The University of Tennessee as chosen to run the ball more than it has thrown it this season.
That’s not likely to change now that coach Butch Jones has thrown one of his top receiving threats out of the program.
Jones announced Wednesday that Alton “Pig” Howard was dismissed for a violation of team rules. The third-year coach declined to say what the violation was but acknowledged that he learned of the transgression earlier in the day.
Howard was suspended for the season-opener against Bowling Green and missed the last two contests due to injuries, including a concussion.
“He has been dismissed from the football team and [that is] totally unrelated to his injuries,” Jones said.
In two appearances this season Howard had one reception for eight yards.
He was the team’s leading receiver in 2014 with 54 catches for 618 yards and one touchdown. The senior wide receiver finished his career with 112 receptions – tied for 12th all-time in program history – for 1,068 yards and five touchdowns.
"You try to impact every person that comes in your program," Jones said. "It's all about choices and decisions. It's unfortunate, but we have to continue to move forward."
Sophomore wide receiver Josh Malone and tight end Ethan Wolf each have a team-high 12 receptions for the Volunteers, who have run the ball an SEC-high 242 times (only seven FBS teams have run it more often) and thrown it just 139 in their five games.
(Photo: Getty Images)
The best way for Vanderbilt’s baseball team to get where it wants to go is to stay at home as often as possible.
The program’s 2016 schedule, released Tuesday, includes 36 home games among 56 total. The first nine, beginning with a three-game series against San Diego (Feb. 19-21), and 18 of the first 21 will be at Hawkins Field. That includes the start of Southeastern Conference play, March 18-20, when Mississippi State comes to town.
The only non-conference series on the road is a three-game set at Stanford, March 4-6.
In the last eight seasons, the Commodores have won 76.7 percent of their home games. The three times they made it to the College World Series (2011, 2014 and 2015) they were a combined 91-27 (.771) at home.
COMFORTS OF HOME
A year-by-year look at Vanderbilt baseball’s home record for the past eight seasons:
Other notable aspects of the schedule include:
• Vanderbilt and Belmont will play a non-conference game at First Tennessee Park, the home of the Nashville Sounds, which opened earlier this year. That game will be March 29.
• Xavier and Radford, who came to town for NCAA regionals in 2014 and 2015, respectively, will play multiple games at Hawkins Field. The Commodores will host Radford for two (March 8 and 9) followed by a visit from Xavier for three (March 11-13).
• The Commodores will play a home-and-home with Middle Tennessee State. Vanderbilt will go to Murfreesboro on March 22 and host the return contest April 12.
• The annual late-season showdown with Louisville will be May 10 at Hawkins Field.
The end of Vanderbilt’s 17-13 victory at Middle Tennessee State on Saturday was dramatically different from the rest of the contest.
For more than three quarters the Commodores struggled to score because – among other things – they turned the ball over. Then they turned it around with two touchdowns in the final 6:14 and delivered coach Derek Mason his first win in a road game.
A further look at some of the notable performers and moments from the game:
VANDERBILT PLAYER OF THE GAME
Ralph Webb, running back
When Vanderbilt needed key yards Webb came through in a big way. There were times where it seemed like he was the entire Vanderbilt offense himself.
He finished 25 carries for 155 yards, none bigger than his 39-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter, which clinched the game for Vanderbilt.
• Trent Sherfield, WR: He had a relatively quiet evening until Vanderbilt needed a big play. He had a couple of big catches and went 34 yards on an end-aorund. He finished with six catches and 97 yards of total offense.
MTSU PLAYER OF THE GAME
Ed Batties, wide receiver
When teammate Richie James went down with an injury, Batties stepped up and started making plays for MTSU. In the fourth quarter with MTSU driving, Batties leaped in the air between two Vanderbilt defenders and hauled in a Brent Stockstill pass for the first touchdown of the game.
He ended the night with 10 receptions for 82 yards and a touchdown.
• Richie James, WR: James was having yet another solid game before he was hurt in the third quarter. He had eight receptions for 95 yards, five of which went for first downs.
• Kevin Byard, S: He had four tackles, a pass breakup, and an interception for 25 yards. The interception was the 17th of his career, tying him with James Griffin for the school’s all-time record.
