By: Zac Ellis
– Vanderbilt's emphasis on defense this offseason has been simple: attack the football.
On Saturday, the Commodores put that strategy to work against Middle Tennessee.
"Ever since Coach Tarver's been here," inside linebacker Jordan Griffin
said, "he's made an emphasis on attacking the ball."
An exceptionally aggressive defense under new coordinator Jason Tarver
was one of the prevailing storylines following Vanderbilt's season-opening 35-7 win over the Blue Raiders
at Vanderbilt Stadium. The Commodores – still smarting from a down season on that side of the ball in 2017 – were out to prove they were a different team this fall.
But on Saturday, Vanderbilt also showed it could could make adjustments when it mattered. That could serve it well in a comeback season in 2018.
"I just think this football team got better in the second half," Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason
said. "But we've got a long ways to go. This football team is talented, we just need to make sure that we keep it about the things that matter. It's a humble group. They're about the work."
Vanderbilt's defense took a few series to get going against MTSU. Blue Raiders' quarterback Brent Stockstill consistently kept his offense on the field in the first two quarters; his touchdown pass to C.J. Windham at the end of the first period capped a 15-play drive and tied the game 7-7. At halftime, the Blue Raiders had 145 yards of offense to the Commodores' 89, thanks in part to lengthy sustained drives.
The first-half targeting ejection of Vanderbilt senior safety LaDarius Wiley
also shook up the Dores' secondary. Mason said that game-changing moment sent his coaching staff back into the lab.
"I thought defensively, we struggled to get them off the field consistently on third down," Mason said. "That's just part of it. The ejection to LaDairus Wiley sort of made our coaching staff think about, okay, how do we protect the back end a little bit and play a little smarter?"
In the halftime locker room, the Commodores knew the second half would be a different game.
"When LaDarius went down, we lost one of our leaders," Griffin said. "We just had to step up and make plays."
Indeed, the Dores made plays when it counted. The likes of Frank Coppet
, Tae Daley
and Gil Barksdale
helped shore up the secondary in Wiley's absence. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt's pass rush kept Stockstill in the check in the second half, keeping the Blue Raiders from reaching the end zone again.
In all the Commodores amassed six sacks, nine tackles for loss and forced two Middle Tennessee turnovers. Moreover, Dayo Odeyingbo
's fumble recovery for a touchdown in the first half was the Dores' first defensive touchdown since 2016. Those results served as a direct reflection of Vanderbilt's offseason values on defense.
"It was definitely one of our focuses," said defensive lineman Louis Vecchio
, who recorded a sack and two tackles for loss. "We wanted to make sure that we got after [Stockstill] and we knew he was a really good quarterback. So we wanted to get in his face as much as we can."
A second-half surge on offense from quarterback Kyle Shurmur
and a stable of running backs (Khari Blasingame
, Ke'Shawn Vaughn
and Jamauri Wakefield
) rang up the scoreboard as Vanderbilt's defense did its dirty work. The end result was a big win to start the season. The next step, Mason said, is to carry that momentum to next week's matchup with Nevada (11 a.m. CT) and throughout SEC play.
"I thought we were fast around the edges, I thought we put a lot of pressure on those tackles," Mason said. "Kudos to Coach Ah You and Coach Tarver for the pressure. I thought we looked pretty good tonight… If we want to be a really good defense, we have to be a little more consistent. That's what we'll strive for when we turn on the film tomorrow."
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.