Vanderbilt offense prepares to take on challenge of a defense adept at takeaways

Wednesday, November 3, 2010 at 6:40pm

It's no secret that Vanderbilt’s passing game has fallen short of expectations this season.

The Commodores’ 49.5 completion percentage (95-for-192) is the lowest in the Southeastern Conference and inconsistency through the air is a big reason the offense has struggled to stay on the field.

At least Vanderbilt’s quarterbacks have not given the ball away much. The Commodores (2-6, 1-4) have been intercepted just six times this season, and Larry Smith's four picks are second fewest among SEC starters.

Vanderbilt’s opponent this weekend, however, proved Saturday it can rattle even the most mistake-free offenses. Florida doubled Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray’s interception total for the season as the Gators picked off three passes in a 34-31 overtime victory.

Florida (5-3, 3-3) leads the SEC in both interceptions (16) and forced turnovers (20).

“Their whole defense is excellent,” Smith said. “They are a good, sound football team on defense. They don’t make many mistakes and they beat you with the turnovers. So we have to be smart with the ball, executing the offensive side of the ball and just taking it one play at a time. We can’t shoot ourselves in the foot.”

Seven different Florida players have an interception and three have picked off three passes. The Gators have returned three interceptions for touchdowns as part of a league-high 359 return yards in the process.

Florida coach Urban Meyer pointed out during his weekly SEC teleconference call on Wednesday that his secondary did bend a little against Georgia, when it allowed 313 passing yards and three passing touchdowns.

“We gave up some yards,” Meyer said. “That fourth quarter, we didn’t play well in the secondary. I thought they won the game with the turnovers and short field they gave us. They gave up a lot of yards, but there are certainly some fine players back there (in the secondary).”

Smith and Jared Funk will both get their shots at Florida’s defense. Funk, a senior, was 2-for-5 for 11 yards and threw two interceptions against Arkansas on Saturday. After Smith guided the Commodores on two scoring drives to open the game, Funk came in on the third series and his second pass was picked off.

It was Funk’s fourth game of the season and head coach Robbie Caldwell said a good week of preparation earned him a chance against Arkansas. Caldwell also said Funk would play against Florida too.

“That is good competition, good for the team,” Smith said. “He got in there, changed things up ... get a different change of pace in there.”

What both quarterbacks’ roles will be Saturday is uncertain, especially now with the season-ending injury to starting running back Warren Norman.

Last year’s SEC Freshman of the Year dislocated his wrist against Arkansas and underwent surgery Tuesday, which Caldwell said went well.

That means more of the load will fall on Zac Stacy but it could also impact Smith. The junior might be asked to run more while Vanderbilt works on infusing Wesley Tate and Kennard Reeves into the backfield more often. Smith has just two less rushing attempts than Norman’s team-high 77 carries.

“Things are going to change,” Smith said. “Zac is going to carry predominantly most of the load. I will probably have to run the ball more than usual being that we’re down with Warren. Other guys have to step up. Kennard Reeves, Wesley Tate, those guys have to be ready to fill those shoes and help back up Zac.”

Briefly

• Charlie Goro is one Vanderbilt quarterback who definitely won’t be playing Saturday. The redshirt freshman from Park Ridge, Ill., has been suspended for missing class. He did not travel with the team to Arkansas and the suspension carries through this week.

“Charlie Goro was suspended for sorryness, not getting up and going to class. You can’t do that,” Caldwell said. “I apologize if that is a little strong but there is no reason why anybody can’t get up and go to class. None whatsoever.”

• Defensive end Tim Fugger didn’t practice Tuesday due to a neck injury he sustained against Arkansas but Caldwell said he should be ready to play against Florida. Fugger’s backup, Johnell Thomas (sprained ankle) also has improved though Caldwell said Thomas did get a scare during practice Tuesday when he took a knee to the head.

Center Joey Bailey might play for the first time in three weeks but not at his usual position. Bailey, recovering from a high ankle sprain, could see time at left guard. Freshman Logan Stewart, who has started at center the last two games, continued to snap the ball Tuesday.

• Though it might be hard to believe, Vanderbilt still has a chance to become bowl eligible.

The Commodores need to win their last four games in order to finish with a .500 record to be considered for a bowl.

That might be a reach, considering Vanderbilt is 4-16 since the start of the 2009 season. But the Commodores are staying positive.

“It is a four-game season now so we can’t hold anything back,” Smith said. “Just go out there and just play, give it a 110 percent and hopefully come out with victory. Win these last four games and become bowl eligible so that would be huge for us. But right now we’re just focused on Florida and then worry about the other teams after that.”