Webb 39-yard touchdown run
On a third and one the Commodores once again went to their workhorse. Webb took the handoff and broke free from a couple of MTSU defenders for a 39-yard score to give Vanderbilt its first lead of the game.
The touchdown run capped off Webb’s first 100-yard game of the season and third of his career.
THEY SAID IT
"It was disappointing. We had a chance to put it away and just weren't able to do it. I'm really proud of our team and how they fought and competed. We'll struggle until we can run the ball. Give Vanderbilt credit, we missed a couple tackles. We've had two tough, gut-wrenching games back-to-back, but we still have a chance to reach our goals. This one hurts equally as much as last week." – MTSU coach Rick Stockstill on the disappointing loss
"This was an ugly football game with the turnovers and miscues. We had an inability to convert offensively on third down and defensively to get off the field. They gave us a great ball game, but at the end of the day, our football team grew up tonight. It was the first road win since I have been here and that's huge for this young football team." – Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason on pulling off a tough road win
"The quarterback made a few plays with his feet keeping the play alive. They also got a couple lucky bounces, but we busted a few coverages and lost some leverage; I definitely put the game on us.” – Byard on Vanderbilt’s fourth quarter comeback
For what was a defensive battle for most of the game, it came down to plays in the fourth quarter, when both teams produced their best offense.
Despite two turnovers earlier in the contest, Vanderbilt quarterback Johnny McCrary used his legs to get the Commodores into the end zone. His touchdown run brought Vanderbilt within three points and started to sway the momentum in his team’s favor.
For the second straight week MTSU suffered a heartbreaking loss in the final minutes. The defense held Vanderbilt to 177 yards passing and forced three turnovers but gave up big plays late.
The Commodores needed this victory. The Blue Raiders need to figure out how to finish contests such as this.
(Photo: John Russell/Vanderbilt athletics)
Another game got away from the University of Tennessee.
The Volunteers did not necessarily give away this one after they scored the first 14 points against Arkansas but ultimately lost 24-20 Saturday at Neyland Stadium. The Razorbacks simply played keep away over the final 30 minutes.
The Volunteers and Razorbacks were tied 17-17 at halftime, but UT had possession for just 8:03 in the second half. It had the ball more than that in the second quarter alone (8:47).
Arkansas outgained the Volunteers 236-90 after halftime and ran 41 plays (33 of them runs) to UT’s 24 over the final two quarters.
Three straight Razorbacks’ possessions consisted of at least 10 plays, one of which lasted more than six minutes and another that dragged on for more than five minutes. Tennessee’s longest possession of the contest took 4:09 off the clock.
"I think it's one of those games when we knew Arkansas stopped play as an offense,” UT quarterback Joshua Dobbs said. “I mean they like to run the clock out, and we saw that they had the possession most of the time in the second half.”
A look at the Volunteers’ second-half possessions:
• 8 plays, 49 yards (2:26), field goal
• 5 plays, 12 yards (1:12), punt
• 3 plays, 0 yards (1:06), punt
• 9 plays, 29 yards (2:42), punt
The impact was obvious.
Running back Jalen Hurd had 15 rushes for 89 yards in the first half but finished with 90 yards on 19 attempts. Tennessee was 2-for-4 in red zone conversions in the first half and never got there in the second. Dobbs completed just six passes for 86 yards after halftime. And so on. And so on.
Tennessee is now 2-3 overall and 0-2 in the SEC.
Vanderbilt’s offense is selfish.
In terms of football, that’s a good thing.
The Commodores rank among the top 20 in the FBS (they’re 18th, to be exact) in time of possession and have had the ball more than their opponents in each of their first four games.
The last time the Commodores had the edge in four consecutive games was the final four contests of 2013. Then, they won all four, including the BBVA Compass Bowl, and finished the season 9-4.
Victories have not come nearly as often with this season’s hoggish performances but such possession proficiency does have its benefits.
"You can tell in the third and fourth quarter that defenders are starting to get tired,” tight end Steven Scheu said. “When you see that, you kind of know that you have them where you want them, and we are definitely improving in that aspect."
Vanderbilt has had the edge in possession time in 12 of this season’s 16 quarters. In every contest there has been one in which it has the ball for more than 10 minutes. Three times that quarter was the first and the other (Western Kentucky) it was the second.
A year ago they won time of possession just four times – period – in 12 games.
