The view from Nashville: Beat writer Q&A

semerson@macon.comOctober 17, 2013 

Missouri Vanderbilt Football

Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin, right, congratulates his team after a score against Missouri in the third quarter of of their Oct. 5 game.

MARK HUMPHREY — AP

Welcome back to one of our favorite segments of game week, mainly because someone else does all the work. Before each game we ask a beat writer for the other team to answer questions about the team he covers, and to help break down the game. This week we're happy to pick the brain of Jeff Lockridge, the Vanderbilt beat writer for The Tennessean in Nashville. Lockridge has been covering the Commodores for a number of years, and is our go-to guy in Nashville.

You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jefflockridge. And you're encouraged to read his coverage on James Franklin's bunch over at The Tennessean web site.

Now, find out more about Vanderbilt:

1. It just so happens that both teams are coming off a home loss to Missouri. (It was Missouri over Vanderbilt 51-28 two weeks ago.) Georgia's loss vanquished its national title hopes. Vanderbilt's left it 0-3 in SEC play, but with three convincing wins over non-conference opponents. (Austin Peay, UMass, UAB). What's the sense around Nashville about this team? What's the sense about James Franklin?

Lockridge: The sense around Nashville is that a little something is missing from this Vandy team that last year’s squad, and even the 2011 team, had. I’m not sure if that’s focus or intensity or simply execution. At times, it has looked like all of the above.

The focus part would be understandable given the off-field circumstances surrounding the school and football program with the ongoing rape case that has led to five player dismissals. That continues to linger and there is no doubt it has impacted the team to some degree, particularly since one of the dismissed players was Chris Boyd, the team’s No. 2 receiver, who admitted to having a role in the cover-up attempt. Having said all that, Vandy could have – and probably should have – beaten Ole Miss if about five defenders didn’t get caught out of position on Jeff Scott’s 75-yard touchdown run in the waning moments (then 1-2 in the SEC wouldn’t look quite as bad as 0-3). I think most fans feel like 6-6 and a bowl game is still within reach.

In terms of Franklin, Vandy fans remain very pleased with the job he has done since Dec. 2010 and the strides he has made with this program. The question is whether he’s around for the long haul. With the off-field distractions here, many starters in key positions set to graduate, and the potential for several high-profile jobs to open (obviously USC is already open), it would make sense that if he’s going to jump this would be the offseason to do it. However, if Vandy doesn’t finish strong, there is always the possibility it could limit his chances. It’s worth noting that Vandy has made a strong effort to keep him happy here, giving him new contracts and raises after each of his first two seasons, building a new indoor practice facility, bolstering the recruiting budget and adding more winnable games to the non-conference schedule like he wanted.

2. Receiver Jordan Matthews (47 catches for 709 yards and five touchdowns) is off to a monster year, and looks like a future pro. What makes him so dangerous, and how have other teams tried defending him?

Lockridge: Matthews has seen a lot of bracket coverage and a lot of safety help over the top, in addition to going up against opponents’ best cornerbacks. Linebackers and defensive linemen have dropped into coverage to provide leverage underneath on him. Matthews has still posted big numbers, but in SEC games those numbers have come while Vandy has played catch-up. The key for the Commodores is to get him involved early in games, which hasn’t always happened.

As for what makes Matthews dangerous, he has very good hands, very good size, above-average speed and uses his body as well as any receiver in college football. When it comes to catching a ball in a crowd, creating space with a last-second arm bar or shielding a defender so he can reel in a pass over his outside shoulder, this is your guy. He’s the best practice player I’ve seen suit up for Vandy in my five years on the beat.

3. Now for the rest of the offense: QB Austyn Carta-Samuels has decent numbers, but Vanderbilt ranks second-worst in the SEC in rushing offense, with Zac Stacy now running for the St. Louis Rams. Other than Matthews, where can the Commodores burn a defense? Also, Vanderbilt's line has given up 16 sacks, tied for the most in the SEC. How much of a concern is the offensive line at this point?

Lockridge: There aren’t many big-play guys outside of Matthews. The next two on the list are running back Jerron Seymour, a slippery and tough-nosed little sophomore with a pinch of Barry Sanders in him, and receiver Jonathan Krause, who has good speed on the outside. Krause became the No. 2 receiving option game when Boyd was suspended and eventually dismissed.

