Tyler Vanderzee might have started and finished the year at 6-6, but he has grown steadily into his role as East Central University’s starting quarterback.
Handed the job by head coach Tim McCarty when he arrived on campus this spring after two years at Mt. San Antonio Junior College, Vanderzee was an immediate hit with his coaches and teammates. He demonstrated the strong, accurate arm the ECU coaching staff had seen when they recruited him, and he also showed the intangibles McCarty knew would be necessary to lead his program out of the depths of an 0-11 campaign in 2009.
Coming off impressive spring and preseason camps, Vanderzee had one of the most impressive debuts of any quarterback in ECU’s long football history, completing 20-of-31 passes for 276 yards in a Week 1 loss at Fort Hays State; over the next three weeks, though, Vanderzee and the Tiger offense basically disappeared in losses to nationally-ranked Texas A&M-Kingsville (20-7) and Abilene Christian (47-7) and in a 23-0 victory over Southwestern at Norris Field that snapped a school-record 16-game losing streak.
While the ECU defense was evolving into arguably the most improved unit on either side of the ball in the entire Lone Star Conference, the offense seemed to be going nowhere.
But as they prepare for Saturday’s season finale at No. 14 West Texas A&M, Vanderzee and his offensive mates have put that slow start into their collective rearview mirror.
With the exception of a second-half hiccup in a Week 6 loss to Incarnate Word and a few disappointing third-quarter efforts, the ECU attack has shown steady improvement over the past five weeks. Vanderzee had a huge first half and led a fourth-quarter comeback that fell just short at UCO in a 31-28 loss in Week 5, he drove the Tigers to a late touchdown in a pivotal 22-19 win over Eastern New Mexico in Week 7, and after cornerback Dontae Smith returned an interception for what proved to be the winning touchdown at Southeastern in Week 8, the ECU offense controlled the ball for almost all of the fourth quarter to preserve a 20-19 victory — the Tigers’ first over the Savage Storm since 2003.
“I kind of figured it would take me a little while to get comfortable with the offense and what (the coaches) wanted me to do,” Vanderzee said Sunday, one day after throwing for a school-record 435 yards and leading a last-second drive to a game-winning Matt Berrey field goal that gave ECU a 36-33 victory at Texas A&M Commerce and its first-ever LSC North Division title. “I think it took me a little longer than I expected.”
Vanderzee said he and the rest of the offense were feeling a sense of urgency to make their presence felt after the string of impressive efforts put up by the defense following the loss at Abilene Christian.
“I think (the defense playing well) put less pressure on us, but it also put more of a desire in us to not make the defense work so hard,” he said. “It’s not so much pressure — you just don’t like letting the defense down when they’re keeping us in games.”
As Vanderzee’s comfort level increased, so did his productivity — along with that of the entire offense. In Week 9, he threw for two touchdowns and caught a pass from wideout Jason Stephenson for another in a 48-21 blowout of North co-champion Northeastern, and Saturday his record-setting performance accounted for most of ECU’s biggest yardage total in almost a decade — 530 yards.
“Things just kind of came together,” Vanderzee said of his huge effort Saturday, which earned him North Offensive Player of the Week for the second straight week. “I don’t go into a game thinking about my stats. I just want to manage the game, and (Saturday) it just came together. We knew if we executed like we should, we could have a big game on offense.”
A couple of turnovers led to cheap touchdowns that helped the Lions overcome a 24-7 third-quarter deficit and tie the score at 33-all with less than a minute to play before Vanderzee led the kind of late drive that has become the trademark of the ECU offense over the second half of the season.
After a 28-yard kickoff return to midfield by former Ada High standout Justin Todd, Vanderzee completed three straight passes in a span of 30 seconds — a pair of eight-yarders to Stephenson and a 15-yard strike down the middle to Zack Patteson that carried to the Commerce 21 with just five seconds to play.
“We started off in great field position after the kickoff return by Justin, so we knew we had a chance to score,” Vanderzee recalled.
McCarty called a timeout after the second completion to Stephenson, and he and offensive coordinator Rashad Jackson dialed up a play that gave Vanderzee some latitude.
“It’s a pass play that there are several ways to run it,” Vanderzee explained. “I have some options, depending on what I see from the defense. It’s a play that Zack and I have worked on a lot.”
Patteson lined up in the slot, and Vanderzee checked off from an out route and instead signaled Patteson to head straight up the field.
“I gave him a hand signal, and he faked the out and cut up the seam,” Vanderzee said.
ECU called another timeout with five seconds left following the completion, then Berrey trotted out and drilled a 38-yard field goal that split the uprights with just one second showing on the clock. The win gave the Tigers a 5-1 mark within the division and a non-losing record (5-5) past the midway point in any season for the first time since McCarty’s first ECU team finished 6-4 in 2004.
“I think it’s great — coming off the year we had last year, to stick together as a team and get a ring at the end,” Vanderzee said when asked how he felt about being part of an historic season in his first year at ECU. “There were a lot of nerves, but it definitely made it exciting.”
Vanderzee said the string of close games the Tigers played during the middle portion of the season prepared them for the drama they faced at the end of Saturday’s all-or-nothing contest.
“We’ve had so many close games this year and a lot of them have come down to the fourth quarter,” he noted. “We know we have to step it up a notch to win those games, and we were able to do that again Saturday.”
Although ECU is the only team in the LSC that isn’t averaging over 100 yards rushing this season, the ground game — led by University of Tulsa transfer Charles Opeseyitan, freshman Domonique Massengill and senior John Gaines (who scored two touchdowns Saturday in his first action since he was injured at UCO) — also became a realiable weapon over the last six weeks. Vanderzee said the improved production on the ground and the emergence of a rebuilt offensive line into one of the most efficient in the conference have been keys to ECU’s late-season surge on that side of the ball.
“(The backs) have been doing a great job of running the ball, and it’s taken a lot of pressure off of me,” he said. “I think the offensive line has been playing really well all season. They’re getting comfortable with each other, and it’s been showing lately.”
ECU will be a decided underdog in Saturday’s season finale (LSC South teams are 18-3 against the North in crossover games this season), but Vanderzee said having already reached the season’s main goal — a North title — should enable the Tigers to let it all hang out on both sides of the ball as they try to close out the program’s first winning season in six years.
“It’s going to be extremely tough, because they’re obviously a great team,” Vanderzee said. “We’ve accomplished one of our big goals, now we want to go out with a good game and show we can play with one of those good teams from the South.”
Vanderzee — who jumped up from ninth to sixth in the LSC in both passing yardage (with 2,254 yards) and total offense after his big game at Commerce — said that, win or lose Saturday, 19 returning starters and winning habits built up over the second half of this season should give the Tigers plenty of momentum as they move to a new conference in 2011.
“I think it’s huge — it’s built confidence that we’re a good team and have the athletes to win, even though we’re still not executing like we can,” he said. “With this season under our belt, another offseason and another recruiting class, we should be contenders in the new conference right away.”