Thursday, October 02, 2008

Special Guest Enemy: Save the Shield

One of the sharpest SEC bloggers around, PhilipVU94 of Vandy blog Save the Shield has a knack for taking a cold hard look at "the numbers" and in turn producing some fine, fine levelheaded analysis. This left him with low expectations for Vandy's 2008 season and a reputation as a pessimist back in the dark days of July, but I suspect he's not all that disappointed to have those expectations dispelled. Anyways, I asked him to answer a few questions about those mysterious 'Dores, unseen on TV since the Carolina upset, and he--and a few of his pals--were kind enough to oblige. As always, my Q's are in bold, the A's in quotes.

1. So tell me: how psyched is your average Vandy fan at the moment? 4-0, Gameday coming, winnable games in front of you, all in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year ... how does the excitement compare to the 4-0 start in Jay Cutler's senior year?

"It's been quite a gas! Excitement around our program is at its highest since the 80s.

Consensus backs me up that the excitement is even higher than it was in 2005, which incidentally is the last time we had a fifth-year senior at QB. One reason for this is the Top 25 ranking, which came about largely because of TV exposure and South Carolina being ranked when we beat them. We had two SEC wins in '05 too, including a win at Arkansas, and another win at Wake, but they weren't on TV and didn't get as much national attention.

A second reason for the excitement is simply that Auburn is a more interesting opponent for our fifth game than MTSU was, which leads to Gameday and all the other media hubbub.

And I think there's a subtle difference in the mindset, too. In 2005 we were more dependent on the individual talents of Cutler and then-freshman Earl Bennett. Now I think there's more of a sense that this season, coming in what as you said was supposed to be a rebuilding year, is validation of how Bobby Johnson has been constructing a program. We don't have an individual as dynamic as Cutler, but our overall talent level 1 through 85 is much higher. That may not explain the immediate buzz, but it's got a lot of us more optimistic about the long term than we were in 2005."

2. Speaking of the Cutler year, I doubt anyone in Nashville has forgotten the MTSU loss that started the slide to 5-6, seeing as how I don't know any fans of ANY SEC team who have. Especially given that Vandy's caught a few breaks in their run to 4-0, how much worry is there in the program or fanbase that the other shoe might drop, as it has so many time for Vandy? How worried are you about it?

"Yeah, it's like being a Cubs fan, or supporting England in the World Cup (I'm told). There's always a fear that the bottom could drop out.

I'm pretty much toward the pessimistic end among our fan base, because I consciously try to moderate my immediate emotional reaction. (When things are going bad and everyone's grumbling, I look like a wild-eyed optimist.) Also, getting burned a few times makes one gun-shy about expecting too much. I'm going up on Saturday with the thought that even if Auburn wins 77 to nothing, it will still be a fun experience. Well, the Gameday part at least.

We've gone whole seasons with less than our fair share of breaks, so even though I don't believe in being "due", eventually we're bound to have a season with more than our fair share. As you know, I've been agonizing over the yardage stats for weeks now, but when I saw that we're only getting outgained 5.3 to 4.9 on a *per play* basis, and when I consider that the turnover margin isn't exactly pure luck, the yards per game stopped bothering me as much.

So yeah, we could finish 1-7 or 2-6 and get shut out of a bowl, but sheer numbers make those scenarios moderately unlikely. I expect we'll lose to Duke and beat Georgia or something equally baffling, but eight shots at 2 or 3 wins mean the numbers are really in our favor."

3. One of the things that Vandy's excelled in in their run to 4-0 has been taking advantage of opportunities in the red zone. They've likewise been one of the stingiest SEC teams defensively inside the 20. What do the 'Dores do differently down there that makes them so effective?

"Defensively we've been forcing a lot of turnovers. Chris Marve's strip of McCluster was pivotal of course in the Ole Miss game, and INTs by Josh Allen and DJ Moore have helped our red zone stats. Also our secondary still gives more cushion than you might expect, despite the high talent level, so in that respect I'm told the red zone versus overall numbers means it's working as designed.

Offensively, consensus seems to be that our strong running game is the biggest factor in our success. A couple of VandySports posters summarize it thusly:

'My .02 - (punt returner and CB extroardinaire) DJ (Moore) has put us at the 1 twice and Walker caught a ball to leave us on the 1 or 2 against Miami. First and goal from the 1 are nice ways to inflate the Red Zone numbers slightly.' - doorfan

'Offense: In 16 attempts, not counting the one where we were running out the clock against Rice, we have 11 TDs and 5 FGs. I believe two of those TDs are passing with the other 9 being by the run. On both passing TDs, the receiver was the third read, Sean Walker on the first and Hawkins on the second. Nickson also has 5 rushing TDs from inside the 20 yard line. So, I'd say you have two factors. One is the offensive line is doing their job inside the 20 and Chris Nickson is making very good decisions.' - JProc73"

4. Despite the red zone efficiency and having faced the less-than-intimidating defense from Miami (OH), Rice, and Ole Miss, Vandy's offense is still dead last in the SEC in total offense--and this is an SEC that includes Auburn and Mississippi St. What do the 'Dores have to improve to move the ball more effectively and where have they been able to find what offensive success they've had? How do you see them matching up against a defense as good as Auburn's?

