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By The Numbers: Dissecting Northwestern's Week 2 Opponent -- Vanderbilt

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

Numbers can be manipulated in so many different ways to tell so many different stories. There are good statistics, but plenty of bad ones, too. As part of our preview coverage, we’ll try and pick out five of the former category in the hopes of painting a comprehensive numerical portrait for Northwestern’s upcoming opponent. This week: Vanderbilt.

6: Losses by seven points or fewer over the last 12 months.

Perhaps the biggest reason most expected an appreciable jump in win total for the Commodores this season is their recent track record in close games. Vanderbilt has played even its best opponents down to the wire, often losing by the slimmest of margins. Last season it lost by five points to Georgia (33-28), three points to Arkansas (31-28), five points to Florida (26-21), six points to Tennessee in triple overtime (27-21) and seven points to Cincinnati (31-24). Natural regression dictates some of those games will fall in the Commodores’ favor.

But it seems Vandy’s close-game failures have carried over into this season. The Commodores fell 17-13 to No. 9 South Carolina last Thursday, and while Vandy wasn’t expected to beat Gamecocks, it was a disappointing loss nonetheless. When you lose so many close games, there are no moral victories. The Commodores have been in enough close games with elite SEC teams that winning – and not just hanging tough, fighting until the end but ultimately falling short – is a legitimate goal. Unfortunately for coach James Franklin, there’s no schematic formula to address this exact problem; the ability to pull out close victories is as much about character and toughness as it is talent and execution. The Commodores keep getting close, but can’t seem to seal the deal. Until it can change that narrative, Vanderbilt will remain exactly what it is: a middling SEC program.

3: Third downs converted on 15 attempts against South Carolina last week.

Picking up new sets of downs is as basic and fundamental as any offensive objective in football. Last week against South Carolina, the Commodores were unable to establish an effective ground game on first and second down, which led to unfavorable down and distance situations. On second/third and long, the Gamecocks had free reign to attack quarterback Jordan Rodgers with starring defensive ends Jadaveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. The results are obvious, but the question moving forward is how the Commodores will work to position themselves for manageable third down conversion scenarios.

Getting the ground game going on first and second downs, presumably with senior tailback Zac Stacy, is the best way to avoid third and long situations. The Commodores will also look to hit big plays and keep defensive fronts honest by taking shots downfield with receiver Jordan Matthews. Third down conversion rates are one of the most telling stats in football. Keeping the chains moving, control the ball and sustain long drives – that’s a dependable formula for success.

234.2: Average passing yards allowed per game last season.

Pass defense is a high priority heading into this season after ranking last among SEC teams in that area last season. The Commodores must replace star cornerback Casey Hayward, who tied the school record with seven interceptions in 2011, and safety Sean Richardson. But there’s confidence in Nashville about the defensive backfield despite the personnel losses. Senior Trey Wilson, who notched three interceptions of his own last season, is a dependable replacement for Hayward while junior Javon Marshall succeeds Richardson at strong safety. Vandy also boasts depth and experience both at cornerback and safety; the returning players accounted for eight of the team’s 19 interceptions last season.

That secondary looked much improved against South Carolina, though it’s worth mentioning the Gamecocks do not run a pass-oriented offense by any stretch. They pound the ball with Heisman hopeful tailback Marcus Lattimore and restrict mobile quarterback Connor Shaw to hand offs and vanilla passing plays. Shaw was further limited in this game by a shoulder injury, which forced a greater reliance on the run. Still, it was encouraging for Vandy to give up just 67 yards through the air against an SEC powerhouse. It wasn’t an ideal test for the quasi-revamped secondary, but an inspring performance nonetheless. It will face a pass-oriented attack against Northwestern this weekend, which should prevent a good early-season litmus test for the defensive backfield.

5: South Carolina sacks of quarterback Jordan Rodgers.

This isn’t in the least bit shocking: Clowney and Taylor are arguably the best bookend pass-rushing tandem in all of college football. No measure of blocking expertise of schematic wizardry was going to seal off the Commodores’ backfield against their onrushing fury. They penetrated Vandy’s porous and undersized line and punished Rodgers, who at times held the ball slightly longer than he needed to. The offensive line adjusted as the game rolled along, and it found ways to neutralize Taylor and Clowney.

Still, the inconsistency along the line is unsettling for a Commodores’ offense that more than anything else needs to a) keep Rodgers upright and b)open up holes for Stacy. The group returns four starters from last season, which in most cases is a positive development. Not so much in this instance: Vanderbilt’s offensive line struggled mightily last season, and it’s essentially returning the same personnel group. Pass blocking is a legitimate concern; Clowney and Taylor proved as much last Thursday. Engaging defensive linemen, winning the line of scrimmage, and creating running lanes (getting a hat on a hat) is an even greater quandary. The Commodores’ skill players will be rendered somewhat ineffective unless the line can improve in time to facilitate effective passing and running games.

147: Receiving yards for Wide Receiver Jordan Matthews 

The Rodgers-Mathews connection has the potential for SEC record-breaking exploits, and they proved it in the Commodores’ nationally televised season-opener. Matthews is a long, lanky target with excellent jump ball ability and great hand (s). He was unfairly grabbed by  South Carolina safety D.J. Swearinger while trying to make a play during a critical drive late in the fourth quarter that would have positioned the Commodores for a game-winning touchdown. The missed call and eventual loss doesn’t detract from his superb performance. It seems Rodgers and Matthews picked up right where they left off last season with discernible improvements in timing and mutual understanding on ball placement and trajectory.

As Rodgers continues to develop as a passer, he needs Matthews to assist his progression by providing a reliable target. Rodgers is not afraid to take shots downfield, and as he improves his accuracy and decision-making, Franklin will afford him greater freedoms in the passing game. So expect him to look for Rodgers more often than ever before this season. If Thursday night was any indication, this duo could evolve into something prolific. Against NU’s secondary, Rodgers will look to Matthews early and often.