By Scott Crumbly
SEC Digital Network
OXFORD, Miss. – This week’s Off the Radar game in the Southeastern Conference will take place in The Grove between Vanderbilt and Ole Miss. This late-season tilt features two teams trending upward, and each is on the verge of bowl eligibility.
Vanderbilt (5-4, 3-3 SEC) has undergone a transformation under second-year head coach James Franklin, who has the Commodores one win away back-to-back bowl seasons for the first time in school history. Franklin took the reins of a 2-10 squad in 2010 and has won 11 games so far in his short tenure, including Vandy’s current three-game win streak.
Similarly, first-year Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze took over the Rebels (5-4, 2-3) on the heels of a two-win season and has swiftly changed the culture of the program. The Rebs had not won an SEC game since 2010 before Freeze’s arrival, and now the coach has his team aiming for its third conference victory in five tries this Saturday night.
Even though bowl eligibility is at stake at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, both coaches made it clear during Wednesday’s coaches teleconference that their teams are focused simply on the task at hand. When Franklin was asked if he had discussed the prospect of bowl eligibility with his team this week, he quickly dismissed the notion.
“We talk about Ole Miss,” Franklin replied.
Likewise, Coach Freeze provided a similar answer when posed with the same question.
“No, I really don’t,” he remarked. “I just talk about trying to get our sixth win and whatever comes with that. If we can do that, we’ll be more than happy to go somewhere [for a bowl game].”
Ole Miss Offense vs. Vanderbilt Defense
The Ole Miss attack has displayed impressive balance in 2012, averaging 230 yards per game through the air and 178 per game on the ground. Vanderbilt’s defense has not allowed such balance, however; the ’Dores lay claim to the nation’s third toughest pass defense, allowing a stingy 151 pass yards per contest, which trails only Michigan and LSU.
The Rebels were not able to achieve their trademark balance in a loss last week at Georgia, as the Bulldogs managed to shut down the ground game and turn Ole Miss into a one-dimensional team.
“They were able to take us out of our run game totally,” Freeze said of Georgia’s defense. “And then it became very difficult to be balanced. That’s a bad predicament to be in.”
While throwing on the Vandy defense will not be an easy task, the Rebels have a good opportunity to get their rushing game back on track this week against the SEC’s 10th-ranked run defense.
Jeff Scott has paced the Rebels this season with a five-yard per carry average and six rushing touchdowns. Scott has struggled in recent weeks, and despite his impressive average on the year he has been limited to a pedestrian 71 yards on 34 carries in his last two outings, racking up just two yards per tote and one score. Scott will have opportunities to run against Vandy, which has given up 100 yards or more in seven of its nine games in 2012. The only teams that the Commodores have held under triple digits on the ground are Presbyterian and UMass.
Another weapon the Rebels will look to utilize is wide out Donte Moncrief. Although he’s shown a propensity to make plays (39 rec, 540 yards and five scores), Moncrief has not found the end zone in three games and was held without a reception in Athens last week.
The Commodores will likely load up the box to stop Scott, Wallace (five rushing TDs) and Co. on the ground and force the Rebels to air it out against a secondary that has recorded 23 interceptions in the last two years under coordinator Bob Shoop. The unit has not forced as many turnovers as it did a season ago, but the Commodores’ defensive numbers are improved and they’ve only allowed 20 points in their last three games, with opponents managing only four passing touchdowns all year.
Vanderbilt Offense vs. Ole Miss Defense
The Vanderbilt offense pairs one of the best receivers in the SEC with one of the conference’s best running backs. Jordan Matthews’ 850 receiving yards are second only to Arkansas’ Cobi Hamilton, and senior back Zac Stacy has etched his name in the Vanderbilt history books this year as the school’s all-time leading rusher.
Stacy enters this week with fresh legs, having carried only 16 times in the past two games, both blowout wins for Vandy. Prior to the break he’s received the last couple of games, Stacy was the work horse of the Commodore offense, carrying the ball an average of 26 times per game in Vandy’s three-game stretch against Mizzou, Florida and Auburn. The Rebels have shown vulnerability against the run, allowing almost 150 yards per game, which Stacy and freshman back Brian Kimbrow will try to exploit.
Kimbrow has made the most of his limited opportunities this season for Vanderbilt, averaging over seven yards per touch on his way to 335 yards and three scores. He has been an explosive change of pace thus far, with all three of his touchdown runs coming from over 30 yards out.
Jordan Rodgers leads the Commodores from the quarterback position, and although his numbers aren’t eye-popping, he has only thrown three picks this year. He’s shown an ability to sling the ball around, tossing four touchdown passes in his last two games, and he will face a banged up secondary in Oxford. Freeze told reporters that the Rebels have been forced to play a few players out of position on the defensive side of the ball due to injuries, and the unit will have to make due with Matthews coming to town.
“You better know where [Matthews] is,” Freeze said Wednesday. “He’s a difficult matchup for everyone and he’s had his share of explosive plays this year for sure. He’s not only a talented kid, but the things they do with Stacy and the ability of Rodgers to throw the football effectively, I think they go hand in hand. You’re so concerned with stopping their run that he is going to get a lot of matchups.”
The Ole Miss defense is undersized, but it makes up for its lack of bulk with effort and timely turnovers. Led by freshman linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, the Rebels have gained a reputation for flying around and making plays, and the unit has forced 20 turnovers on the season.
The Rebels have given up chunks of yardage this season, and will likely allow the Commodores their share come Saturday night. If they’re able to generate pressure on Rodgers and force turnovers, however, they may be able to bend without breaking against the Vandy attack.
Special Teams Players to Watch
Carey Spear has been reliable this season in the kicking game for Vanderbilt, converting on 13-of-16 field goal attempts and nailing all 16 of his extra point attempts. Spear only missed one field goal in the month of October and enters this weekend on a nice roll.
Bryson Rose has been perfect on PATs as well for Ole Miss, hitting on all 32 of his tries this season. He hasn’t fared as well in the field goal department, however, missing five times on the season for a 68 percent conversion rate. Rose is a perfect six-for-six in his last three games, however.
In the return game, Ole Miss’ Jaylen Walton has been one of the SEC’s better kick returners and found the end zone on a return against Texas earlier in the season. The speedy Kimbrow has handled duties for the Commodores, averaging just over 21 yards per return on the year.