"The simple answer is that we've got to develop a passing game.

Our passing numbers haven't been THAT terrible (5.7 yards per attempt without an INT), but we've only passed 25.6% of the time. (That 5.7 mark ranks 10th in the SEC, one spot behind Auburn. Just FYI--ed.) Senior WR George Smith's been injured, but he'll be back this week, so that might be VU's biggest offensive surprise factor. Consensus seems to be that we haven't needed to pass much, and that the staff plans to do it more when circumstances require it. I expect Auburn's defense will be those circumstances.

Our interceptions and return yardage have left the offense with a shorter field on average, so that's another argument that the offense isn't as bad as its stats. We tend to run the play clock way down most of the time. We have 31:03 average TOP but have run fewer plays than our opponents (232 to 274).

All that said -- my biggest worry is that Auburn totally stuffs our offense and wins something like 15 to 6."

5. There's a growing consensus that Vandy's secondary might just be the best in the SEC. Who are they, and what makes them so good?

"‘Our secondary are Conquest, War, Famine, and Death.’ - hambone

Well, their common names are:

DJ Moore, Jr. CB
Myron Lewis, Jr. CB
Reshard Langford, Sr. SS
Ryan Hamilton, Jr. FS

You probably know about Moore, who grew up in South Carolina and turned down a last-minute offer from the Gamecocks. Hamilton won defensive (Walter Camp) and overall (USA Today) player of the week awards for his role as Jevan Snead's personal bete noire. Langford, from Tanner, AL, is a defensive co-captain. Darlron Spead
would be the starting nickelback but was injured vs. South Carolina; Jared Fagan has filled in for him. Josh Allen has also seen significant playing time.

I'll defer the scouting report to Jesse Johnson: 'They have good closing and/or recovery speed, all 4 of them. Hamilton's reads have been much better this season (despite that non-hit he had against SC that everyone jumped on him about).' (No, I don’t remember this particular play, either.--ed.)"

6. Given how strong Vandy is in the secondary and how brutal Auburn's passing game was against Tennessee, it seems likely Auburn's going to try to pound the ball more than they have in other games. Who leads the Vandy front seven and how well do you expect them to hold up?

"The leader of the D-line is junior DE Steven Stone, who's ‘very versatile, especially against the run.’ Chris Marve, a freshman MLB from Memphis, is really our emerging talent in the linebacking corps and of course practically saved the Ole Miss game singlehandedly. He ‘eats up ball carriers, has a real nose for the ball.’ (Both quotes by Jesse.)

Jr. DT Greg Billinger's play this year has been gaining some attention; he had a huge sack at the end of the South Carolina game. Junior DE Broderick Stewart and freshman DT TJ Greenstone are also expected to play a big role.

Vandystu makes a point about defensive adjustments: ‘Auburn will likely face a front eight (usually including Langford) any time they try the power running game.’ Also, I should note that Ole Miss started out each half running the ball very effectively against us, but our staff's adjustments ended up slowing them down. So I agree that Auburn will probably emphasize the running game, but I'm pretty confident that we have personnel and a coaching staff that can find ways to cope with it."

7. Last question--I've seen both "Commies" and the more traditional "'Dores" thrown around in recnt season as a shortened form of Vandy's nickname. Which do you prefer and why?

"I tend to use 'Dores, and I think most of our fans do. The VSL guys are pretty consistent about Commies. I get the impression that started out tongue-in-cheek and just kept going.

I don't really care one way or t'other. I sort of like the irony of implying that a school founded by a 19th century robber baron shipping magnate is represented by sports teams that promote common ownership of the means of production. So let a hundred flowers blossom, I say." (This means he likes "Commies." I think.--ed.)

Philip also adds the following: "I should note that my dirty little secret is that my INFP nature keeps me from being very good at talking details of personnel or schemes. So a big thanks to some folks who helped brief me: Jesse Johnson (VandySports practice reports guru), GoDores2005, NYDore, vandystu, and anyone I've forgotten to mention."

Big thanks to Philip and I strongly encourage you to check out Save the Shield whenever there's a big development in the world of Vandy athletics or U.S. national team soccer. U-S-A! U-S-A!

No comments: