With continuity, Commodores anxiously awaiting first SEC win

Vanderbilt quarterback Johnny McCrary calls a play at the line during the first half against the Old Dominion Monarchs. The Commodores have settled their quarterback battle and hope conference wins come now with continuity. 

Christopher Hanewinckel/Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Considering they have been few and far between this season, Vanderbilt football can’t be a snob about its victories.

Vanderbilt is winless in five Southeastern Conference games, but it can hang its hat on going 3-1 against non-league opponents. The only non-SEC loss came in the season opener to visiting Temple, which is now 5-3 following last Saturday’s win over East Carolina and sits just one game from bowl eligibility.

"Absolutely not," Commodores redshirt freshman wide receiver C.J. Duncan said of whether it matters who the wins come over. "A win is a win. It is still Division I football. We’re thankful to get the wins we have, and we’re looking forward to them even more."

What the two recent wins and solid effort at Missouri have done is help right a ship that had been listing mightily. A quarterback carousel among four players was finally settled when redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary stepped forward in the Missouri game to take the reins, thanks in large part to the slow return of previous starter Patton Robinette with a concussion.

"It’s settling in to what we are doing and understanding our personnel, whether it’s our tight ends or receivers," said Vanderbilt first-year coach Derek Mason, who said Robinette has recovered and is available if needed. "Having a quarterback make a consecutive start in a game really helps when you talk about continuity and just trying to develop rhythm."

Other than Robinette and McCrary, the Commodores have also started senior Stephen Rivers and true freshman Wade Freebeck at quarterback. But McCrary cemented the starting spot in the 42-28 win over Old Dominion, earning SEC Freshman of the Week honors after completing 20 of 29 passes for 281 yards. His five touchdown passes in a game tied the school record shared by former Vanderbilt greats Jay Cutler (2005) and Bill Wade (1950).

"When you can have some continuity throughout what you are doing," Mason said, "you can create your matchups and you know your matchups are going to be there for you. It makes it easier to game plan around what you are doing."

If Vanderbilt is to get its first SEC win of the season Saturday, it must do so against a resurgent Florida (4-3, 3-3) team coming off an impressive 38-20 win over then-No. 9 Georgia last Saturday. Embattled fourth-year Gators coach Will Muschamp is apparently fighting to save his job, while his team is seeking revenge from a 34-17 home loss to the Commodores last season.

Against Georgia, the Gators replaced longtime starter Jeff Driskell with Treon Harris, who became the first true freshman to start at quarterback for Florida since Chris Leak in 2003. The Gators passed the ball only six times, second-fewest in program history, but instead leaned heavily on the two-pronged rushing of junior Matt Jones and sophomore Kelvin Taylor. Each rushed for career highs – Taylor had 197 yards, Jones posted 192 – and two touchdowns each.

"You look at what they did offensively," Mason said, "it was a change in venue with only six passes thrown with three completed. They ran the ball extremely well. Their two running backs, Taylor and Jones, both finished in the high 190s.

"They are a good football team. Defensively, they rank in the upper half of the SEC in terms of what they do. Offensively, they are finding rhythm. They are a team that beat a really good Georgia team."

SEC Coming Attractions

The Commodores counter with a solid ground game, too. Redshirt freshman Ralph Webb’s 166 rushing yards on 31 carries last Saturday were both freshman school records. Ranked sixth overall in the SEC at 760 yards, he is 39 yards shy of setting the Vanderbilt single-season rushing record for a freshman.

Ironically, Webb is from Gainesville, Fla., home of the University of Florida, which did not recruit him heavily out of Gainesville High.

"They recruited me," Webb said of Florida. "It hasn’t bothered me. It is what it is. I made my decision to come here and still play in the SEC at a great academic institution."

Webb said it wouldn’t mean any more to beat Florida than any other SEC team, considering the Commodores are still searching for their first league win of the season.

"At the end of the day, a win is a win," the 5-foot-10, 196-pounder said. "We are just trying to come out here and get a ‘W.’ It’d be nice to beat (Florida), but we’re just as focused on winning each and every week no matter who it is."

After struggling to pick up the new offense of coordinator Karl Dorrell, and slow to adapt to the new 3-4 defensive alignment of coordinator David Kotulski, Vanderbilt seems more upbeat following two wins in three games.

"It’s always good to win," said Duncan, who has 25 catches and leads the team with 416 receiving yards and four touchdowns. "No one likes to lose. Just the energy at practice is a lot different. The energy before the game, during the game, now we have the momentum and we feel like we can play with anybody in the country. It’s up to us to do what we’re supposed to do and execute."