This is a big one for Kentucky for obvious reasons. It is their last home game of the season. It is senior day. And it gets them to bowl eligibility.
Standing in the way of the Wildcats’ fifth strait bowl game, and a bowl appearance in Joker Phillips’ first year as head coach, is Vanderbilt.
The Commodores enter the game on a four-game losing streak. They have not won since they downed Eastern Michigan, 52-6, on October 9. Like Kentucky, they are 1-5 in league play. But unlike Kentucky, their losses have not been close. Their average margin of defeat in those five losses is 31.4 points. Their lone SEC win was a 28-14 victory over Ole Miss in Oxford. In that game the ‘Dores lived off of big plays. They scored their first three touchdowns on a 35-yard touchdown run by Zac Stacy, a 21-yard interception return by Eddie Foster and the biggest of all, a 80-yard touchdown run by Warren Norman that gave them the lead for good.
Against Kentucky on Saturday, Vandy will be without the services of Norman, who is out for the year with a dislocated wrist. Norman has been Vandy’s go-to back all season long. He leads the team with 459 rushing yards and also has 110 yards receiving.
Unfortunately for first-year head coach, Robbie Caldwell, the injuries at running back don’t end there. In fact, they will be without their first three backs on Saturday. Back-up Zac Stacy, who has 331 rushing yards on the year, is out after suffering a concussion last week against Arkansas. Third stringer Wesley Tate is also expected to miss the game with a sprained ankle.
All of these injuries add up to the Commodores running fourth-string senior, and practice player, Kennard Reeves out there to start the game. On the season, Reeves’ numbers are far from impressive, as he has rushed for just 77 yards on 26 attempts. That is good for just 3.0 a-pop. In his four years at Vandy, he has rushed for just 271 yards.
Reeves will be joined in the backfield by two defensive players that have been converted to running back to give them some depth. Linebacker Micah Powell is expected to serve as back-up and you may also see defensive back, Eric Samuels, get some carries.
While this is very unfortunate for Vandy, these injuries are nothing but good news for a Kentucky team that has struggled defending the run.
The injuries to the running back core puts even more pressure on junior quarterback Larry Smith (6-2, 220). On the season Smith has completed 96-of-194 passes, good for just 49-percent, for 1,058 yards, six touchdowns and four interceptions. His numbers are very similar to a season ago, but he has reduced his picks so far. Last year he threw seven interceptions. However, critics can say that he has less interceptions because he is getting nowhere near his receivers.
Smith isn’t really a threat with his legs, either. On the year he has rushed for 194 yards, but is just averaging 2.4 yards every time he tucks and runs. Vanderbilt lacks deep threats, as well, so there is nothing really that scares you as an opposing defense.
To have success against Kentucky they are going to need Smith to have more success on the ground than he has in the past. UK’s struggles against dual-threat quarterbacks is well-known and for Vandy to have a chance, they will need to tap into that. They will also need for Smith to be accurate with his short passes to keep drives going. Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, accuracy and Smith aren’t usually things that go together.
On the defensive side of things the Commodores have injuries, as well, especially on the defensive line. Week in and week out, the biggest concern for Vanderbilt is to stop the run, but against Kentucky they will probably have to focus on stopping them through the air.
Junior cornerback Casey Hayward (6-0, 185) is one of the best in the SEC at defending the pass and leads the ‘Dores with five interceptions on the season. But, the rest of the Vanderbilt secondary is very shaky, so expect Hartline to stay away from Hayward and rack up some big yards.
With their depleted defensive line, expect the UK offensive line to give Mike Hartline more time to throw than he has been accustomed to the last couple of weeks. A shaky secondary, combined with ample time to find open receivers should equate into a big passing day for Hartline and the 20th best passing attack in the land.
Last week Kentucky did not play well against a Charleston Southern team, that could have been the worst team to ever play the Wildcats in football. Early on, when the Bucs were hanging toe-to-toe with the ‘Cats, you really questioned whether or not they could beat either Vandy or Tennessee to gain bowl eligibility. But, this team has far too many weapons on offense in Hartline, Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews for Vanderbilt to consistently stop them. Add the return of Derrick Locke and things get even tougher for Vandy.
On the other side of the field I just can’t see Vandy moving the football, unless Smith finds a way to work some magic with his legs. As bad as the Wildcats have been against running quarterbacks in the past, I just don’t see Smith doing any damage.
The only way the ‘Cats lose on Saturday is if they implode turnover-wise, much like they did at Ole Miss and against Georgia. If they can avoid turnovers they should have zero issues with Vandy.
Kentucky rolls and earns their fifth strait bowl appearance in Joker’s first season as head coach.
Kentucky 38, Vanderbilt 13