Sunday, September 14, 2008

Surprising, effective halftime adjustments keep VU undefeated

Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson led the Commodores to their first 3-0 start since 2005. AP Photo.
Even Bobby Johnson was worried.

"We've got a pretty good secondary, and they were shredding us," Johnson said.

Shred is the right word, coach.

As the 37,370 in attendance at Vanderbilt Stadium looked on, the Rice Owls made the Vanderbilt defense, that held Ol' Ball Coach Steve Spurrier's Carolina Gamecocks to just 10 points in the first half, give up 21 to the Houston, Texas team from Conference USA.

At halftime, it was clear to everyone wearing Black and Gold that Coach Johnson and Coach Fowler had to make changes, or the Owls would simply wear down the Commodores' defense.

I, for one, was not hopeful.

In watching Bobby Johnson and company since the Coach's arrival on West End in 2002, one of his characteristics has shown through again and again: perseverance. It has been both a blessing and a curse.

It's been amazing in times of doubt and disquiet, when people are calling for his head and the team doesn't necessarily seem to be buying into what he's selling (remember some of the players' attitudes in the 2005 season? In private conversations, many veterans of the Commodores' 2005 success whispered that they'd often ignore the coaches' playcalling in favor of on-the-field decisions by Cutler and others).

And certainly, in Coach Johnson's determination to continue building this program his way -- despite snickers and jeering from fans and members of the media -- he has proven to be a universal success.

But at other times, Johnson's and his staff's seeming unwillingness to bend to what appears to be obvious to thousands watching the same game has been mind-numbingly frustrating. The examples are too numerous to mention (and somewhat painful to think about).

It may be, however, that things have changed.

There were glimmers of hope in last year's season. On several occasions, the Commodores seemed to actually make those elusive, game-changing adjustments that the coaching staff had ridiculed as "getting off the game plan."

As the 2008 season has continued to develop, last year's glimmers have become this year's distinctive shine.

In last week's battle against South Carolina, the Commodores came out of half-time with a fourteen-point explosion, and never looked back on the way to back-to-back wins of an SEC East foe.

And this week, as the Black and Gold went into the locker room with the score at 21 all, Bobby Johnson and Bruce Fowler set to work. We fans weren't the only ones to notice, either.

"We didn't say too much [at halftime]. It felt like we were losing. Everybody knew they had to do stuff. Nobody had to say too much," said Vanderbilt cornerback D.J. Moore.

Coach Johnson said that he and Bruce Fowler had over-prepared.

"We were trying to match up every little thing that they were doing," Johnson said. The answer? "We started to make fewer adjustments in the second half. We went to a more basic defense and just tried to put more pressure on the quarterback."

The quarterback noticed, too.

"They started mixing up their fronts. They started changing between three down and four down and that was kind of screwing with some of our protection," said Rice quarterback Chase Clement.

It wasn't until Vanderbilt placekicker Bryant Hahnfeldt became the Commodores' all-time highest scoring player, hitting a 48-yard field goal in the third quarter, that I felt that the game was out of reach for the Owls. But I don't believe it was then that the momentum shifted.

The momentum shift -- and the Commodores reassertion of control in the game -- came with Myron Lewis' sack of Chase Clement.

Rice had the ball in the very first possession of the second half, and, with three, smash-mouth running plays, the Owls had ground out a first down.

But on first down, Vanderbilt's Broderick Stewart forced a bad pass by Clement. And then another incompletion. And finally, on 3rd-and-10 from their own 34, Clement couldn't dance any more, and Myron Lewis dropped him for a loss of 6 yards.

The Commodores had adjusted. And the Owls would never recover.

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