Vanderbilt Commodores vs. Tennessee Volunteers Complete Game Preview

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistNovember 23, 2015

Vanderbilt Commodores vs. Tennessee Volunteers Complete Game Preview

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    Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

    After controlling both lines of scrimmage in a complete, never-in-doubt 19-8 win over Missouri Saturday night, the Tennessee Volunteers head home to close the regular season against in-state rival Vanderbilt.

    The key for the Vols will be keeping that same kind of road intensity they've shown all season at Neyland Stadium.

    All season, UT has been banged up, and the Vols were even more so against the Tigers as they struggled to put a corps of receivers on the field. Thankfully for Tennessee, it really didn't have to throw the ball well at all to win on the road at Mizzou.

    That may not be the case against the Commodores.

    Yes, Vanderbilt struggled mightily on offense in a 25-0 loss to Texas A&M, and it hasn't proved it can consistently compete. But in coach Derek Mason's second season, the 'Dores have played in some positive spurts. You'd better believe that with no postseason possible, this will be Vandy's bowl game.

    The Commodores will pull out all the stops to beat Tennessee, which must keep the same level of intensity it showed in the win over Mizzou.

    Here's everything you need to know about Saturday's game.

    Date: Saturday, Nov. 28

    Time: 4 p.m. ET

    Place: Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tennessee

    TV: SEC Network

    Radio: Vol Network, Vanderbilt Sports Network

    Spread: Vols by 17.5, according to Odds Shark.

Tennessee Keys to Victory

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    Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

    Continue O-line resurgence 

    One of those injuries that hindered Tennessee this season happened to star sophomore guard Jashon Robertson, who's missed time with various ailments.

    It's no surprise that when he returned in time for the Mizzou game, the Vols offensive line enjoyed perhaps its best game of the season, getting the upper hand on the Tigers' stellar defensive front seven with 248 rushing yards and 19 total first downs.

    Senior left tackle Kyler Kerbyson was pumped about the lunch-pail effort, according to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan:

    I mean, we're very proud of every game that we've played, but this one's a big one. We weren't able to do much at all the past two years versus their defense, and they've been very good. And we finally got that monkey off our back, were able to pound the rock and keep (quarterback Joshua) Dobbs clean. I'm so proud of everybody on offense and all the O-linemen for grinding it out.

    The Volunteers will have a different sort of challenge this week with coach Derek Mason's 3-4 defense, which likes to blitz and fly around the field, but it will be another opportunity for the team to show its growth.

    Shutdown crew

    It appeared the North Texas game came at the right time for Tennessee. The Vols used what essentially was an extra bye week to rest some veterans, get others healthy and just generally take it easy.

    The defense particularly benefited. 

    Against Mizzou, the Vols looked like a different team. They attacked. They swarmed. They were faster and better than the Tigers in every facet of the game.

    Yes, Mizzou is awful on offense, but UT's defense set the tone early and made it clear it wasn't going to let the Tigers hang around. Vanderbilt's offense is also really bad. The Vols need to continue to be the aggressor, get after the quarterback no matter who it is, rattle him and control the game.

    Tennessee went more than seven quarters without allowing a point and came within quarterback Drew Lock stretching his ball to hit the pylon on fourth down of pitching two straight shutouts. This defense is playing at a high level right now, and it needs to keep it up.

    Sixes, not threes

    The way Tennessee drove the ball up and down the field in Columbia was impressive. It was what happened once UT got down inside the 30-yard line that was frustrating.

    The Vols had to settle for attempting five field goals, and while Mizzou's offense was bad enough where it couldn't make UT pay for the points it left on the field, other teams will.

    Can Vanderbilt? Maybe and maybe not. But the Vols don't need to test that, and they certainly don't need to let a VU team ready to do whatever it takes to upset its hated rival hang around.

    Tennessee needs to capitalize with touchdowns. The offense is playing well, but it has to learn to finish.

Vanderbilt Keys to Victory

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    Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

    Hit a big play early

    The only team in the SEC that has hit fewer big plays from scrimmage than the Commodores is Missouri.

    That's what happens when you have major quarterback issues and few playmakers on the perimeter. For all the progress freshman Kyle Shurmur appeared to make in the previous few weeks, he took a major step backward in a forgettable, 25-0 loss to Texas A&M.

    Shurmur completed three of 12 passes for 19 yards and an interception against the Aggies, and that just won't get it done.

    Instead, it was A&M that had the huge play last Saturday, hitting a 95-yard touchdown pass.

    "For us, it was about untimely opportunities not to get off the field and for them extending plays," coach Derek Mason said, according to the Tennessean's David Ammenheuser. "The momentum-changing play was the big touchdown. They hit us down the sideline. That play changed momentum. For the most part, we had held them in check (until that play)."

