Jared Hawkins (VM/Stan Jones)
Thursday evening, the lights of Dudley field will shine again, on a national stage. Vendors will sell the usual. Fans will line in with uneasiness and excitement. Tailgaters will crowd the common area of Dudley’s kingdom. [the author is not related to Vanderbilt offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell]
A team and fan wardrobe black out is scheduled. “But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back/ Up front there ought to be a Man in Black.” Until things are brighter, we are a team of black. This Thursday, Johnny Cash’s song “Man in Black” overshadows the theme to these Commodores. Black is the idea we have for the identity of this Commodore team. Just who is this Commodore team?
Chris Nickson rushed for 166 yards in his opening game. Three Butkus award candidates of the Miami Redhawks huffed, stomped, and steamed at Nickson on the other side of the line last Thursday. Adroitly, Nickson fluttered around the field, dominating in a fashion not seen since 1979, where only one yard separated Nickson from tying the Vanderbilt single game quarter back rushing record set by quarterback Van Heflin.
Receivers George Smith, Alex Washington, and John Cole will be absent Thursday from playing. The latter two may be gone for the entire season. The team knows what to expect from senior receiver Sean Walker (e.g. catch for 49 yards), but what about the rest of the receiving group?
Jeff Jennings had two carries against Miami, attaining only 5 yards total and a fumble. On the other hand tailbacks Jared Hawkins and Gaston Miller combined for a net of 92 yards, with both averaging close to 4 yards per carry.
Bobby Johnson thought the offensive line played “pretty good” but had its share of rookie mistakes. Yet, he said Tuesday morning on 104.5 f.m. “The Wake Up Zone” that the line has had some “good practices” this week. Usually when head coach Kevin Stallings would state his Commodore’s men’s basketball team had “good practices” the team would wallop the incoming opponent. Will the same hold true with Coach Johnson’s offensive line?
On defense, D.J. Moore will continue to be D.J. Moore. Against Miami, Moore only had an interception, a punt return of 99 yards, and a forced fumble . . . in one quarter. But what about the defensive line? There’s not a tackle leader on the defensive line for the Miami game. Linebackers Patrick Benoist and Chris Marve had six solo tackles combined while corners Myron Lewis and D.J. Moore had nine solo tackles combined. Eeking into the tackle leaders is safety Rashard Langford with three solo tackles.
The quality of opponent supposedly presents a good litmus test for your team after comparing post-game statistics. Miami of Ohio was (is?) supposed to compete for the Mid-American Conference (MAC) title this year. That should be impressive, considering Bowling Green State University, a fellow MAC team, defeated a 25th ranked University of Pittsburgh team. The Redhawks have three Butkus award candidates and a Rotary Lombardi Award Watch List candidate. How can they explain 34 point Vanderbilt points? Two award candidate linebackers topped the Miami solo tackle chart, at a combined 9 tackles. For perspective, Vanderbilt corner Myron Lewis had six solo tackles . . .
Miami also should have had a potent passing attack. Redhawk quarterback Daniel Raudabaugh passed for 2,431 yards in 2007 and is close to being only the eleventh Miami quarterback to reach 3,000 passing yards. Miami had 244 net passing yards, 17 first downs, and a total offense of 340 yards. Come on, only 13 points? But wait, the Redhawks did have three interceptions. UCLA was able to overcome 4 interceptions to beat the University of Tennessee. Those interceptions are not too much of an explanation for Miami’s loss.
On paper, Miami sure looks like it played well.
Where would the identity article be without a brief comparison of the Gamecocks to NC State?
The Gamecocks skunked North Carolina State University 34-0 last Thursday. They rocked the Wolfpack. Demolished them. Except, the Gamecock offense was just as anemic as the Wolfpack’s until the fourth quarter. The Gamecock game savior, Chris Smelley, passed for three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. This is the quarterback who was benched in last year’s bout with Vanderbilt after throwing two interceptions and not moving his team down the field against the Commodores. Let’s not forget, NC State had already lost its starting quarterback by the time the fourth quarter rolled around.
NC State Head Coach Tom O’Brien summarized, “We just ran out of gas on defense at the end.” The NC State defense had caused the Gamecock starting quarterback Tommy Beecher fits for most of the game.
How potent was that Gamecock defense most of the game? Well, it only notched two sacks compared to NC State’s five. The clarifying statistics are limiting NC State to just 4 of 14 third down conversions, 10 first downs, and an average of 2.4 yards gained on each play. In addition, NC State had 3 fumbles, 2 of which it lost to the Gamecocks, and it had two interceptions.
Again though, the NC State defense chalked up four interceptions against the Gamecock offense.
Remember, the Vanderbilt defense of yester-year held these Gamecocks to 6 points. The trumpeting of Smelley should not mean much.
If you are looking for clarification of this Commodore team’s style against South Carolina, you are not going to find it, unless of course Vanderbilt loses. Nothing indicates South Carolina is any better than the team that lost to Vanderbilt last year, no matter how much Steve Spurrier states they are “mad at [themselves]” for last year’s defeat and no matter how much he says they have a better team this year.
Miami won’t tell us. A win against South Carolina won’t tell us. And Coach Johnson won’t tell us. Coaches and players appear with a quiet confidence, away from any bowl hype, working as hard as ever. The only indication of the type of play the Commodores expect from each other is the charisma of senior receiver and team captain George Smith. Smith plans on dressing for the game this Thursday only to conduct the coin toss. He cannot play due to a stress-fracture in his foot. But he’ll be there, suited up, ready to go into battle.
Quiet potential and an unattainable identity flow around this team. Until better days, this will be the team in black.