Defenses may be hard to find when VU takes on Rice

Thursday, September 24, 2009 at 12:06am

Bobby Johnson did not say there would be as many as 160 offensive snaps — or more — when Vanderbilt faces Rice on Saturday (7 p.m., CSS-Comcast Ch. 27). Then again, he didn’t say that wouldn’t be the case.

“It could be,” the Commodores’ coach said. “Hopefully, we have enough people to run that many plays if it comes to it. You always have to be prepared when you’re playing a game like this — hydrate, eat right and be ready to play because you could play a lot of plays.”

It was Vanderbilt’s 38-21 victory over Rice last season that provided the inspiration for the Commodores to change their offensive tactics this fall.

The Owls’ hurry-up approach to the no-huddle offense produced 74 plays to VU’s 59. That was the most by any opponent during the regular season. Boston College eventually matched that number when it ran 74 in the Music City Bowl.

“We had to work hard to get the points we got last year, especially in the first half when the game was in the balance,” Johnson said. “We got a couple of scores late last year after we played them a little better on defense in the second half.”

Vanderbilt subsequently created its own take on the no-huddle following the season and introduced to the players during spring workouts.

By the time the season began, it was the Commodores’ preferred method of offensive operation. The initial result was a school-record 95 offensive snaps in a season-opening victory over Western Carolina.

The scheme has not worked as well in the last two weeks — losses to LSU and Mississippi State — but it still allowed the Commodores to execute 63 and 61 plays, respectively. Both of those numbers were higher than their per game average from 2008 (60.8).

The Commodores’ 219 offensive plays through the first three weeks of the season are second in the SEC to Auburn (236).

“It clicked against Western Carolina,” Johnson said. ”It worked some against LSU and then we got a whole different look from Mississippi State and we just didn't react very well.”

Rice, for its part, certainly has not slowed down. If anything, it has managed to increase the tempo even against stiff opposition, which included top teams from the Big 12 powers each of the last two weeks.

In three games this season the Owls have run an average of 78.3 plays, topped by 83 last Saturday in a loss to Oklahoma State.

With 235 total plays, Rice is tied with Wyoming for fourth in the country thus far. Vanderbilt also ranks among the top 20, tied with Northwestern for 16th.

As quickly as the plays have accumulated for the two teams, however, they have not added up to many victories. Vanderbilt’s record is 1-2, and Rice’s is 0-3.

“We just haven’t had any explosive or big plays to change the game,” Rice wide receiver Toren Dixon said following Saturday’s to Oklahoma State. “We’ll continue to get big plays and improve and work hard to fix things we aren’t doing well.

“The sky is the limit for us.”