NASHVILLE, Tenn. — If Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson wants to remind his Commodores exactly how valuable limiting penalties can be, he should look back a year.
His Commodores posted a 7-6 season in 2008 with their first bowl win in 53 years thanks to a stingy defense and a team that didn’t make many mistakes.
Typical of a Johnson squad, the Commodores were one of the nation’s least penalized teams with only 56 over 12 games.
Vanderbilt has nearly matched that total in half the games.
The Commodores are 2-4, 0-3 in the Southeastern Conference, and have been flagged 46 times. If they don’t clean up those mistakes, Saturday’s game with Georgia (3-3, 2-2) could be very messy. Georgia ranks last in the SEC with 57 penalties for a league-high 452 yards.
“It’s not ... a particular person or a particular incident that’s causing them,” Johnson said Monday of the penalties. “It’s just right now a general lack of concentration in certain situations.”
Johnson can look to one game in particular as a teaching tool. His Commodores pulled out an ugly 16-13 win in the Music City Bowl over Boston College by avoiding penalties — completely. They weren’t flagged even once.
“That’s how we’ve got to play. We’re far from that right now,” Johnson said.
Most troubling might be the repeated penalties from the offensive line.
Vanderbilt rotates linemen on the line, and Johnson said they do that to rest some players. Left guard Ryan Custer has a bad ankle. Right guard Eric Hensley has two bad knees.
Left tackle Thomas Welch stays in a majority of the plays along with center Bradley Vierling.
The offense had 10 false starts against Mississippi on Oct. 3 and cut those down against Army last weekend. But they still had a couple from the line.
“It’s always a chance that you could break somebody’s concentration by taking them in and out. But I don’t think that’s the big thing right now,” Johnson said.
Those penalties are part of the reason why Vanderbilt, a double-digit favorite, lost at Army 16-13 in overtime last weekend. But the Commodores had other mistakes.
Freshman Warren Norman was trying desperately to score in overtime when he had the ball knocked away near the goal line. The ball went out the back of the end zone, giving Army possession. Army kicked a field goal for the win.
Norman ranks eighth in the SEC with an average 66.6 yards rushing per game. Johnson’s advice to the freshman? Keep running hard.
“Warren’s a good player. He’s got a little knack of keeping his feet moving and keep squirming around in there, just pops up out the other side. Sometimes that’s a good trait, and he really felt bad after the game. He’s got many, many more good plays in him in his career. We’re anxious to see what he’ll do over his career here,” Johnson said.