It was slim pickings for Vanderbilt’s secondary Saturday night.
Army threw the ball just five times — keeping the Commodores from adding to their nation-leading total of 15 interceptions. So Vanderbilt played to the Black Knights’ strength and exploited a weakness.
The Commodores forced three of Army’s five fumbles, pouncing on three and scoring on two of the turnovers in a 44-21 rout.
“That was definitely a key,” said defensive tackle Rob Lohr, who forced a fumble and recovered another. “When they’re doing the option, it’s easier to get in there and strip it. It’s huge, especially when you can get the turnover.”
Vanderbilt is tied for sixth in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 20 forced turnovers. But in their previous two games — both losses — the Commodores (4-3) had just one takeaway.
The defense got involved early when Lohr burst into the backfield and disrupted an exchange between Army quarterback Trent Steelman and fullback Jared Hassin. Defensive end Tim Fugger came up with it. On the next play, Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers hit Chris Boyd for a 43-yard touchdown for a 13-0 lead with 10:03 left in the first quarter.
“Some of that, give Vandy some credit, those weren't giveaways, they were takeaways,” Army coach Rich Ellerson said. “They went and got the ball. Sometimes we left it on the ground and they were good enough to get on it.”
The Commodores also had to adjust on the fly when starting outside linebacker Chase Garnham went out with an injury shortly before halftime. In stepped Karl Butler, who had been moved from safety to linebacker on Thursday because the team already lost Tristan Strong to a season-ending leg injury three weeks earlier.
Butler, a sophomore, filled in the void nicely, recording four tackles and a quarterback hurry along with recovering a fumble.
"I was just doing what the coaches asked me to do,” Butler said. “I really didn't ask any questions. I appreciated the coaching from [linebackers coach Brent Pry]. [Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop] gave me a vote of confidence and it worked out [Saturday]. I am just glad to help out the team anyway I could.
“At the beginning of the week as I was playing safety, Coach told us we would mirror the steps of the linebackers. Basically the only difference was being closer to the line [of scrimmage].”
Defensive end Kyle Woestmann and linebacker Chris Marve also punched out fumbles as the Commodores, for the most part, contained the top rushing offense in the FBS. Army entered averaging 361.3 rushing yards. But the Black Knights finished with 270 rushing yards, with only 104 in the first half.
“It is something we’re not used to going up against. They’re really good at what they do. They do it every day of the year,” said Lohr, who also had seven tackles. “We only have a week to prepare for it so we definitely knew we were going to have a challenge coming in. But I feel like we executed well enough to get the W.”