    Mason oversees a defense good enough to win football games, but he has to get some production from his offense. Getting a big play may get them that swagger that's been missing.

    Momentum-shifters

    On the flip side, VU's defense could use a big takeaway from Joshua Dobbs or another one of Tennessee's players and turn that into a score from that side of the ball.

    Vanderbilt doesn't have enough talent and isn't good enough on offense to match points with the Vols most days. But if the Commodores get a big defensive play such as the one that Kentucky got with a scoop and 77-yard score by defensive tackle C.J. Johnson, Vanderbilt is good enough on defense to make it count.

    The 'Dores have 17 takeaways this year, which puts them in the middle of the pack in the SEC, but they have enough decent players on defense to notch a momentum-changer. They need one to beat the Vols.

    Herd up on Hurd

    Tennessee doesn't care if you know it: The Vols are going to hand the football to sophomore running back Jalen Hurd.

    A lot.

    These are the types of games where the Vols don't give a rip about style points. They just want to line up, pound it, move the chains and run out the clock. Hurd had a career-high 34 carries against Missouri, and those touches yielded 151 yards.

    Last year, Hurd had what was dubbed an "upper-body injury" early in last year's return to his Middle Tennessee home and was a non-factor against Vanderbilt. This year, he'd love nothing more than to control the game.

    Vanderbilt must neutralize him. If the Commodores do, they'll stand a chance at limiting UT's offense.

Tennessee Players to Watch

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    Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

    Malik Foreman

    Tennessee's junior nickelback has completely turned around his season. Going back two months, the Kingsport, Tennessee, native may be the most improved player on the team.

    In the past three games, not only has Foreman been much better in coverage, as evidenced by his helping shut down South Carolina's Pharoh Cooper and getting the game-saving forced fumble after Jerell Adams caught the ball, but he's also been a force in the run game.

    Foreman has 10 tackles in those games, including four for loss. Prior to that stretch, he hadn't registered a tackle behind the line of scrimmage all season. With Foreman playing better, UT's defense is much stronger.

    UT needs him to come up in the run game and help neutralize Ralph Webb. Foreman is probably up to the challenge.

    Joshua Dobbs

    No matter how you want to dissect it, Tennessee's passing game is struggling.

    The Vols didn't need to fling it all over the field to beat Mizzou, and it's a good thing considering they threw for just 89 yards. Dobbs does plenty of things with his feet, but his arm doesn't scare anybody.

    It has been nine quarters since UT scored a touchdown through the air. The last time that happened was an 11-yard scoring strike to Alvin Kamara with 4:25 left in the third quarter against the Gamecocks. That's a massive drought for a team with a junior quarterback.

    Tennessee is injured throughout the receiving corps, and Dobbs hasn't been totally healthy the past few weeks either. But the Vols need their signal-caller to be a weapon while throwing the ball again. 

    Owen Williams

    The best player on UT's 2015 team you never hear that much about is senior defensive tackle Williams. Tennessee is really going to miss him once he's out of eligibility after this season.

    He went from being a little-used reserve a season ago to being a stalwart starting defensive tackle who leads all Vols at his position with 20 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. The strongest player on the entire team is playing with a low center of gravity, and the 6'0", 297-pounder may wind up carving out an NFL future.

    Against Mizzou, he was disruptive once again, and this resurgence, much like Foreman's, was reinforced in the win over South Carolina. After that game, teammate Derek Barnett told the media just what he thought of a performance that included three tackles for a loss.

    "Owen balled out today," Barnett told Patrick Brown of the Times Free Press. "Every play I turned my head he was getting back there before me. I was like, 'Dang, 'O,' I'm trying to get me some.' He was back there every play. Owen played great. I feel like he's not thinking as much. He's just going for it and just playing ball."

Vanderbilt Players to Watch

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Ralph Webb

    The key to stopping Missouri's offense was shutting down senior running back Russell Hansbrough, and the Vols did it by keeping under 50 yards. They'll face much the same scenario this week.

    Vanderbilt's passing game isn't good enough to beat the Vols. But 5'10", 202-pound redshirt sophomore Ralph Webb is capable of doing plenty of damage on the ground. In a year when VU's offense has struggled, Webb went over 1,000 yards for the season in Saturday's loss to Texas A&M.

    That's the same time Jalen Hurd did.

    "He has run hard. He has been the guy that I thought he'd be coming into this season,” coach Derek Mason told the Tennessean's Adam Sparks. "He's been the one constant offensively."

    The Vols need to load the box to shut down Webb and put the game on Kyle Shurmur's shoulders. He can't beat UT without a big performance from his running back.

