VU runs into trouble with SEC foes

Thursday, November 12, 2009 at 9:16pm
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Warren Norman on his way to the end zone against Georgia Tech. / Mike Strasinger for The City Paper

Vanderbilt has run the ball better than it has thrown it this season.

In terms of the running game, though, the Commodores have been at their best against non-conference competition. Three times they have topped 200 rushing yards in a contest, and all three were against opponents from outside the Southeastern Conference.

Given that VU’s only remaining games are against Kentucky and Tennessee, it is a trend that does not necessarily inspire images of a fantastic finish.

“The Southeastern Conference is a defensive conference and that's what I think separates it,” coach Bobby Johnson said. “It's been tough this season on (the offensive) side of the ball, but we have had some youth in a lot of critical positions that have probably kept us from making a lot of progress.”

Overall, Vanderbilt has rushed for 1,715 yards in its 10 games. That’s a mere 22 yards shy of 2008’s total in 13 contests, and it is 250 more than this season’s passing yards. It’s also enough to rank seventh in the league in rushing offense whereas its passing offense is last in the SEC.

The bulk of those rushing yards have come from two newcomers, freshmen Warren Norman (658 yards) and Zac Stacy (421), who have run behind a veteran line, which for much of the season has included four seniors.

“I am impressed with their line and running backs this year,” Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said. “Their young running backs are doing a good job.”

Yet just shy of 60 percent of those rushing yards (1,027) have come against Western Carolina, Rice, Army and Georgia Tech. That means just 688 (an average of 114.7) have come in the six conference contests.

The numbers are skewed even more by the Commodores’ 433 yards against WCU, a Football Championship Subdivision opponent. Still their highest rushing output in conference play is 171 yards against Ole Miss, whereas their lowest total outside the conference is 160 against Army.

“Probably a strength of the SEC is defensive line,” Johnson said. “They’re just athletes and everybody seems to have a stable of them.”

Last Saturday, Florida held Vanderbilt to 99 rushing yards, its second-lowest total of the season. The passing offense, with senior Mackenzi Adams in his first start at quarterback, exceeded that figure by one.

“The strength of their offense before was totally their running game and now I think they're in transition a little bit, trying to go back, because Mackenzi Adams has a good arm and he throws it pretty well,” Brooks said. “I think they're staying with the running game with the backs, trying to get a little bit of a wildcat package going and throwing the ball a little more with Adams. He's a dangerous guy.”

If Vanderbilt (2-8, 0-6 in the Southeastern Conference) is going to have a breakout rushing performance in conference play, this is the weekend to do it.

Kentucky (5-4, 1-4) ranks last in the SEC in rush defense at an average of 188.2 yards per game. Four of its five conference opponents have topped 200 yards on the ground.

“I think we’re getting better running the ball,” Johnson said. “It’s something we have to do. We’re not going to be able to sit back and throw the ball on every play. So we have to be able to run it.”