Commodores' quarterback quandary deepens after loss to Alabama

Sunday, October 9, 2011 at 10:00pm

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Jordan Rodgers got an extended tryout Saturday.

Instead of taking a stranglehold on the quarterback position, he did little to diminish Vanderbilt’s struggles on offense during a 34-0 loss to second-ranked Alabama.

Rodgers spelled starter Larry Smith for the fifth straight game but this time he had a chance to make an impression on one of college football’s biggest stages against the nation’s top scoring defense. Initially the junior sparked the Commodores and led them into Alabama territory twice in the first half.

Question marks remained by game’s end, though, as he threw two interceptions and never got the Commodores to the end zone. Consequently, their scoreless streak reached nine quarters.

“I made a couple mental mistakes that hurt us and that is on me,” Rodgers said. “That is stuff I don’t do in practice and stuff that needs to translate to the game. I have to do a better job of executing with the offense. I think we could have moved the ball a little better.”

Rodgers might be Vanderbilt’s best option if Smith continues to battle injuries. Smith, a fifth-year senior, played in his home state for the first time since high school but he didn’t last long.

On Vanderbilt’s second drive, the Commodores (3-2, 1-2 SEC) reached Alabama’s 28-yard line but on third-and-inches Smith was stuffed for a two-yard loss. He was slow to get up and had to get his left ankle wrapped by athletic trainers. He ran hesitantly back and forth behind the team bench and did not return to the field.

Smith, a three-year starter, has dealt with injuries all season. His ailments have ranged from a bruised shoulder to a neck stinger. Franklin said Smith could have come back but he wanted to give Rodgers an opportunity.

“Jordan did some very good things but we’ve got to eliminate the negative plays that hurt you,” Franklin said. “Without getting into too many details, there are just plays that don’t fit our system, things that we teach in our rules. Sometimes we’re not following those rules and it causes us problems.”

The junior college transfer, who sat out last year due to a shoulder injury, entered with 1:45 to go in the first quarter. Rodgers, the younger brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, didn’t appear to be rattled in front of 101,821 fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium. He used his feet early, rushing for solid gains to make third-down situations manageable. He didn’t go down the field often but executed early on short passes as Jerron Seymour, Fitz Lassing and Wesley Tate all had receptions in the flat or across the middle for huge gains.

“He did a very good job to come in and take over a difficult task — backup quarterback in a hostile environment like this,” running back Zac Stacy said. “He handled it well. He did a good job. He made some plays.”

Rodgers offered a quick release and didn’t get as antsy in the pocket as Smith did before he left. But Rodgers failed to lead Vanderbilt inside the 20-yard line, and in the second half he was less effective.

His first interception of the season came early in the fourth quarter when he tried to slip a pass into tight coverage only to see Alabama’s Dee Milliner came away with it. On the next drive, his throw went behind Seymour and into the hands of linebacker Nico Johnson.

“If I make that throw, it is a good play. If I don’t, it is something you shouldn’t do as a quarterback — throw back down the middle,” Rodgers said. “They are mistakes I can’t afford to make.”

Rodgers finished 11-of-18 passing for 104 yards — all season-highs — and led the Commodores with 23 rushing yards on four carries. Smith was 4-of-6 for 45 yards. Neither quarterback was sacked.

The Commodores will need substantial improvement from whomever goes under center at 6 p.m. this Saturday when Georgia comes to Nashville. Vanderbilt ranks 114th in the country in passing offense (129.2 yards per game) and 117th in total offense (244.4 yards per game).

The Commodores have made just one field goal — Carey Spear missed two against Alabama — in their last nine quarters. They haven’t scored a touchdown since the third quarter of a 30-7 rout against Ole Miss on Sept. 17.

“When we had opportunities to make big plays and when we had guys open down the field and we didn’t come up with those plays, they hurt you,” Franklin said. “It comes down to execution. I’m not pointing the fingers at the kids. It is all of us in this thing together.”