November 7, 2007

Six points of emphasis for this weekend

The Vanderbilt Commodores (5-4, 2-4 in the SEC) will return to Nashville on Saturday to face the visiting Kentucky Wildcats (6-3, 2-3 in the SEC) in a very important game for the 'Dores.

For the first time since 1999, the Commodores enter into their final three games of the season needing just one more victory to become bowl eligible. With just two home games left, Vanderbilt must protect the home field and secure its first victory over the Wildcats since 2003.

After a couple of years of probation (and mediocrity), the Wildcats rose from the depths of the SEC to a bowl game last season. UK also ained national attention this year with a Top 10 ranking and a win in Lexington over the then No.1 ranked LSU Tigers. However, Kentucky has now lost two straight game, including an ugly upset loss to Mississippi State two weeks ago.

The Wildcats feature one of the nation's top offensive attacks - and after the Commodores got abused by Florida last weekend, many VU fans are curious as to what the team might have to do to secure that sacred sixth win. has followed the program from the spring to this point in the regular season, and offers six points of emphasis that Vanderbilt must be successful in if the team is to beat Kentucky Saturday.

1. Control tempo - but put points on the board.
When the Commodores have been able to control the clock this year, good things have happened. In Vandy's five wins, the team is averaging well over five minutes more on time of possession than their opponents, and have successfully converted about 45 percent of their third down attempts. Also, the Commodore defense has been able to limit the opponents to 33 percent on third down conversions. In the four losses, all three categories have been dramatically reversed.

In the past four games against the Wildcats, Vanderbilt has generally controlled the clock but has not been able to convert on first downs. On the flip side, the Wildcats have been close to around 40 percent on third downs against the 'Dores and come into this game completing 50 percent of their third downs.

Vanderbilt's defense must minimize Kentucky's success rate on Saturday and the Commodore offense must convert on one of the nation's weakest third down defenses. Currently, Kentucky ranks 104th in third down conversion defense, giving up close to 46 percent.

That said, simply controlling the tempo and clock will not likely cut it against Kentucky. The Wildcats have shown they can put together quick drives and points on the board the past two years, so it is important that Vanderbilt not only set the tempo of the game but score touchdowns on sustained drives.

In their five wins this season, Vanderbilt has averaged close to 29 points per contest. In the four losses, Vanderbilt is scoring considerably less. Despite a 6-3 season, the Kentucky defense has give up close to 29 points per game. Vanderbilt will likely need to score a handful of touchdowns in this contest.

2. Run the ball effectively.
To control the tempo of a game, conventional wisdom suggests that one has to be able move the ball on the ground. And while Vanderbilt's rushing attack has not exactly been a thing of consistency this season, the fact remains that in the Commodores' five victories, they have been able to do move the ball with considerable success. In the five games, Vanderbilt has rushed for an average of 190.8 yards a game. This season, the Wildcat offense is giving up an average of 192.7 yards on the ground and are coming off giving up 200 yards to Mississippi State two weeks ago.

Vanderbilt must get strong games from the trio of Cassen Jackson-Garrison, Jared Hawkins and Jeff Jennings, though this may be a game where the Commodores need to go with the hot hand early and often. All three have had key showings in those five victories and the tailbacks need to move the ball once they get inside the opponents 20-yard line. Too many times recently, Commodore backs have struggled generating yards as the team gets closer to the end zone.

3. Avoid making mistakes.
Truth be told, one of the more painful losses for Vanderbilt the past couple of seasons has been the 2005 Senior Day loss to Kentucky. And while some may think about the offensive output from the two teams on that November afternoon, it was a key turnover and a special teams play that really led to the Wildcats getting out to a huge lead that proved too much for the 'Dores to come back from. Last season, the Commodores turned the ball over four more times to the Wildcats. Since Kentucky began their reversal of fortunes, creating turnovers have been unmistakable key.

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