NINE-TENTHS OF THE LAW
A quarter-by-quarter look at Vanderbilt’s time of possession in each of its first four games:
It’s not hard to figure why the Commodores have held the ball so much longer than last season.
Under first-year coordinator Andy Ludwig, they have averaged 22 first downs and 8.3 third-down conversions per contest. A year ago, those numbers were 16.1 and 3.8, respectively. They already have 33 third-down conversions and at their current pace they will surpass their 2014 total (46) before the end of their sixth game.
“There are no moral victories for us,” coach Derek Mason said. “This team wants to win ball games, and we're going to put ourselves in position to win ball games.”
Having the ball is a good place to start.
Middle Tennessee does not have much time to dwell on its tough, last-minute loss at Illinois.
Up next is Vanderbilt in a matchup that has been a long time coming. The Commodores will make their first trip to Murfreesboro since 1920.
“There have been a lot of rumors that this game is going to be sold out and we're finally going to have a real electric crowd here in Murfreesboro and that will be great,” Blue Raiders safety Kevin Byard said. “… It's going to be a great experience. We have played a lot of big schools this year, but we went into every single game expecting to win those games.
“We don't go into games expecting to lose no matter who the opponent is. It's just another game and we're going to go into it expecting to win.”
Since Floyd Stadium was expanded in 1998 as part of the football program’s transition to the Football Bowl Subdivision, the Blue Raiders have not played to a full house.
Saturday’s contest (6 p.m., CBS Sports Network) will be the first in a four-game series in which each team will host the other twice from now through 2018. So if this one does not fill every seat another opportunity awaits in 2017.
"This is the first time we have played Vanderbilt in 10 years,” coach Rick Stockstill said. “I always say that it takes time to build these games up. I know our staff and our players feel excited that we get a chance to play and SEC team.”
Middle Tennessee has won the previous three games in the series but overall is 3-12 against Vanderbilt. The last three meetings have been close contests.
In 2001 Middle Tennessee won 37-28 at Vanderbilt Stadium. That was the first meeting between the two schools since 1956. In 2002 Middle Tennessee came out on top 21-20 after scoring on a last minute drive. The most recent meeting, in 2005, Middle Tennessee blocked a last-minute field goal and topped then unbeaten Vanderbilt (4-0) 17-15.
“Everybody always says that the SEC is the best conference in the country,” Byard said. “Anytime we get a chance to play those guys it's special. It means something to us this week I can promise you that. It's an SEC team so of course you always want to beat an SEC team. I'm not really going to look into that too much. I didn't look too much at the Alabama game like that."
Derek Mason says there is no secret to Vanderbilt’s play on defense.
The word is out, though. It is tough to move the ball against the Commodores.
Vanderbilt has faced three FBS opponents in its first four games and all three boast high-output, high-scoring offenses, none of which produced at the same level against the Commodores, with the exception of Georgia’s rushing offense.
“We just do what we do. I do not think there is any secret sauce,” coach Derek Mason, who doubles as defensive coordinator said following Saturday’s loss to Ole Miss. “I think it is in who we are and how we play and how we function.”
A comparison of season averages on offense versus performance against Vanderbilt for the Commodores’ three FBS opponents:
Ole Miss second in the country in scoring offense and Georgia is in the top 15. They are the SEC’s top two in total offense, and the Rebels are first in the conference in passing offense while the Bulldogs are first in rushing offense.
Western Kentucky is just outside the top 20 in FBS for total offense.
So it’s not as if Vanderbilt hasn’t been tested.
“We are going to continue to get better,” Mason said. “Teams are not going to want to see us in October and November.”
Up next – on the first weekend in October – is Middle Tennessee State, which twice has scored more than 70 points and is currently 12th in the country (just behind Georgia) in scoring offense at 44.5 points per game.
(Photo: Joe Howell/Vanderbilt athletics)
Vanderbilt did more than just make things interesting.
There were chances Saturday night for the Commodores to take control at Ole Miss. It was tied midway through the third quarter after Vanderbilt scored on its first two second-half possessions. Then a blocked punt and a missed field goal – among other things – allowed the Rebels to pull away and defeat Vanderbilt 27-16.
