Improving Vandy defense takes on powerful Gators

Friday, November 7, 2008 at 1:00am
The Vanderbilt defense has been solid this season, giving up 16.5 points per game. File

Vanderbilt has made a slow and steady improvement in scoring defense under coach Bobby Johnson. And it has done so with speed.

“We made an effort to have more speed on defense the last four years,” Johnson said. “It probably started with that group (that included) Marcus Buggs going down from safety to linebacker – you had more speed at linebacker now. We kicked some linebackers down to defensive end … so that gives you more speed.

“… And of course we’ve had some good players.”

At 16.5 points through eight contests this season, the Commodores are on pace to finish with an average under 20 per game for the first time since 1997 and to have their best season in that regard since 1968, when they allowed an average of 14.7.

All of that will be put to the test Saturday against Florida, a team capable of making quick work of any opponent’s defensive scheme.

“They test everybody in speed now,” Johnson said. “They’re loaded with it. They have guys on the sideline with speed who don’t ever get to play.”

Since Johnson took over the program in 2002, VU has improved in the number of points allowed every year except one. The smallest gain has been 0.8 points per game (from 2002 to 2003) and the largest has been 5.5, which was produced by last year’s team, when Buggs was a senior.

This year’s defense, ranked 15th nationally in points allowed, is 6.1 points ahead of the 2007 average.

“Our job as a defense is to keep the other team from scoring,” linebacker Chris Marve, VU’s second-leading tackler, said. “We play hard every chance we get – full effort, full speed.”

The challenge will be to keep up with the Gators, who lead the SEC and are seventh in the country in scoring offense at 42.9 points per game. In facing Florida, VU must contend with reigning Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow at quarterback, Percy Harvin at wide receiver and six others who have scored at least two touchdowns.

Florida has scored at least 30 every time out and has averaged 54.3 in its last three contests.

“We just have to go in and not be intimidated because they’re a high-powered offense,” defensive back Darlron Spead (prounced: speed) said. “… You just go on in and do what you need to do. We have a great defense over here so it’s going to be a great game. It’s going to be a great game to watch.”

It will be particularly interesting to see what happens if (or when) Florida gets near the goal line.

The Gators lead the conference in red zone offense with a success rate of 97.1 percent (25 touchdowns, eight field goals in 34 tries). Vanderbilt is second in the conference (to Florida) in red zone defense having allowed 10 touchdowns and five field goals in 25 times being backed up.

“We know that they’re the No. 1 team in the country with red zone offense, and we’re supposed to be one of the top defenses in the country with red zone defense,” Spead said. “So there’s going to be some give and take in the red zone.

“Hopefully they never get there.”

In last year’s meeting at Gainesville, Florida’s offense scored seven touchdowns – all on plays inside the 20-yard line.

“You have to play sound defense,” Marve said. “You have to play disciplined defense. You have to execute your assignments. You have to make plays.

“You have to play full speed – 100 percent effort every time.”

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