Vanderbilt is feeling some pressure to get it first home win this season against winless Eastern Michigan (0-4) on Saturday.
Getting a second win, defeating an out-of-conference opponent, and winning at home all contribute to VU’s drive to beat Eastern Michigan. But despite the fact that the Commodores are loyal to the sports cliché of 'taking it one game at a time,' the SEC schedule looming behind EMU adds a sense of urgency to this matchup. Starting next week the Commodores play six straight SEC opponents: Georgia, South Carolina, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, and Tennessee. On October 6, three of those teams were ranked in the top 20.
“It’s in the back of everybody’s head,” offensive tackle Wesley Johnson said. "You want to win this game because we have a tough stretch up ahead.”
There could be big time incentives if Vanderbilt puts together a winning streak, due to the messy conference play of the SEC East. Only three SEC East teams have a conference victory at this point. Vanderbilt is tied for second with South Carolina at 1-1.
“We’re tied for second in the SEC East with our win over Ole Miss,” defensive tackle Rob Lohr said. "But you know? We just have to win. When you’re 1-3 you can’t lose. We’ve got to step it up.”
Coach Robbie Caldwell has compared EMU’s offense to that of Northwestern, which beat VU in the season opener 23-21. EMU quarterback Alex Gillett is as active in the rushing game as the Eagles’ running backs.
They have shown potent moments this season, even against top-tier teams; Gillett had 200 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions against second-ranked Ohio State.
It’s why Caldwell is wary of the winless Eagles, the first Commodores' opponent this season not considered a favorite by the odds makers.
“This is one time where we will be the favorite, it’s unusual,” Caldlwell said. “It’s an opportunity for us but it doesn’t guarantee a win. We’ve got to play. They are a time bomb just like we are. I think sometimes teams like that are just looking for a chance to prey on you.”
VU was a 24-point favorite on Monday. But Caldwell and company have no agenda for how the game is supposed to go. The only statistic of importance is in the left hand column of the standings.
“I’m happy with a win,” Caldwell insisted. “I just want to play well and win. If we win 2-0, or 52-to-whatever, that would be fine. A ‘W’ is a ‘W’ and they don’t paint a picture of what it looks like.”
And momentum is momentum. It’s something Caldwell wants to have with him when he takes his team to Athens on Oct. 16 to start a grueling stretch of SEC play. Just a spark of something good can spread around.
“We’re going to explode one of these days—in the right way,” he said.
• Defensive tackle Adam Smotherman will not play Saturday against Eastern Michigan. Smotherman, who is recovering from a torn ACL this spring, was in pads on Tuesday was expected to see limited action this week. His knee reacted poorly to the return to full-contact at practice.
“His knee didn’t respond well,” Caldwell said. “I was broken-hearted for him and for us too. But it’s sore, very sore (Wednesday). So we took him back out of pads. It looks like it’ll be a while.”
• Vanderbilt was in full pads for the second practice in a row on Wednesday. Caldwell noted that unseasoned players will be seeing action this Saturday and he wanted to help ready them.
“We need something positive to happen and we got it out here this week at practice,” Caldwell said. “We toughened up, did some things, did some more hitting. We needed to get some younger players ready because obviously Smo is not and T,J. [Greenstone] is not so we’re going to have to play some younger guys even more.”