Derek Mason will have to wait for his first winning season as Vanderbilt’s head coach. Uncharacteristic defensive lapses and a return to the ineffective offense that marred the early half of the Commodres’ 2016 season cost Mason’s team in a 35-17 loss to North Carolina State in the Independence Bowl.
Quarterback Kyle Shurmur struggled with his accuracy and spent much of his time in the pocket dodging blitzers in defeat. The sophomore started the game by completing only three of his first 14 passes and threw three interceptions, including a pick-six to end the game. All-SEC tailback Ralph Webb was often the team’s only offensive threat; he finished the bowl with 111 rushing yards and a touchdown while setting the school’s single-season rushing record.
Vanderbilt used a strong defensive effort to take an early 3-0 lead. NC State’s first three drives pushed the ball to the VU 23, 34, and one-yard lines but came away with zero points for their efforts. A fumble, a punt, and a bold goal line stand helped the Commodores overcome some questionable refereeing
This was deemed not conclusive enough to be called a fumble.— Dr. Saturday (@YahooDrSaturday) December 26, 2016
(Big Ten officials in case you were wondering) pic.twitter.com/Wm7uceWAX6
and build some confidence early on. Tommy Openshaw’s 52-yard field goal set a program postseason record in the first quarter. It also made the 27-yard attempt he yanked 10 yards left of the uprights even less explainable.
Vanderbilt’s momentum wouldn’t last. The Wolfpack erased Vandy’s lead thanks to a spread running attack that worked well along the sideline and set up a nine-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Finley to Jaylen Samuels. Two drives later, the pair teamed up again on a perfectly-executed screen pass that sliced up the Commodore defense for a 55-yard touchdown.
Derek Mason was unable to fix his team’s problems at halftime. Shurmur threw his second interception of the evening to start the third quarter, setting up the Wolfpack at the VU 18. Four plays later, Reggie Gillaspy II rumbled into the end zone from five yards out to make the score 21-3.
The team’s next drive briefly pushed into NC State territory, the team’s offensive line struggles put Shurmur on his back and gave the ball back to the Wolfpack. Poor coverage helped Finley move his team down the field and capped off a 58-yard drive with his third touchdown pass of the evening to Samuels.
But Ralph Webb wasn’t about to let the ‘Dores roll over. His 30 yard touchdown run gave Vandy fans a reason to stick around as he cut NC State’s lead to 28-10 with 15 minutes to play.
Kalija Lipscomb also came to play. Two drives later, he made seven Wolfpack special teamers miss to record the team’s longest punt return of the season. His 71-yard run set up the ‘Dores at the NCSU 4, leading to a Khari Blasingame touchdown dive that gave the team new life.
That second life lasted 16 seconds. Nyheim Hines’ 100-yard return on the ensuing kickoff made the score 35-17 and effectively killed Vanderbilt’s comeback hopes.
Vanderbilt finishes its 2016 season at 6-7 (3-5 SEC) and marks the finest performance of the Mason era despite the disappointing ending. With a roster loaded with underclassmen, many of the team’s best players are slated to return — though guys like Webb and Zach Cunningham could leave town early for the NFL Draft. If Mason can stem the bleeding, he’ll have the Commodores in great position to improve in 2017.