Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Music City Bowl Preview: Vanderbilt vs. Boston College — and yes, the Commodores have a chance

The Music City Bowl
Vanderbilt Commodores (6-6) vs. Boston College Golden Eagles (9-4)
2:30 p.m. Central, LP Field, Nashville, Tennessee (TV: ESPN)

I'm excited; you're excited. Vanderbilt's in a bowl and we're playing in the friendly confines of LP Field, just a stone's throw from the Vanderbilt campus. Sure, the guys didn't get to take a plane trip, but they are getting the VIP treatment in Nashville, including lodging and plenty of fancy meals and pomp and circumstance at the Opryland Hotel. I never got that when I was a Vanderbilt student.


Vanderbilt draws the ACC's No. 2 team. And the Commodores couldn't beat the ACC's worst team during homecoming, let alone Wake Forest, a team Boston College handled 24-21 in Winston-Salem. (BC didn't face Duke this season.)

Though it's essentially a home game for the Dores, the Eagles are a 4-point favorite. And in the ongoing ESPN fan poll, 91 percent of Americans believe Boston College will win. Oh yeah, and BC is the nation's all-time winningest team in bowl games (68 percent) and the winner of eight straight bowl games. Oh yeah, and Vanderbilt has lost its only two games against BC, the last time being a 19-6 loss in 1963.


You know the problem: The Commodore offense is dreadful — ranked 117th in total yardage out of 119 teams. The rushing offense, ranked 67th with 140 yards, would be much better if it had a passing game to keep the opponent guessing. Somehow the Commodores have averaged 20 points a game and rank among the nation's leaders in red zone offensive efficiency.

But the really depressing numbers belong to Boston College. Consider that the Golden Eagles:
• Lead the nation in interceptions with 26 and have returned five for touchdowns. Linebacker Mark Herzlich has a whopping six picks, taking two of them to the house. Safety Paul Anderson also has six interceptions.
• Rank sixth in the nation in total defense, allowing only 273 yards per game.
• Rank sixth in red zone defensive efficiency with 71 percent.
• Allow only 92 yards rushing a game, good for seventh in the nation.

Why are the Eagles so tough against the run? In addition to Herzlich, they've got a pair of 325-pound defensive tackles, B.J. Raji and Ron Brace. Raji was telling the Tennessean's Mo Patton the other day that he hopes Vanderbilt tries to run the ball because nobody can run the ball against them.

But then you have to pass. Only one of BC's top eight defensive backs is under 6 feet tall, which is unusually tall for a secondary. Oh yeah, and BC has recorded 34 sacks.

Really, the Eagle's D sounds a lot like Tennessee's, which means if the Commodores turn the ball over early, the game's over.

So what does Vanderbilt do? We don't try to grind it out the whole game. Kentucky had a pretty stout defense, and what did we do against the Wildcats in Lexington? We lined D.J. Moore at wide receiver and we went deep in the corner of the end zone for two first quarter touchdowns and then we held on for dear life.

We're not going to be able to run the ball down these guys' throats. We've got to get tricky. By tricky I don't mean that stinking triple reverse we keep trying to run. I mean using our players creatively. I mean putting D.J. at quarterback and wide receiver and running back. I mean Larry Smith gunning it downfield to D.J. I mean Chris Nickson running the ball, whether he's quarterback or not. I mean Jamie Graham running and catching and passing. I mean doing something to get on the board. If we do some of that stuff, then we can free up the five-yard runs by JHawk and the short passes to Brandon Barden.


Boston College is no offensive juggernaut. The Eagles rush for 143 yards a game (63rd in the nation) and throw for 176 (94th). That's almost exactly what Vanderbilt's 29th-ranked defense allows per game.

Boston College has fumbled the ball 27 times this season, losing 15, and with two true freshmen running backs and a redshirt freshman quarterback handling the ball in the backfield, hopefully the Dores can force the Eagles to put the ball on the ground some more.

The BC offensive line is massive, standing taller than 6-foot-5 and weighing an average of 307 pounds. Four of them got All-ACC recognition. Still, the line has allowed 21 sacks on the season. Quarterback Dominique Davis, forced to start after a fifth-year senior went down in the Wake Forest game late in the season, completes less than 50 percent of his passes. That's the good news. The bad news is that he's fleet of foot, something that's given the Commodores big-time problems this season. (Tyson Lee, anyone?)

When Boston College has to convert, they do. On the season, they're 15-23 on fourth down. Not bad at all.

Don't forget, though, that Vanderbilt has the nation's 16th best pass defense, is 21st in the nation in quarterback sacks with 29, and is 6th in the nation in red zone defense efficiency. Which means you can probably expect the Eagles to do what Tennessee did against us — try to grind it out behind that massive line.


Vanderbilt cannot fall behind by more than a touchdown. If they do, it will be the Tennessee game all over again. The Commodores must try to set up the big play on offense. Who'll be pulling the trigger? When Nickson's hot, he's a big play waiting to happen; when he's not, it's a nightmare. Mackenzi Adams is better at orchestrating a long, slow drive. Larry Smith is more accurate than Nickson and has a much stronger arm than Adams. Whatever we do and whoever does it, we absolutely cannot line up man on man and overpower Boston College. We've got to outsmart them and get the ball in the hands of our best athletes (Moore, Nickson, Smith, Graham, Moore, Moore, Moore) while involving consistent workhorses like Hawkins and Barden.

Strike fast and take the lead. If Boston College falls behind and Davis has to win the game against our secondary, I like our chances.

Smash Vanderbilt in the mouth. Win the battle at the line of scrimmage. Establish the running game, take the lead and wear us down. Just like everybody says they will.

What a season this has been. I believe we're going to show up to play. Boston College is a good team, but not a powerhouse. If we can get some offense going early, this could be the Kentucky game all over again — though the Eagles likely won't make as many mistakes as the Wildcats did. More likely, we'll need some breaks and some timely big plays like we got against South Carolina and Ole Miss and Auburn.

On paper, we get smoked. But I think Bobby Johnson is going to play this one to win. I don't believe he's going to run three times and punt and repeat and repeat and repeat. This will likely be D.J.'s last game, and I expect him to step up big on both offense and defense like he did against Kentucky. It'll definitely be the last game for Chris Nickson, Reshard Langford and Sean Walker, and I expect those guys to step up too. Looks like about 55,000 fans will be on hand, and most of those will be pulling for Vanderbilt.

Anyway, I'll be there and I'm not driving 6 hours to Nashville for nothing. Call it Vanderbilt 17, Boston College 16.

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