It doesn’t take a rocket scientist — or football coach — to grasp Vanderbilt’s offensive plan of attack this weekend against Northwestern.
Just a peak at last weekend’s box score shows a glaring weakness for the Wildcats — pass defense. Syracuse threw for 470 yards and four touchdowns in the season opener against Northwestern (1-0) last week.
When the Commodores roll into Evanston, Ill., on Saturday (7 p.m., Big Ten Network) one can expect quarterback Jordan Rodgers’ right arm to be getting a lot of work.
But history says Vanderbilt (0-1) shouldn’t abandon the run game — not when Zac Stacy is in the backfield against a non-conference foe.
The senior tailback puts up some of his biggest numbers when playing opponents outside of the Southeastern Conference. In 12 career non-conference games, he has rushed for 967 yards. which accounts for 47.1 percent of his 2,050 career rushing yards in one-third of the games. His two biggest performances came against non-conference foes last year – shredding Army for a career-high 198 yards and rolling up 184 against Wake Forest in the regular-season finale.
“We take the same approach whether we’re playing an SEC opponent or a non-conference opponent,” Stacy said. “There is not really a difference, just our mentality of establishing the running game and pretty much it will be a domino effect around the offense. Open up the running game, then the passing game will open up. Regardless of who we’re playing we have the same mentality.”
His path to the end zone is also more prevalent outside of the SEC.
Ten of his 20 touchdowns were in non-conference tilts. Of his four multiple-touchdown games, which include a trio of three-touchdown performances, only one came against an SEC foe — last year against Kentucky.
Stacy has proven he can reel off big games in the SEC too. But those are fewer.
The 5-foot-9, 210-pounder ripped off the longest run of his career last year against Ole Miss when he raced for a 77-yard touchdown. Three of his four 100-yard performances in 2011 were against Arkansas, Kentucky and Ole Miss. But all three teams ranked in the bottom third in the SEC in rushing defense, finishing ninth, 10th and 12th, respectively.
Blasting huge holes against stingier defenses have been a challenge for the offensive line. That was evident last year as the Commodores faced four of the top 11 run defenses in the country — Alabama, Connecticut, Cincinnati and Georgia. Stacy did test the Bulldogs, who ranked 11th in the country, just missing another 100-yard performance by three yards.
After setting the program’s single-season rushing record last year with 1,193 yards, his first game in 2012 featured three runs of more than 10 yards. Beyond that, though, South Carolina’s big defensive front kept him in check for just 48 yards on 17 carries. The Gamecocks have had Stacy’s number, allowing just 83 yards in three games.
“South Carolina probably had one of the best D-lines we’re going to face,” guard Josh Jelesky said earlier this week. “[Northwestern has] some different people but they have some good athletes on their team as well. We’re going to try to run the ball like we always do. Go out there and grind them out — that’s our attitude up front.”
As Vanderbilt steps out of the SEC for the next two weeks, the running lanes might open once again.
Northwestern allowed 126 rushing yards against Syracuse and in 2011 they gave up an average of 177.3 rushing yards — third-worst in the Big Ten.
Two years ago, against Northwestern in the season opener, Stacy spelled Warren Norman and averaged more than seven yards a carry. He finished with nine rushes, 69 yards and a touchdown.
“It is all about execution — regardless of what the situation is,” Stacy said. “They can put [several] guys in the box but we still just have that mentality of trying to establish the running game and just executing, executing and executing.”