It can't be easy to be the UMass football team right now. Still winless after eight games, the team has fallen short of the goals they set for themselves and are doing so lately in a fairly spectacular fashion. Were it not for a garbage-time touchdown from backup true freshman A.J. Doyle this past Saturday, the Minutemen would be recovering from their third shutout of the season and second in a row. Small victories, these are not.
I conducted a small Q&A session with our friends over at Vanderbilt blog Anchor of Gold leading up to the game. Due to circumstances outside of our control and the fun obligations of other lives, this content didn't make it to the site as a preview. But for the enjoyment of our readers, here was the discussion, followed by a little "hindsight is 20-20" analysis thrown in from yours truly.
Mike Paquette: Vanderbilt's defense seems to be a tale of two cities - the passing defense is fantastic, ranking fourth in the nation, while the rush defense is sitting down at 89th. Is this weakness against the run a cause for concern, or is it a result of the strong rushing attacks of the team's opponents? How do you think that might come into play against UMass?
Anchor of Gold: First, we had some turnover at key places due to graduation that has been the biggest difference in run defense from last year to this year. Last year's starting MLB, Chris Marve, was a beast and the spiritual leader of the team. He probably spoiled Commodore fans over his four years of starting in the middle and we probably didn't realize just how much an impact he had on our run defense. This season we've had some guys that have had to slide in to his position and I think they're starting to come into their own. While we did lose some guys in the secondary, that's probably been our strongest defensive unit for several years and this year is no different. At the same time, the opening half of our schedule was pretty brutal, with teams that were top ten at the time in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida all featuring potent rushing attacks, so the rush/pass defense ranking is probably a bit skewed at this point. Over the second half of the season I think we'll see the rush defense start to rise slowly.
MP: Vandy is not alone - UMass has struggled mightily against the run this season. How is the Vanderbilt rushing attack, and should UMass fans expect a big game from the Commodore running backs?
AoG: If I weren't smack in the middle of my busiest time of the year in my regular job, I'd know a bit more about UMass's players. Vandy's offensive MVP of the last two seasons is unequivocally senior RB Zac Stacy, who last week against Auburn became the all-time leading rusher in Vanderbilt history. He's a power back built like a tank with deceptive speed. I would expect Vanderbilt to ride him early and often, unless the Commodores are able to open up a solid lead, at which time they'll begin to rotate in Wesley Tate (younger brother of former Notre Dame standout WR Golden Tate), freshman speedster Brian Kimbrow (reportedly ran a 4.28 in the 40 in high school), and redshirt junior Warren Norman (who was SEC Freshman of the Year). The Commodores run multiple offensive sets, so expect to see the running backs lining up in the backfield in traditional sets as well as in the wildcat, where the team has had some solid success over the last few weeks.
MP: Coach James Franklin had a great start to his first season last year, but the team has struggled out of the gate in 2012. How is Nashville reacting to this, and does he remain popular among the fanbase?
AoG: Despite the slow start, Franklin is EXTREMELY popular among Commodore fans. For better or worse, Vanderbilt fans don't truly expect annual success in football, though Coach Franklin is doing a great job of changing the culture surrounding the program. There was a lot of hype prior to the start of the season, and though some of that hype is a bit muted, Commodore fans still believe that those struggles against the difficult opening half of the schedule will hopefully have prepared the team to get bowl eligible. If they can get three wins, this will be the first time in Vanderbilt history that the team would have gone to consecutive bowl games.
MP: The Commodores have won a couple close games and lost a couple as well, their one blowout win coming against FCS Presbyterian. Do they have the type of offense that can put up serious points against a decent FBS team, or should we expect more close contests for the rest of the season?
AoG: I think this is the question Commodore fans are hoping to see answered over the next few games. I do think they have the players and the playbook to be more explosive on offense. The coaches have shown they are capable of opening up the playbook, but I think execution hasn't been as crisp so far this year. Whether its dropped balls or silly penalties, the team has been its own worst enemy way too often. Like the run defense, I think the offensive execution will continue to get more and more consistent. A less difficult schedule certainly won't hurt...
MP: As this is going to be the first meeting between the two schools, we are pretty unfamiliar with the scene surrounding each other's games. For traveling UMass fans, where are the best tailgate spots, and what should they expect in terms of stadium atmosphere?
AoG: I guess this is a little bit too late for any traveling UMass fans, but there's an area by the stadium called Vandyville along Natchez Trace that has really become the tailgating spot for fans. Nashvillians are renowned for "southern hospitality" and every home game will see a large contingent of road fans invading Vandyville and being welcomed (for the most part). There's a huge jumbotron showing other college football games where people typically camp out if they don't have a tent or a parking spot in the adjacent parking lots. In terms of stadium atmosphere, I doubt that the stadium is as full as it is for most conference games (the other SEC fan bases travel well and typically snap up a good amount of tickets from scalpers, in years past Vandy has definitely been the "road" team in their own stadium...), though attendance is up and it will be homecoming. Too bad the weather isn't more typical of November than September/October...
MP: Prediction time! How do you see Saturday night playing out?
AoG: Well, Vegas has Vanderbilt the favorite by 34 points. I'd be extremely surprised if the Commodores didn't win. If it does end up being that high, I'll be looking forward to getting a look at some of the younger players.
Well, they must have been wearing their Nostradamus hats during this one, because yep, Vandy won by 42. Not only that, the Vanderbilt defense showed the marked improvement Anchor of Gold hoped for, holding the UMass ground game to only 59 yards. And were it not for the ankle injury sustained by stud running back Zac Stacy, he may have been the one rushing for 180 yards instead of the Brian Kimbrow-Wesley Tate tag team that tore up the UMass defense. One thing is for sure - the guys over at AoG know their football team.
This UMass squad is a bit harder to figure. They'll go out and do something like, oh, put together a phenomenal effort through the first 25 minutes or so against a talented SEC team, then watch as the wheels fall off. Their schedule doesn't get much easier this week, as they head to DeKalb to face a strong NIU team tied for the division lead in the West. It should lighten up slightly after that, but few people outside the Minutemen locker room will be expecting them to come out of these games with a win until they show they can put together a 60-minute game.
This is not to discount the solid and consistent play of many of the individuals on the team. Kassan Messiah has shown himself to be a solid playmaker on the defensive side of the ball, and has been a huge asset to a unit that is working their tails off to keep this team in ballgames. Until the offense regains the form shown in the early part of the year, though, the defense will be kept on the field longer than needed, and will continue to wear down as the games progress. One hopes this was another teachable moment for the admittedly young UMass team. If they want to find something to hang their hats on, a return of visual improvement this week against the Huskies may be it.