Vanderbilt’s second conference win of 2016 was certainly its sweetest. Beating Georgia on the road was great, but it felt like the Bulldogs did as much to give Vanderbilt’s first conference win of 2016 away as the team did to earn it.
We didn’t have that problem on Saturday.
The Commodores battled back from an early 10-0 deficit with 31 straight points and a superlative effort on both sides of the ball. Andy Ludwig’s offense, which has been undergoing tweaks since a change in philosophy during this year’s bye week, looked as good as it ever has. Vanderbilt used a dynamic attack to spread the field, work outside the tackle box, and find holes in the Ole Miss defense all night.
The end result was a 38-point explosion few could have seen coming. Kyle Shurmur found open receivers, and when his passes weren’t dead-nuts accurate, his receivers bailed him out by making adjustments and making tough catches. The defense was gashed early by a mobile quarterback, then made all the adjustments necessary to make Shea Patterson look like an 18-year-old kid starting his second ever NCAA game.
Instead of folding, Vanderbilt adapted, using a sustainable gameplan that played to this team’s strengths. A bullying defensive line kept Patterson running backward, forcing him into tough situations for which he wasn’t ready. A recharged receiving corps looked as good as it has since Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause wore black and gold. The deep ball Andy Ludwig has been setting up for months finally paid off.
And Ralph Webb did Ralph Webb things.
Derek Mason earned an extra year on the sideline with his fifth win — the tangible proof his team has improved in 2016. While he’s not James Franklin, his win on Saturday proved he can be more than Bobby Johnson was. That’s something Vanderbilt can build on.
HANDS HANDS HANDS. A typical Vanderbilt game in 2016, win or lose, features a requisite complaint about dropped passes. Not this time. Vandy’s receivers made a litany of great catches on Saturday, including this Caleb Scott gem:
Plays like that are commonplace for Scott, but players who have had high-profile mistakes like Trent Sherfield and Jared Pinkney had some great catches as well. If the Commodores’ receivers can play like this every week it will add an extra 50+ yards per game to the VU offense.
Tommy Openshaw’s slow trek to trustworthy. Openshaw made his share of mistakes early in the season, but over the past four games he’s developed into one of the SEC’s most consistent kickers. The junior specialist has made eight of his last nine field goal attempts, his last miss coming on a 49-yarder against Kentucky. While his kickoffs are still an adventure, Openshaw has proven he can be a reliable weapon inside the opponent’s 35-yard line.
Ralph Webb. Even with a bum ankle, Webb managed to run for 123 yards and three touchdowns. Barring disaster, he’ll become Vanderbilt’s all-time leading rusher next Saturday. At home. Against Tennessee.
Punting, again. Sam Loy’s line-drive rugby style punts are a feast or famine proposition for the Commodores. If the coverage downfield is good and Loy gets a good roll, he can cover a lot of ground. If a returner gets to the ball early and special teams coverage hasn’t had the time to develop, it ends poorly for the ‘Dores.
Saturday night featured more of the latter, as Loy’s punts covered fewer than 37 yards per kick. Loy has been a bright spot on special teams, but he’s also had his share of growing pains. As a true freshman, the good has outweighed the bad — but I’ll still hold my breath a little each time he preps a kick against Tennessee next week.
The PiBB Ice Player of the Week: Kyle Shurmur
Shurmur had help from his receivers on Saturday — something we haven’t been able to say often these past two seasons. The sophomore threw for 273 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the most impressive offensive performance of the Mason era. If he can play like he did Saturday, there’s no reason he can’t meet or exceed the success players like Jordan Rodgers and Austyn Carta-Samuels had behind center for the ‘Dores.