Nine days after a devastating 51-28 Homecoming loss to the Missouri Tigers, head coach James Franklin appeared before a small group of reporters in the McGugin Center. After cracking jokes about the possibility of a media barbecue after that coming Saturday’s early game, Franklin addressed the problem area of his team: the defense.
“You don’t want to reinvent the wheel over the bye week,” he said, “and you just want to tweak some things that are simple adjustments for you, but give a different appearance to the defense, and that’s all we are trying to do.”
Flash forward to the press conference after Saturday’s 22-6 victory over Kentucky, in which the Commodores picked off four of Wildcat quarterback Jalen Whitlow’s passes. Prior to the game, Whitlow had only been intercepted once all season.
“The turnovers were huge, especially considering how well that team had done at protecting the football all year long,” said an upbeat Franklin, flanked by his two daughters.
Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Adam Butler was a terror on special teams, coming up big on two unconventional plays. On Kentucky’s first drive, Wildcat running back Jojo Kemp ran 2 yards for a touchdown and a 6-0 lead. On the ensuing extra point attempt, kicker Joe Mansour lined up to kick only to have Butler bat the ball down a fraction of a second later. In the frantic scramble, Commodore defensive back Steven Clarke scooped the ball up and carried it downfield for a safety.
Later in the third quarter, Kentucky, down 9-6, looked poised to tie the game with a field goal. Facing fourth-and-six on the Vanderbilt 29-yard line, holder Jared Leet kept the ball and attempted to convert. Butler, unphased by the fake field goal, tackled Leet 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage, putting the ball back in the Commodores’ hands.
“I feel like we play better when our backs are against the wall and we really bow up and understand that we gotta stop them, and that’s what we did,” Butler said.
After a slow start to the season, the Wild Dogs, Vanderbilt’s defensive linemen, are finally dominating the line of scrimmage, pressuring quarterbacks and forcing turnovers.
Senior cornerback Andre Hal had the first interception of the game, setting up a touchdown that put the Commodores up 9-6 in the first quarter. With takeaways in two consecutive games, Hal has improved his anticipation of offensive schemes, putting himself in the right place at the right time.
“I knew the screen was coming because they lined up three on one in the boundary, so I jumped it and luckily he (receiver Demarco Robinson) tipped it right to me,” Hal said. “I just had to catch it.”
Freshman cornerback Paris Head and redshirt freshman safety Andrew Williamson each picked off Whitlow in the first half, and senior safety Kenny Ladler got his fourth interception of the season in the fourth quarter. Ladler has had an interception in each of his last three games.
Franklin has long believed that turnovers, along with penalties, are deciding factors in SEC games when points are at a premium.
“Our defense played exceptionally well. That was the biggest factor in the game. Over the last few weeks, the turnovers have been coming,” Franklin said.
After forcing seven turnovers in the first six games of the season, the Commodores have picked up 16 in their last four. Seven Commodores have recorded interceptions this season, and several players, including Butler, have come close.
Last season, picking up turnovers led Vanderbilt to a historic ninth win. A season-high five forced turnovers, which resulted in 17 points, gave the Commodores a 38-24 Music City Bowl victory over the North Carolina State Wolfpack.
This season, the defense has secured bowl eligibility, making Franklin three-for-three in his time at Vanderbilt. If the Wild Dogs continue to force turnovers, another nine-win season looks increasingly likely.