Vanderbilt’s defense hopes to handle Kelly Bryant and the Missouri offense

Vanderbilt has had its struggles with dual-threat quarterbacks in the past, and Kelly Bryant will put the Commodore defense to the ultimate test Saturday.


Purdue beats Vandy 42-24 in Indiana on Saturday, Sept. 7. (Photo by Emily Gonçalves)

JP Hefner, Staff Writer

The Vanderbilt Commodores (1-5, 0-3 SEC) will host the red hot, 22nd ranked, 5-1 Missouri Tigers team this Saturday afternoon. The Tigers haven’t lost their since Week One matchup with Wyoming, and they currently lead the SEC East Division with a 2-0 start to conference play. Vanderbilt has only defeated Missouri once under head coach Derek Mason, who’s still seeking his first conference win of the season.

For the Commodores to pick up their first conference win in upset fashion, the Vanderbilt defense must keep the ballgame close. The outcome of this game will likely be determined in part by one specific matchup: former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant versus the Commodore secondary. 

Coach Derek Mason had high praise for the Missouri quarterback during his midweek press conference. 

“Kelly Bryant has been able to shed the moniker of just being a running quarterback. I’ve seen him thrown the ball well from the pocket. Coach Dooley has done a great job of turning him into a pro-passer.”

Mason’s praise is certainly warranted – after sitting behind current Houston Texans star quarterback Deshaun Watson for two years at Clemson, Bryant won the starting job in 2017. That season, Bryant created a reputation as a dynamic playmaker for Clemson, recording 13 passing touchdowns and another 11 scores on the ground. However, as is the case with most transfer quarterbacks, he was later replaced in 2018 by freshman phenom Trevor Lawrence.

This encouraged Bryant to enter the transfer portal, which brought him from the ACC to the SEC. After deciding to play the remainder of his collegiate career at Missouri, Bryant earned the starting job during fall camp – and he’s followed up the decision by working wonders for the Tigers’ offense. This season, he has thrown for 1,575 yards, 12 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

While Bryant has certainly been less of a rushing threat this season, his elite athleticism still keeps opposing defenses guessing. Missouri head coach Barry Odom has integrated many run-pass option (RPO) action plays into his playbook this year, which allows the Tiger offense to run various schemes from base formations. Bryant has adjusted nicely to the new offense, leading the Tigers to wins over South Carolina, West Virginia and most recently Ole Miss. Even during their Week One loss to Wyoming, Bryant threw for a career-high 423 yards and two touchdowns. 

Bryant and the Missouri offense will look to continue their success this weekend as they face a struggling Vanderbilt program. The Commodore defense has been exposed in recent matchups, and in order for Vanderbilt to come out victorious on Homecoming weekend, the defense must tighten up.

The Commodore defense is currently ranked 124th in the FBS, allowing an average of 482 yards per game. With opposing offenses averaging 7.2 yards per play, the Commodores have had trouble slowing down opposing drives – teams often move down the field with ease, scoring touchdowns at will.

The keys to the game for the Vanderbilt defense are applying pressure to the pocket and disrupting Bryant’s rhythm. Entering the matchup with two sacks each, Vanderbilt linebackers Elijah McAllister and Andre Mintze will be responsible for heating up the pocket and containing Bryant’s running ability.

In addition to the pass rush, Vanderbilt will need help in the secondary from defensive backs Allan George and Randall Haynie. George has four pass breakups and is one of Vanderbilt’s best options at cornerback. Meanwhile, Haynie, a sophomore cornerback, has two career interceptions and recorded a pick-six against #2 LSU this season. Although facing Missouri may seem like a daunting task, the Vanderbilt Commodores – entering the game as 21.5 point underdogs – have yet to play a full four quarters defensively.

For the Commodores can take it from the class to the grass, executing Coach Mason’s mantra, the defense must improve its performance.