The nation will be watching Thursday evening when Vanderbilt kicks it off against the No. 9 team in the country in South Carolina. It’s the type of game that Vanderbilt has to start winning if it wants to be considered in the upper echelon of the SEC. If they are to win it, five keys will loom large.
Slow down Clowney and Taylor
Thursday night Vanderbilt will be facing arguably the most disruptive pair of defensive ends in the country in Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney. You don’t completely neutralize that kind of talent but James Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan will have to find a way to slow them down.
Using backs and extra tight ends to chip and double the two rushers will be important but maybe more important will be the play calling. An established run game will be important to slow that edge rush but so will a well-placed screen and draw game. Offensive tackles Wesley Johnson and Andrew Bridges will also be crucial not just in protecting Rodgers but also in keeping Clowney and Taylor’s hands down. Their wing span alone can collectively alter the quick passing game in a big way.
Contain Connor Shaw’s legs
Connor Shaw is a capable passer for Steve Spurrier and he’s a more calming presence under center than Stephen Garcia before him but he is not going to beat Vanderbilt strictly with his arm. Marcus Lattimore is the focal point of the South Carolina offense and for good reason. Shaw’s arm is a change of pace but maybe the most dangerous aspect of Shaw’s presence under center is his ability to scramble and make plays with his feet.
Vanderbilt will need to find ways to locate Shaw on scrambles and limit his ability to scrap for first downs and make plays with the pocket breaks down. If Vanderbilt forces South Carolina to throw the football and forces Shaw to stay in the pocket, they have to feel good about their chances defensively.
Find an unlikely big play
Vanderbilt will need some offensive punch on Thursday night. That goes without saying. But if Vanderbilt is to pull of the upset, the Commodores will likely need to find a big play from another unlikely source as well. That big play can come from a trick play, a special teams touchdown, or an interception or fumble return for a six.
Everything about the Vanderbilt football program has been elevated from talent to execution but it’s still a team that has to be resourceful with its points in order to knock of top ten level teams and talent.
Cut out the disastrous turnover
The turnover battle is one of the primary factors in every game played all over the country. For Vanderbilt, the turnover battle looms large once again against South Carolina but more specifically, the Commodores have to cut out that game-changing turnover that plagued them in so many close loses last season.
If the game is close in the fourth quarter, can Vanderbilt still be aggressive offensively while refraining from that back-breaking turnover under the pressure of a Clowney pass rush?
Consistency in the kick game
The problem with Vanderbilt’s historically inconsistent kicking game is that there may not be a team in the country that needs that facet of the game to be a steady rock more than Vanderbilt. As the Commodores continue their climb up the SEC rankings, close games are the rungs on that ladder. If Vanderbilt wins on Thursday night, Ryan Fowler or Carey Spear – maybe both – will need to make a big kick somewhere along the way. If you want to beat a top ten team in the country, you can’t leave any points out on the field.