Through four games, Vanderbilt’s defense has done its part.
The Commodores lead the country in interceptions (14), are tied for fifth in turnover margin (plus-7) and rank 11th in total defense (279.25 yards per game).
But in order to knock off No. 2 Alabama on Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the defense might have to do more — get into the end zone.
“That is always a goal — to score. It is a defense-inspired goal. We want to score on defense,” cornerback Trey Wilson said. “If we can get a score on defense every game, we should win.”
So far, the results support Wilson’s theory.
In Vanderbilt’s first three games — all wins — the defense returned an interception for a touchdown. Against South Carolina on Sept. 23, the Commodores (3-1, 1-1 SEC) had four interceptions. Casey Hayward had two, upping his season total to four and tying him for the most in the country. He returned one of his picks against the Gamecocks 24 yards to the 22-yard line. But the offense couldn’t get into the end zone and settled for a field goal. Those were the Commodores’ only points in a 21-3 loss.
Against Alabama, the points might even be harder to come by.
The Crimson Tide (5-0, 2-0) lead the nation in scoring defense, having allowed just 42 points in five games. They also rank first in rushing defense (39.60), third in total defense (191.6 yards per game) and fifth in passing defense (152 yards a game).
“We have to get all the points that we can — defense, special teams, offense,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. “I think all three phases have a tremendous challenge. There is no doubt about that. Not only do we have to find ways to create points, but I think the other thing is really a focus for us this week is eliminating the negative plays.”
At his Monday press conference, Franklin emphasized the need to cut down on sacks allowed and penalties, areas in which Vanderbilt ranks 11th and 10th, respectively, in the SEC. Plus, he said they must prevent the opposing defense from getting into the end zone. Twice this season, a fumble by quarterback Larry Smith has been turned into a touchdown.
Franklin also stressed bigger plays on special teams. The Commodores are just one of four SEC teams that have not returned either a punt or kickoff for a touchdown. They have also not blocked a punt or kick.
It will take a perfect game — or better — to upset the Crimson Tide, who are not bad on offense either.
Alabama averages 38.4 points a game, second among SEC teams to only Arkansas. The Crimson Tide’s 229.8 rushing yards a game leads the league. They are paced by 5-foot-11, 224-pound Trent Richardson, who averages 124.4 yards and has 10 touchdowns.
“I am not in awe of them,” Wilson said. “It is just another SEC opponent. I am not going to put anybody on a pedestal. It is what, the sixth week of the season? So I’m not going to place anybody on a pedestal and say ‘I am in awe of them.’ It is just another opponent we got to face. Week one, we faced Elon and we’re going to approach it the same way we approached them.”
• Disappearing act: After three catches in the season opener, sophomore wide receiver Jordan Matthews has had just two receptions in the last three games.
Matthews, a 6-foot-3, 202-pounder, caught four touchdowns in the last four games of the 2010 season. He figured to be the Commodores’ go-to receiver after impressive workouts in the spring and in August preseason camp. Instead, he has just five receptions for 63 yards and no touchdowns.
“He needs to make plays when he has the opportunities,” Franklin said. “Sometimes [against South Carolina] the ball was designed to go to Jordan and we got pressured or sacked on those plays.”
Redshirt-freshman Chris Boyd leads the team with three receiving touchdowns and 105 yards. But he did not have a catch against South Carolina.
Sophomore Jonathan Krause had a career-high nine catches against the Gamecocks and leads the team with 15 receptions.
Franklin said all of his receivers need to pick up more yards after the catch, create separation at the line of scrimmage and run routes better.
“Everything has to happen fast — the protection, the quarterback’s reads and progressions, the receivers’ routes and the timing of it,” Franklin said. “It is one thing to stand out there in 7-on-7, or in the summer, and throwing routes on air. Guys have time to work the DBs and do all those things. It is another, when you have to drop back and you are being chased and you have protection challenges and also being able to make plays. How fast the receivers can get open is important.”
• Sweet Home Alabama: Eleven Vanderbilt players, including six probable starters for Saturday’s game, hail from Alabama.
On offense, Smith (Prattville), Matthews (Madison) and running back Zac Stacy (Centreville) are all returning home. Defensively, linebacker Chase Garnham, defensive end Walker May and safety Sean Richardson are doing the same.
“I guess I grew up an Alabama fan until I was about in sixth grade and then I didn’t like either one,” May said. “My mom was Auburn and my dad was Alabama so they had one legal fight a year they always say.”
No current Vanderbilt player has ever played Alabama, with the Commodores last having faced the Crimson Tide in 2007.
• Game times and TV: Vanderbilt will play Alabama at 6 p.m. on Saturday and the game will be televised on ESPNU. The Commodores will return home the following week to start a three-game homestand. They kick it off against Georgia at 6 p.m. on Oct. 15. That game will be televised on Fox Sports South.