    Zach Cunningham

    The 6'4", 230-pound redshirt sophomore inside linebacker is a havoc-wreaker who may be the best pro prospect on Vanderbilt's roster.

    He had a pair of tackles for loss last year against Tennessee to cap off a surging close to the season, and he rode that momentum into 2015. This year, he's been good enough to wind up on all-conference teams.

    Cunningham leads the Commodores with 93 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. He also has three pass breakups, three fumble recoveries and four forced fumbles. The Pinson, Alabama, product is one of the best SEC defenders you've never heard of.

    Tennessee desperately wanted Cunningham late in the recruiting game a couple of years ago, as evidenced by his late recruiting visit detailed by AL.com's Jeff Sentell. But James Franklin convinced him to come to Nashville, where he's become a star.

    He'll be all over the field Saturday. There's no way you can watch this game and not see No. 41 everywhere. Because that's where he'll be.

    Stephen Weatherly

    The redshirt junior from Snellville, Georgia, was another Franklin recruiting win from which Mason is reaping benefits.

    The 6'5", 250-pound outside linebacker is a pivotal cog in the Commodores 3-4 defense, and he too has enjoyed a disruptive season with 44 tackles, including 8.5 for loss. He's one of those players who have the swagger on defense that the 'Dores lack on offense.

    "We try to keep every team below their averages in points, rushing, passing, everything," Weatherly told Sparks. "If we can play great defense against great offense, we know we’ll have an opportunity to win."

    Guys like Weatherly have given VU more chances this year than in recent seasons.

What They're Saying

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Tennessee head coach Butch Jones told GoVols247's Wes Rucker that while he wasn't thrilled with his offensive production at Missouri, he was impressed by the complete team victory:

    Obviously, you know, it was concerning that we had to kick field goals and not get seven points in the red zone, but our players just kept their poise, kept their patience. And if you look at the defensive effort today, the point of emphasis going in was forcing three-and-outs, and we forced six. Situational football, they were 2 of 15 in third-down conversions, so we were able to get off the field, and then we gave up 88 yards rushing. On the flip side, against one of the best defenses in our conference, we had 248 yards rushing.

    The Tennessean's David Ammenheuser wrote recently that VU coach Derek Mason's second-season improvement has earned him a third year at the school. The coach could cement that status with a big win over UT:

    Constantly under the coaching microscope, the second-year head football coach has earned the opportunity to continue what he's started on West End. There should be no argument that this season's Commodores have shown marked improvement over Mason's first season.

    And before the naysayers go to Twitter for a 140-character rant, consider this 44-character history lesson: Since 1975, Vanderbilt has had four winning seasons.

    Four.

    And two of those came during James Franklin's three-year tenure (2011-13).  And his final season's success was assured partially because the Commodores dropped Northwestern and Ohio State from the schedule. Otherwise, an 8-4 regular-season record may have been 6-6 if the Wildcats and Buckeyes had remained on that schedule.

    Tennessee's defense had experienced its own serious struggles at times throughout the year, and the stats have suffered because of it. But the Vols played one of their two best defensive games Saturday against Missouri (along with the Bama game), and there was a reason.

    UT sophomore defensive end Derek Barnett told VolQuest.com's John Brice that the Vols got sick of hearing about Mizzou's vaunted defensive front seven.

    "Oh yeah; we got tired of hearing about how good Missouri's defense was and so it was our defense versus their defense, I feel like," Barnett said.

Prediction

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    Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

    There should have been fears heading into the Tennessee-Missouri game—fears that the Volunteers were paper tigers incapable of winning old-fashioned slugfests against strong defenses geared to stop the ground game, fears that playing as the favorite may come with pressure the young Vols weren't ready to face.

    The 19-8 domination of the Tigers that isn't reflected in the final score should have alleviated all of those concerns.

    Tennessee is good. While the Vols lost the right to be deemed great with four losses to four quality opponents (Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas and Alabama) by a combined 17 points, they still have the chance to have a really good year.

    Going 8-4 isn't the step most UT fans wanted, but it's still a big step forward for this program, nonetheless. That mini-milestone hasn't been reached since 2007, and it will be with a win over Vanderbilt.

    It may not wind up pretty, but neither was the victory at Missouri. But it still will count just the same. 

    Yes, VU is capable of shutting Tennessee down, making a couple of plays on offense and beating the Vols. But being capable of something and being expected to do it are two different things. 

    Tennessee is a much better football team. The Vols have enough offensive talent to put up points, and they are playing at a high level defensively in every moment dating back to halftime of the Georgia game besides a forgettable third quarter against South Carolina. That covers the last five-and-a-half games.

    The Vols will keep that up and finish the season strong.

    Prediction: Tennessee 26, Vanderbilt 10

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