Commentary

Vanderbilt has more fight at home

Commodores are 3-0 in Nashville; Dawgs, Murray must be wary of strong secondary

Originally Published: September 2, 2011
By David Ching | DawgNation

Aaron MurrayRadi Nabulsi/ESPN.comAaron Murry and the Bulldogs look to keep their eye on the ball on the road against Vanderbilt.

The last time Vanderbilt played at home, the Commodores destroyed Ole Miss 30-7 on Sept. 17 to run their record to 3-0 under rookie head coach James Franklin.

The Commodores (3-2, 1-2 SEC) didn't fare so well away from Nashville, struggling mightily on offense as South Carolina and Alabama earned easy victories in the last two games. But they return to Vanderbilt Stadium this weekend looking to beat Georgia (4-2, 3-1) for their first marquee win under the new coaching regime.

"As we were preparing for Ole Miss, we got to see them on both sides of the ball, and we were very impressed," Georgia coach Mark Richt said.

Vanderbilt scored 14 points or fewer in six of its last seven games in 2010, but roared out of the gates by averaging 33 points per game in the first three games this year. Once the Commodores met stout defenses in South Carolina and Alabama, however, they managed only 77 and 190 yards, respectively, and totaled only three points.

Franklin said he views such performances as part of the rebuilding process.

"Have we gotten better to the point where we would like to be? No," Franklin said. "We've got a long ways to go, and we're just kind of going through the process. Our team is evolving and getting better every day."

Franklin's Commodores run into another stingy defense this weekend in a Georgia bunch that ranks in the top 20 nationally in all of the major defensive categories. With the defense's recent performance in mind, count on the Bulldogs to try to build an early lead and then ride Todd Grantham's defense to another league victory.

"I don't want to get too excited yet, but I'm feeling like we've built a very good foundation on defense," Richt said. "I'm hoping the best is yet to come."

Three storylines


1. Riding the defense: Following several seasons of mediocre play, Georgia's defense has been the catalyst in the Bulldogs' four-game winning streak. The Bulldogs have held opponents to eight points per game and 194.5 yards per game of total offense during the streak. With Vanderbilt's underachieving offense on deck -- the Commodores are 98th in scoring offense (20.4 ppg) and 117th in total offense (244.4 ypg) -- look for more of the same from Georgia's defense.

2. Turnover battle: If Vanderbilt is to have any chance of victory, the Commodores must create scoring opportunities off turnovers. That has been a successful strategy thus far for Vanderbilt, which leads the nation with 14 interceptions and is tied for seventh with 16 total takeaways. Georgia is prone to making critical mistakes on offense, as opposing defenses have scored three touchdowns off Bulldogs turnovers and set up an additional touchdown with a fumble return to the Georgia 5-yard line.

3. Gators on deck: With a bye week between its games against Vanderbilt and Florida, Georgia can head into its biggest game of the season with enormous momentum if it makes it out of Nashville with a drama- and injury-free victory. The Bulldogs will get key players such as Alec Ogletree, Cornelius Washington and Malcolm Mitchell back for the game in Jacksonville and should still have their SEC East hopes intact. But the Bulldogs first must defeat the Commodores.

Dawgs to watch


RB Isaiah Crowell. The Bulldogs' star freshman tailback was slowed by a sore wrist last week against Tennessee, failing to rush for 100 yards for the first time in SEC play. Georgia could use a big game from Crowell against a Vanderbilt defense that did a serviceable job against South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore (77 rushing yards) and Alabama's Trent Richardson (107).
LB Jarvis Jones. The outside linebacker rushed Tennessee's Tyler Bray from a number of different places in last week's win at Neyland Stadium, filling the void left by Cornelius Washington, who will again sit out this week on a disciplinary suspension. Jones, who is second in the SEC with 5.5 tackles for loss and tied for fourth with three sacks, will again be the main havoc creator for Georgia's defense at Vanderbilt.
K Blair Walsh. The senior was surprised to be named SEC Special Teams Player of the Week after kicking two short field goals and hitting two PATs in last week's win at Tennessee, but it was a step in the right direction. Walsh is now 8-for-14 on field goals this season and hopes to have broken out of his recent slump.

Commodores to watch


QBs Larry Smith and Jordan Rodgers. The Commodores' quarterback duo has struggled to get the offense moving this year. Smith has been slowed by injuries, making his starting status questionable. Whoever starts, he'll need to perform well to give Vanderbilt any chance of victory.
CB Casey Hayward.The All-SEC cornerback is tied for the league interception lead with Georgia safety Bacarri Rambo with four. The Perry, Ga., native will get his final chance to beat his home-state team this week.
LB Chris Marve. The redshirt senior linebacker will have his hands full trying to corral Crowell and Georgia's other running backs. Marve consistently ranks among the SEC's top linebackers and is eighth in the league this year with eight tackles per game.

Key matchup


Georgia QB Aaron Murray
vs. Vanderbilt's secondary

Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray vs. Vanderbilt secondary Murray has already thrown two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns and had a fumble returned for an additional score, so he can't be sloppy with the ball against Vanderbilt. Not only do the Commodores lead the nation with 14 interceptions, both of their starting cornerbacks -- Casey Hayward and Trey Wilson -- have pick-sixes this season. Hayward has 96 return yards off his four interceptions, and Wilson has 109 yards and two touchdowns off three picks.

By the numbers

4: Georgia enters the Vanderbilt game on a four-game winning streak, having defeated Coastal Carolina, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Tennessee in consecutive weeks. The Bulldogs' last four-game winning streak was in 2008, when Georgia opened the season with consecutive wins against Georgia Southern, South Carolina, Central Michigan and Arizona State before falling to Alabama in Game 5 en route to a 10-3 record.

Minus-20: Tennessee rushed for minus-20 yards on 23 attempts last week, setting a new low against a Georgia defense in Mark Richt's 10-plus seasons at UGA. The previous low was 1 yard, also by Tennessee, in 2008. Georgia is 12th in the nation against the run, allowing 85.83 yards per game.

15: Fifteen different Georgia players have caught a pass this season, including eight last week against Tennessee. With leading receiver Malcolm Mitchell out with a hamstring injury and other Georgia wideouts still recovering from injuries, the Bulldogs' pattern of spreading the passes among a large group of receivers, tight ends and running backs could pay off against Vanderbilt.

David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at davidchingespn@gmail.com.