Cunningham, Vanderbilt ready to try to slow down TSU offense
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee State's high-scoring offense will run into one of college football's best linebackers Saturday night.
Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham leads the Southeastern Conference with 81 tackles and 13 tackles for loss and ranks in the top five nationally. Now the 6-foot-4, 230-pound junior will try to disrupt a Tigers' offense ranked 16th in the Football Championship Series scoring 36.3 points per game.
Cunningham was named the national defensive player of the week by two organizations and the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the week honors for his career performance last week. Cunningham had a career-high 19 tackles, including a game-saving stop, in last week's 17-16 upset at Georgia.
That last tackle was Cunningham's best coming on fourth-and-1 to preserve Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason's first SEC road victory in his third season. It's the kind of play Mason has come to expect out of Cunningham, especially against Georgia. Mason remembers how Cunningham tackled Todd Gurley, now with the NFL's Los Angeles Rams, three times when the linebacker was a freshman.
''There's still guys in the NFL still trying to tackle Gurley, and they still can't get it done,'' Mason said. ''I knew then that he had the potential to be a special player.''
Vanderbilt (3-4) hasn't won consecutive games this season, but Mason hopes his Commodores pick up momentum from their win at Georgia.
''That was a snowflake, and we're trying to turn it into a snowball,'' Mason said. ''We're trying to make sure we push this thing in the right direction. We felt going in we could win. Nobody else probably had that idea, but we did.''
TSU coach Rod Reed is hoping Vanderbilt will overlook the Tigers (5-1).
''I'm just hoping they're still partying and celebrating after that win because when you watch them on tape they are extremely stingy on defense,'' said Reed, whose team is ranked 25th in the FCS. ''It's going to be a tall task for us.''
Here are some other things to watch for Saturday night when Vanderbilt hosts Tennessee State:
CUNNINGHAM'S FUTURE: Cunningham already is showing up on NFL draft projections as a first-round pick if he leaves Vanderbilt after his junior season. Cunningham said he really tries to tune out that speculation so he can focus on helping the Commodores. ''Obviously, that's something I'm thinking about, but it's not my main focus,'' Cunningham said.
DANGEROUS RETURN MAN: Darrius Sims needs 44 yards to set Vanderbilt's career record for kick returns. The senior was named SEC special teams player of the week after returning the opening kickoff 95 yards setting up the Commodores' first touchdown against Georgia. ''Whoever didn't see that hole is blind,'' Sims said. Four of Sims' former high school teammates play for TSU: wide receiver Patrick Smith, offensive linemen Thomas Burton and Igor Misigaro and defensive tackle Michael Perry III.
PICKOFF ARTISTS: Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur played a turnover-free game against Georgia but must be wary of TSU cornerback Ezra Robinson, who already has four interceptions. The senior transfer from Michigan State picked off two passes, one he returned 93 yards for a TD in last week's 35-28 win over Eastern Kentucky. Tigers defensive back Terrell Bonds has three interceptions.
MORE GAMES? Vanderbilt is less than 5 miles from TSU, but this is only the second game between the Nashville schools with Vandy winning 38-9 in 2006. ''Rod's a good friend and I do believe it does make sense every, maybe, five or 10 years to play this ballgame,'' Mason said.
RUSHING RECORD: Vanderbilt running back Ralph Webb is 355 rushing yards away from breaking Zac Stacy's career school record. Stacy rushed for 3,143 yards and Webb has 2,789.
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