A look at some of the notable performers and moments from a promising, but ultimately disappointing performance:
VANDERBILT PLAYER OF THE GAME
Zach Cunningham, sophomore, linebacker
He led the defense with 11 tackles, including 1 ½ tackles for loss and one sack.
Three times he made tackles on first-and-goal from the 1 or 2-yard line. In one case, Ole Miss eventually got a touchdown. The others started a goal line stand that ended with the Rebels kicking a field goal.
He also had one third-down stop that forced a punt on a night when Ole Miss’ high-powered offense converted just three times in 13 attempts.
The only time he’s had more stops in a game was last year at Mississippi State, when the defense was on the field all night and could not make a stop. This was a much different performance.
• Ralph Webb, RB: He ran for a season-high 90 yards, the third time in his career he’s rushed for at least 90 against an SEC opponent. His effort included a career-best 43-yard run that led to the game-tying touchdown midway through the third quarter.
• Stephen Weatherly, OLB (pictured): He had three tackles, a sack, a tackle for a loss, two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. In short: He was a general menace for the Ole Miss offense.
• Nifae Lealao, DT: He blocked a second-half Ole Miss field goal attempt that would have made it a two-score game and a little more than three minutes later it was a tie game.
The fair catch interference penalty against snapper Jacob Schultz with 3:47 to play in the first half
Vanderbilt was within a touchdown and was hanging around early when Ole Miss returner Carlos Davis allowed a punt to bounce right off his chest. Schultz went the ground and the Commodores seemingly were in business in Rebels’ territory.
Officials inexplicably threw the flag and awarded possession to Ole Miss even though Schultz was a good three yards or more – and stationary – from Davis when the ball arrived.
There’s no guarantee that Vanderbilt would have converted that opportunity into points but it should have had the chance to try – and it would have made the final minutes of the half much more interesting.
• Oren Burks’ interception 1:43 into the contest: It was the first takeaway for the Vanderbilt defense this season and the first sign that it was going to be a much tougher test for the Ole Miss offense than most anticipated.
• Tommy Openshaw’s 28-yard field goal with 3:17 left in the first quarter: It gave the Commodores a 3-0 lead, which was the first time all season Ole Miss trailed.
• Openshaw’s missed field goal with 9:28 to play: After the defense’s second interception Vanderbilt failed to produce any points. This kick (32 yards) would have made it a one-point game.
THEY SAID IT
• “To be great you have to be bigger than the moment. We just were not bigger than the moment. That is okay. We will take a look at it we fix it.” – Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, on the game.
• “I feel like anytime we get down to the red zone or the maroon zone or close to scoring and we don’t convert, it just sets you back. Our job is to score, so at any time we don’t score I feel pretty bad about it.” – quarterback Johnny McCrary, on the continued red zone struggles.
• “A lot of credit goes to Vanderbilt. They are a better team than people give them credit for.” – Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze.
This team is a lot better than it was a year ago and has come a long way since the start of the season. At 1-3 (0-2 in the SEC), it’s still a long way from bowl eligibility.
It was not that long ago that this type of result would have been deemed acceptable. No one can argue with the effort or the overall performance but Vanderbilt still does not do enough of the little things that make good football winning football, and those things are critical in games against teams as talented as Ole Miss.
(Photo: Joe Howell/Vanderbilt athletics)
The first thing to look at in the University of Tennessee’s latest loss to Florida is fourth down.
The Volunteers’ failure to make stops on fourth down was a significant factor in the 28-27 defeat, their 11th straight loss to their SEC East rival. The Gators converted three times on two fourth-quarter scoring drives, including on the game-winning touchdown – a 63-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-14.
“Yeah, I think the whole thing is fourth down,” coach Butch Jones said Saturday. “Three critical fourth down conversations that [if] we get off the field and we win the football game. It's particularly when it is fourth-and-long – fourth-and-(14) – you have got to close the game out, you have got to get off the field and run victory formation milking the clock and the game is over.”
Actually, the Volunteers allowed the Gators to convert all five times they went for it in fourth down Saturday in Gainesville. The first was in the second quarter and turned out to be harmless. The next was in the third quarter and led to a Florida touchdown one play later.
