The Vanderbilt defense quickly has developed a stingy reputation under coordinator Bob Shoop.
Last year, in Shoop’s first season, the Commodores became self-described ball hawkers the way they conjured up interceptions, leading the nation early and finishing with 19. This fall, through three games, the turnovers aren’t as many, but the yards and points are still hard to come by for opponents.
Vanderbilt ranked third in the country in pass defense (100.7 yards per game), 11th in total defense (248.3 yards) and 16th in scoring defense (13.3 points).
But don’t expect any of the Vanderbilt coaches and players to go around patting themselves on the back quite yet. There are still seven SEC games remaining, including Saturday’s test at pass-happy Georgia, who is ranked fifth in the country.
“I think you have to be careful. Stats can be deceiving,” coach James Franklin said. “That’s no disrespect. I’m very pleased with our defensive backs. ... The stats early on can be deceiving. I think we’re doing a nice job but we’re going to be challenged I think for the first time this year by probably the best team we’ve seen so far in terms of passing game and in terms of playmakers at the wide receiver position.”
Georgia’s Aaron Murray has developed into one of the nation’s elite quarterbacks over the last two plus seasons. The 6-foot-1 junior has started every game of his career and is the SEC’s active leader in offensive yards (7,314), completions (498), touchdown passes (67) and passing yards (7,040).
Against Vanderbilt, he is 2-0 with five touchdowns. He threw three last year along with a career-high 326 passing yards and was picked off just once in a 33-28 win.
“I think we’re going to be challenged,” Franklin said. “We’ve got a real veteran quarterback who does a great job in terms of managing the game, is extremely accurate, can make plays with his feet, can extend plays. I think he is a really, really good quarterback.”
This year he has led the Bulldogs to a 3-0 record, which includes a 41-20 dismantling of SEC newcomer Missouri two weeks ago.
Georgia leads the SEC in total offense, racking up more than 517 yards a game, and Murray is the second-most efficient quarterback in the conference with 842 passing yards and eight touchdowns.
“He is a great quarterback,” linebacker Karl Butler said. “He is a great leader. He has great qualities, such as looking off safeties, and just has really good control of the offense. It is definitely going to be a challenge for our scout team to replicate what they’re doing.”
Vanderbilt (1-2, 0-1) is coming off one of its best defensive performances, giving up just 149 yards and forcing two turnovers in a 58-0 rout of Presbyterian last weekend.
Of course, the numbers can be deceiving. The Commodores overwhelmed a Football Championship Subdivision team that is just six years removed from Division II.
But after blowing leads in the fourth quarter in two consecutive losses and heading into the daunting challenge of Georgia, the confidence gained from last weekend’s blowout can’t be overlooked.
“This past week in practice, we definitely but a big emphasis on finishing,” Butler said. “We definitely wanted to put the clamps on and definitely finished that game to give us a lot of confidence going into this Georgia game.”