed injuries without a complaint.

Hawkins came to Vanderbilt from talent-rich Texas after being snubbed by almost every Big 12 program. Vandy's coaches were credited with a real recruiting find, daring to look at his production rather than his stature. Now, perhaps Vandy's coaches should ask themselves if perhaps they are guilty of making the same misguided evaluations that landed Hawkins at VU in the first place. When you see what Hawkins has done, you have to ask yourself, what must he do to to improve his situation?

If Coach Johnson is going to make a change, the most obvious place to start is at running back. In this case, the numbers don't lie. Hawkins has earned the chance to see what he can do as the #1 tailback.

Turnovers should carry consequences
What other SEC team would be 0-3, and turn the ball over five times on Saturday, and not make someone pay? On Saturday, six different Commodores -- Bennett, Adams, George Smith, Nickson, Alex Washington and Jackson-Garrison -- would be due a docking. Apart from Washington, who was interfered with while attempting to field a kick, the other five should be held to account.

I don't know if it's worse to have one guy making turnovers, or six -- but the fact is, Vandy might not have beaten Temple had they handed them the kind of field position they gift wrapped for Ole Miss. Because of Vandy's glad-handing, the Rebels never had to drive more than 44 yards for any one of their scores.

Historically, Vanderbilt's lack of depth meant that most of the starters knew they would be on the field no matter how well they were playing. That's not the case anymore, as the program has the best depth they've had in recent history. No matter how good a player is, they have to know that turnovers will be unacceptable -- period, end of conversation. It does no good to rack up yardage if you give the ball back when you get into the red zone. Or by blocking someone into your return man. Or by failing to block on a punt. Or... fill in the black. And there were plenty to be fillled Saturday.

No one wants to make mistakes, but that isn't the point. Turnovers are often the single biggest determining factor in any game, in any sport. They kill momentum, waste effort, and embolden the opposition. Prior to Saturday's game, Mississippi ranked next to last in take-aways in the entire NCAA. They came into the game stating publicly that their main defensive strategy was to tackle the ball and try to strip Vandy carriers. In the end, that was the only Ed Orgeron strategy that worked, and it resulted in an unearned "W" for Ole Miss.

Even some professional teams take the drastic step of benching any player after a turnover. Any coach will tell you that nothing speaks louder than playing time, and everyone needs to know, in no uncertain terms, that failing to take care of the ball will result in a swift benching.

Special teams alert
For much of this season, Vanderbilt's special teams have been stellar. Saturday, they were "special," all right -- but not in the positive sense.

Almost everything that could go wrong did against Ole Miss.

Bryant Hahnfeldt missed two chip shot field goals -- at least one due to a bad snap. The exchange has been a sore spot for VU for most of the season, resulting in two missed extra points against hapless Temple. For the season, VU is just 4-8 in field goals, and only one of those misses -- against Arkansas at the end of the game -- was prohibitively long. Hahnfeldt's misses versus Ole Miss were from 35 and 36 yards, and his make was from 37. Whether it's the snap, hold or kick, you aren't going to win many SEC football games missing what should be automatic field goal attempts.

But that's hardly all. Vandy's front line allowed a bull rush in the first quarter Saturday that forced Brett Upson to not even attempt his punt. The mistake flipped the field and gave Ole Miss a prime opportunity to put easy points on the board.

VU's kickoff coverage has benefitted from major impact contributions from several true freshmen, like Patrick Benoist and Brent Trice. But Saturday, the Commodores allowed Mico McSwain to weave his way for a 69 yard return -- that's nearly half of what Ole Miss was able to gain on the ground for the entire game.

Many times Vanderbilt's fans have been lauded for their famous patience, because close losses could be blamed on "just this one mistake" or "just this one player." However, this is fool's gold: Statistically, the vast majority of all games are decided by a small handful of plays that make the difference between a hard-earned win, or an "oh so close" loss.

The issue Saturday was not that Vandy lost to an SEC opponent on the road that they should have beaten. It's that Vandy should have blown the Rebels off the field, and still managed to rack up another "L" in the end. These are the games that leave a lasting mark, for players, fans and the media. Perhaps there is merit in "staying the course" in times of adversity. But there are also times when the coach has to say enough is enough.

If Saturday's mistakes don't bring meaningful changes to Vanderbilt's plan of attack, then it's hard to see what would. One thing is certain: Georgia, fresh from a humiliation at the hands of Tennessee, won't feel sorry for Vandy. They'll be looking to make a statement Saturday, and the status quo from the Black and Gold may be just what their doctor ordered.

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