FOURTH DOWN FOIBLES
A look at Florida’s fourth-down conversions Saturday against Tennessee:
Fourth-and-2 at the Florida 43 (6:35 remaining): Grier pass to McGee – 13 yards
Result: The next three plays were incomplete passes and Florida punted
Fourth-and 6 at the Tennessee 25 (6:12 remaining): Grier pass to Powell – 21 yards
Result: Florida scored on the next play and cut Tennessee’s lead to six (20-14)
Fourth-and-7 at the Tennessee 45 (6:25 remaining): Grier pass to McGee – 10 yards
Fourth-and-8 at the Tennessee 21 (4:20 remaining): Grier pass to Powell – 16 yards
Result: Two plays after the second conversion, Florida scored a touchdown and cut Tennessee’s lead to six again (27-21)
Fourth-and-14 from the Florida 37 (1:26 remaining): Grier pass to Callaway – 63 yards
Result: That play was the touchdown that made the difference.
This is not a Florida-only problem. Tennessee’s first four opponents have combined to convert nine out of 10 times on fourth down. Bowling Green was three-for-three and Oklahoma was one-for-two.
No team in the FBS has allowed more fourth-down conversions and only four (of 128) have allowed a higher percentage. However, those four – Texas, Syracuse, Kansas and New Mexico State – have faced 11 fourth-down plays combined. None have faced five fourth downs on the season – let alone a single game.
"Some of those fourth downs we wish to get back but you just have to keep playing ball, and that's what we're going to do,” defensive back LaDarrell McNeil said. “We are going to keep playing ball and keep moving forward."
(Photo: Getty Images)
Vanderbilt finally takes its show on the road.
After three straight home games to open the 2015 season, the Commodores (1-2, 0-1) play their first away game Saturday, the first of five in their next six contests.
This isn't just any road trip, either. They must travel to Oxford to face Ole Miss (3-0, 1-0), an early favorite to win the SEC and be the conference’s representative in this year’s College Football Playoff. Kickoff is 6 p.m. (ESPNU).
Three reasons to believe Vanderbilt will win Saturday
• Confidence boost: Austin Peay was the right opponent at the right time for the Commodores last week. After two respectable performances, Vanderbilt took advantage of an overmatched opponent and took the next step in a lot of areas. Now it is up to everyone to hang on to all that positive reinforcement and do the same things against much tougher competition.
• History repeating: Other than Kentucky, there is not an SEC team Vanderbilt has been more competitive with in recent years than Ole Miss. The Commodores, in fact, have won six of the last 10 meetings and two of their four losses were by a touchdown or less, including that remarkable 39-35 defeat in the 2013 season opener. If the Commodores are going to be good, they usually show it against the Rebels.
• Alabama hangover: Ole Miss is one week removed from a highly emotional and physically challenging 43-37 victory at Alabama. It’s ranked in the top five of the two major college football polls. It is featured on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated. If ever a team was in line for a let-down, this is the one and — unlike a year ago — Vanderbilt is good enough to take advantage of a team that falls well short of its best effort.
Three reasons to believe Vanderbilt won’t win Saturday
• Star power: Ole Miss has landed some of the country’s top recruits in recent years and those talent hauls have started to pay serious dividends. No player has lived up to expectations more than junior Robert Nkemdiche (pictured). The 6-foot-4, 296-pound defensive tackle has 11 tackles, 3 ½ of them for losses. He’s also blocked a field goal attempt and — for good measure — has caught a pass for 31 yards. He’s a disruptive force teams must account for on every snap.
• Where it counts: Vanderbilt clearly has struggled to convert in the red zone. Ole Miss just as clearly has not. The Rebels have been inside their opponents’ 20-yard line 15 times and scored points all 15 times (12 touchdowns, three field goals). They are one of 21 teams that has scored every time they have been in the red zone but their average of five red zone possessions per game is the highest among that group.
• Getting started: Ole Miss has outscored its opponents 58-0 in the first quarter of its first three games. Vanderbilt has yet to score a point in the first quarter. In fact, the Commodores have gone scoreless through the first 15 minutes of their last five games, dating back to last season. It’s often said you can’t win a game in the first quarter but you can lose it. Ole Miss might actually be able to win it in the first.
The bottom line
Ole Miss is the better team, has all the momentum and confidence in the world and should win this game comfortably. Last week was a step in the right direction for Vanderbilt but this is a big step up in competition. Too big a step for anyone to think the Commodores have a realistic chance at victory.
(Photo: Getty Images)
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