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Vanderbilt's Passing Defense: Great or Untested?

A lot of the chatter about this game regards how we're going to fare against Vanderbilt's passing defense. Statistically, Vandy has one of the better pass defenses in the conference. South Carolina is a team that has relied on the pass, at least in conference games. Recipe for disaster, right?

Not so fast, my friend. Before jumping to conclusions, let's take a look at the rate of passes to runs undertaken by Vandy's SEC opponents. LSU passed 30 times to 42 rushes. Mississippi State passed 18 times to 56 rushes. Ole Miss passed 34 times to 43 rushing attempts. Georgia passed 31 times to 37 rushing attempts.

The trend should be clear. Although all of these teams, with the exception of MSU, seek to have balanced offenses, all of them chose to run the ball frequently on Vandy. That means that Vandy's gaudy pass defense statistics are largely the result of teams simply choosing to run the ball instead of passing it.

Does this mean that Vandy doesn't have a good pass defense? Certainly not. One of the reasons teams don't throw the ball against Vandy is because Vandy has a good secondary. In particular, corner Myron Lewis is a guy you just don't want to throw the ball anywhere near. Moreover, Vandy has held teams to a low ypa, a good indication of a good passing defense.

Continue reading after the jump.

However, identifying Vandy's secondary as good only tells part of the story, as two additional factors contribute to the numbers. First of all, Vandy has been down in the second half against all of their opponents. That means that those opponents have chosen to play ball control down the stretch, slanting the passing defense numbers in Vandy's favor while still gaining yardage on the ground.

More generally, teams are going to choose to run against Vandy not so much because they fear Vandy's defense as because they don't want to screw up. When a team knows that it is at an athletic disadvantage, it's going to base it's chance to win on taking calculated risks. This is true of any lower-tier OOC opponent of a BCS-conference team. Vandy, though, which is disadvantaged almost every week during SEC play, has honed the practice of taking those calculated risks to a fine art, netting numerous upsets in the process. It only makes sense that SEC teams fearing to be Vandy's next victim would wisen up and play more conservatively by keeping the ball out of the air to avoid committing game-changing turnovers. The fact that Vandy lacks a competent offense this year means that it makes all the more sense to play conservatively; why take risks to score lots of points when you don't have to do so to win? To make matters worse for Vandy, their rushing defense, while decent, isn't exactly keeping teams from moving the ball. The choice ends up being pretty simple: why pass the ball, when the risks of doing so are high, and the gains of not doing so look like a sure thing?

All of this is to say that I expect you'll see us run the ball fairly frequently on Saturday night. We're not going to rack up the rushing yardage like we did against FAU and S. C. State, but I do think we can move the ball consistently and either gain frequent first downs or at least set up manageable passing third downs. That might not equal a 40+ point game, but it should equal a convincing victory.