The offensive line has been something of an enigma. This line was supposed to be vastly improved over last year with four starters back. It looks the parts on some series. Other times it hasn’t done the job, including the Missouri game the last time out. Wesley Johnson is as steady as they come at left tackle. But overall, getting a push up front to assist the run game and pass blocking have been an issue. Part of the problem is that Vandy has needed to throw more than last season, putting more of an onus on those guys to keep pass rushers off Carta-Samuels. The other problem is that if Matthews is covered and Carta-Samuels has to go through several progressions while waiting for other targets to get open, he can hold the ball too long.

4. Now to the defense: 39 points to Ole Miss, 35 points to South Carolina, 51 points to Missouri. How much of that is a reflection of the competition, and how much is legitimate issues on defense?

Lockridge: It’s both. The three SEC teams Vandy faced were solid (Missouri and South Carolina are a combined 11-1), and all of those teams have good dual-threat quarterbacks. Vandy’s inability to contain mobile quarterbacks is an ongoing issue, especially when opponents utilize an up-tempo offense or run the read option with the quarterback keeping the ball.

But aside from that detail, Vandy’s bend-but-don’t-break, attacking defensive philosophy hasn’t panned out as well this season as it did the last two years. A young and banged-up linebacker corps has struggled. Making open-field tackles, staying with running backs and slot receivers in coverage, getting to the quarterback on blitzes … this group hasn’t done the job. There wasn’t a ton of veteran depth there to start, and when middle linebacker Chase Garnham went down with a lower leg injury, things got worse. Walk-on linebackers Casey Hughes and Kellen Williams have seen far more game reps than anyone figured possible coming out of August camp. Outside linebacker Karl Butler is slated to return on Saturday after missing three games with an injury, so that helps. James Franklin also will tell you that his front four haven’t gotten to the quarterback consistently enough and a senior-laden secondary hasn’t produced enough turnovers and third-down stops, so there you have it.

5. What are the two or three things Vanderbilt must do if it can pull off the upset?

Lockridge: Vandy needs to avoid playing from behind, and that means getting off to a better start. The Commodores have been a bad first-quarter football team, getting outscored 54-17 in the opening 15 minutes of their six games. It has made them a one-dimensional offense too often.

The second thing is cliché but necessary, and that’s to win the turnover battle. Vandy is not creating enough turnovers. It has seven. Georgia isn’t generating any takeaways either. It has five. So it’s no wonder these are two of the SEC’s worst in turnover margin. Vandy has to find a way to force Aaron Murray into a couple of costly mistakes.

The last thing is for the Commodores is to find their swagger, their attitude, their confidence. These things have been missing since that Ole Miss defeat. They showed that swagger two years ago when the Bulldogs came to Nashville and nearly pulled out a win. They will have a puncher’s chance if they do it again.

6. Finally, a couple readers are making their first-ever trips to Nashville, and were interested in bar and restaurant tips. What say you?

Lockridge: There is a McDonald’s and a Wendy’s right around the corner, and both pour a tasty Coca-Cola.

You probably mean a real drink, huh? There are several spots within a mile or so of the stadium for a beverage. The two main areas to head toward are Broadway northeast of campus (Broadway Brewhouse, Corner Pub and South Street are good spots here) and Hillsboro Village southeast of campus (Sam’s Sports Bar and Bosco’s).

Of course, the lights, action and music are downtown. For fans arriving Friday afternoon or staying Saturday night that can spend an evening downtown, the options are bountiful. If you like sushi, Virago’s is an excellent, upscale choice one block from The Tennessean (you’ll need reservations, though, which you can get through its web site). Right across from Virago’s is the Whisky Kitchen, which has great food. The Gluch is a booming area along the train tracks where 11th and 12th Avenues intersect near Division Street – can’t go wrong with much around there. There are lots of touristy spots and country music dives as you make your way toward Second Avenue. If brisket is your weakness, like it is for me, I’m a lifelong fan of Jack’s Bar-B-Que, and there’s one on Broadway between Fourth and Fifth Avenues across from Rippy’s Bar and Grille, another fun locale to eat, people watch and catch a college football game on TV. Don’t forget to drive by Nashville’s new convention center, the Music City Center, which is a monster and is located across several blocks along Demonbreun Street.

For more discussion of Georgia football and the trip to Vanderbilt, please stop by Seth's online live chat, Friday at noon here on the blog.

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