When South Carolina and Vanderbilt met a year ago, the contest was a tight, hard-fought defensive battle.
Vanderbilt scored first, kicking a field goal late in the first quarter after intercepting a Stephen Garcia pass in USC territory.
However, those would be the only points scored by the Commodores as the superb USC defense dominated the proceedings, limiting Vanderbilt to 77 yards and five first downs on 48 plays.
The following Saturday, the ‘Dores were blanked by Alabama, 34-0, accumulating only 190 yards. The contest, though, is remembered for coach James Franklin’s decision to replace struggling senior Larry Smith at quarterback with Jordan Rodgers, a largely untested junior-college transfer better known as the younger brother of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Vanderbilt fell with a thud, but the door was opened.
Seven days later, Smith started a home contest against Georgia, but was yanked after tossing an interception early in the second quarter. Rodgers came on and directed Vanderbilt for the remainder of the game, which ended in controversial fashion but with another Vanderbilt setback.
Even though he completed just 4-of-19 passes against the Bulldogs, Rodgers was quickly named by Franklin as the starting quarterback for the ensuing home game against Army. Vanderbilt erupted for 530 yards in a 44-21 victory.
The 6-foot-1, 212-pound Rodgers retained the starting job throughout the second half of the season, eventually completing 50 percent of his passes (108-of-216) for 1,524 yards, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Rodgers, a dual-threat quarterback, also finished second on the team behind Zac Stacy (1,193 yards and 14 touchdowns) in rushing, with 420 yards and four touchdowns.
Rodgers epitomizes the new swagger and confidence surrounding the Vanderbilt program as Franklin begins his second year at the helm.
The Gamecocks will, of course, get an up-close-and-personal look at Rodgers and the optimistic Commodores when the two schools clash at 7 p.m. on Aug. 30 at Vanderbilt Stadium in the season-opener for both teams.
Since Rodgers only played briefly in the Gamecocks’ 21-3 win last season, USC defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward has watched countless hours of Vanderbilt tape in order to try to get a feel for how Franklin will utilize his senior quarterback.
“You don’t know, because it’s the opening game of the season and they’ve had a whole offseason to prepare for us,” Ward said. “I know they’re making this a real big ballgame. We’ll see what they want to do to attack us and we’ll see what we can do to attack them.”
Rodgers isn’t the lone Vanderbilt offensive performer making USC wary. Stacy, another senior, is the top returning rusher in the SEC and has a chance to break several career team rushing records.
Warren Norman was the 2009 SEC Freshman of the Year but injuries have derailed his last two seasons. He is expected to be healthy in 2012. Highly regarded freshman Brian Kimbrow, a four-star prospect from Memphis, Tenn., gives Vanderbilt arguably three all-SEC caliber running backs.
Who will emerge as favorite passing targets for Rodgers when he drops back to throw? Vanderbilt returns its top four wide receivers from a year ago. Jordan Matthews (41 receptions), Chris Boyd (31), Jonathan Krause (23) and Wesley Tate (22) combined for 117 catches and 1,609 yards.
“Their quarterback is a real good player and they have receivers that are good players,” Ward said. “They have a good tailback (Stacy) back. They’re a complete offense. Eight starters back from what I understand. They’ll be better than they were a year ago when we played them.”
Aware that Vanderbilt should be an improved football team (it also returns four offensive line starters), Gamecock defenders began a daily ritual months ago of studying film of the Commodores in order to find tendencies in play-calling and what Rodgers prefers to do as the signal-caller.
“We’ve been looking at Vanderbilt since the spring,” senior outside (weakside) linebacker Shaq Wilson said. “All of us, D.J. (Swearinger), me, Reggie (Bowens), we go to his house, turn on some music and watch film all the time. We’ve been looking for keys and hints, and just some of the things the quarterback does. The young guys were watching film with us in the summer, so we’re ready for Vanderbilt.”
Reinvigorated by Rodgers, the Vanderbilt offense rebounded from the poor outings against USC and Alabama to finish seventh in the SEC in total offense, with an average of 339.1 yards per game, and sixth in rushing offense (164.5).
The Vanderbilt offense averaged 31 points during Rodgers’ seven starts last season, a key reason that he was voted an offensive co-captain by teammates exiting spring practice.
Without a doubt, USC expects to face an entirely different Vanderbilt offense than the one that struggled mightily to move the football last year at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“They have a good throwing quarterback with Rodgers coming back and they have a good running game,” Wilson said. “They try to do everything. They run some bubble screens. They’re a good-sized team. In the SEC, we know we have to be ready to come with our best. Everybody is trying to get a ‘W’ in the first game. We’re going to be ready for them and I know they’ll be ready for us.”
“I’m sure coach Ward and coach (Kirk) Botkin will give tips on what to look for and what they like to do.”
Sophomore defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles has noticed many of the same characteristics in the Vanderbilt offense as Wilson during his own independent film study of the Commodores, and he emphasized that USC must keep Rodgers contained in the pocket and prevent him from wreaking havoc on the perimeter with his feet.
If they fail, stopping the Vanderbilt offense could prove challenging.
“They are a very improved team. They have an athletic quarterback that is real good,” Quarles said. “We have to keep him contained and keep him in the pocket. They have a real good offensive line, better than what they were last year.”
With so many experienced offensive players returning for Vanderbilt, Quarles knows that just keeping Rodgers under wraps won’t be enough.
“You really can’t focus on one person,” Quarles said. “You have to come hard from every angle. They have so many weapons and so many threats, they can do anything. But if we bring our ‘A’ game, we should be all right.”
Last year, the USC defense indeed brought its “A” game when it faced Vanderbilt, allowing 10 or more yards on just one possession, a nine-play, 37-yard drive in the second quarter that ended with a punt.
Another dominating performance on that level could produce USC’s fourth straight win and its 17th in 21 games over Vanderbilt since joining the SEC in 1992.