After opening the season with victories against Miami (Ohio) and South Carolina, Vanderbilt’s impressive defense faces its biggest test to date when the high-powered Rice Owls visit Nashville today.
The Owls, 2-0 overall and undefeated in Conference USA play, have scored 98 points this season while averaging 448 yards per game.
Despite allowing 332.5 yards per game, the Vanderbilt defense has limited points and forced turnovers – five interceptions and three forced fumbles. The unit’s 15.0-point average ranks among the top half of the Southeastern Conference.
They will need more of the same this Saturday when they face another challenge at home against Rice.
“This is going to be a big challenge,” said junior cornerback Myron Lewis.
The Commodores held South Carolina to just 92 yards rushing and intercepted Chris Smelley twice last Thursday. The Commodores have also broken their opponent’s offensive line, sacking the quarterback seven times, good enough for first in the SEC and ninth in the nation.
“Our most underrated aspect is our defensive line. They do a great job of applying pressure to the quarterback and plugging up holes in the running game,” said junior linebacker Patrick Benoist.
The defense has enjoyed outstanding individual performances as well. Benoist received conference and national recognition this week for his 15 tackles and one sack against USC.
Junior cornerback D.J. Moore is living up to his All-SEC status. He has compiled nine tackles and grabbed one interception, while averaging nearly 24 yards per punt return.
The Rice offense will battle against one of the main strengths of Vanderbilt’s defense – its pass defense. “Rice doe a great job of throwing the football and defending the pass one of our strongest areas on defense,” Lewis said.
Lewis, along with junior defensive tackle Greg Billinger, senior safety Reshard Langford and redshirt freshman linebacker Chris Marve, has also played well. The junior cornerback has totaled 11 tackles and one interception. Billinger has contributed six tackles with two sacks; Langford with 13 tackles and one interception; and Marve with 12 tackles with one sack.
The entire unit has played a role in Vanderbilt’s early-season success.
“The front line is playing extremely well. And the linebackers and secondary also are playing well too,” Lewis said. “Everybody’s running to the ball. There are 11 guys at the ball every time.”
“We try to own up to just being a really fast, play-making defense. We fly around to the ball and bring a lot of effort,” Benoist added.
The ‘Dores have to swarm the Owls receivers and bring pressure to senior quarterback Chase Clement. The all-time passing leader at Rice, Clement completed 26 of 44 passes for 318 yards with one passing and two rushing touchdowns in a thrilling 42-35 comeback victory at Memphis last week. He was especially on the mark in the fourth quarter, connecting on 13 of 14 passes for 176 yards to help the Owls surge past the Tigers.
"He does a lot of good things for their football team. He throws the ball extremely well and he is fearless in the pocket,” said Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson.
Two of Clement’s top weapons, sophomore tight end James Casey and senior wide receiver Jarett Dillard, had outstanding games against Memphis. Casey had a school record 208 yards in receiving, while Dillard caught a five-yard touchdown pass to set Rice career marks for touchdowns (44) and points (264). Dillard needs only six more touchdown receptions to match Troy Edwards for the NCAA career mark.
"They have a stable of receivers that are used to be playing in that system where they catch a lot of balls,” added Johnson. “They see a lot of coverages and they react well to different defensives schemes.”
Not only was Clement able to pick apart the Memphis defense with his arm, but he also did some damage on the ground. He rushed for a team-high 80 yards including a nine-yard scamper with 1:15 left.
“They’re going to come out and spread the ball around. They will try to connect on a bunch of short passes, then try to get a long one, along with running the ball to keep us off-balance,” Benoist said.
The Owls possess the 23rd passing offense in the nation, and rank 34th in total offense. The Vanderbilt secondary, ranked third-best in the nation by College Football News, will have its hands full.
“They’re going to come out hard. We just have to play hard, play like there’s zeros on the scoreboard,” and put up a good fight,” Lewis added.