For one dry hour, Vanderbilt looked like an unchanged team from its prior week defeat to South Carolina. Kyle Shurmur hadn’t completed a single pass. Through six drives, the offense had gained 57 total yards. The only difference was bounces and defensive opportunities were falling in the Commodores’ favor. Vandy held an early 19-10 advantage over a visiting Middle Tennessee State team.
Then, thunderstorms hit. With 104 minutes to regroup, Mason gathered his team in the locker room, turned off the lights, and told them to visualize the rest of this game.
It was an easy strategy to criticize, but you can’t argue with its results. Shurmur came back on the field and regained his confidence after a few quick, safe passes near the line of scrimmage. Slowly, his accuracy built back up. He found receivers on sideline routes and across the middle. He started running through his receiver’s routes, checking down to find open targets instead forcing the ball to his primary read.
Then, with 19 seconds left in the first half,
a passing touchdown. A real, honest-to-goodness passing touchdown. It was an oasis in the middle of the desert -- a fog horn shouting words of reassurance after what looked like another year of futility.
Shurmur finished the game with a pedestrian line; 15-28 for 113 yards and a touchdown. He only averaged four yards per pass attempt. But he didn’t throw an interception; more importantly, his ability to back the Blue Raiders off the line of scrimmage gave Ralph Webb the space he needed to have the biggest day of his college career. With those two clicking, Vanderbilt sprung for 47 points — the most they’ve ever scored in the Mason era against an FBS team.
The question now is what to make of the performance. Middle Tennessee isn’t a world beater, but the Blue Raiders are a likely bowl team with an All-Conference quarterback and talented playmakers in I’Tavius Mathers and Richie James. Their offense is certainly legitimate.
The defense? Much less so. The only MTSU player to earn preseason all-conference honors was cornerback Jeremy Cutrer, whose biggest play on Saturday came when he dropped a late hit on a screen pass and then taunted Derek Mason on his walk back upfield. The Vanderbilt offensive line was able to push an overmatched and undersized Blue Raider defensive front all over the field after the first quarter. Putting up 47 points on a bowl team is an accomplishment, but it doesn’t mean the Commodores’ offensive problems have been solved.
It’s a step in the right direction, though. And if that’s the blueprint for Vanderbilt to beat Georgia Tech this weekend, it’s one we know this team can follow. The Commodores don’t need surprises to be successful; they need consistency. Building Shurmur up through good and bad is the only way to achieve that.
Shurmur’s developing confidence allows Vanderbilt to open up the playbook (comparatively). The Commodores’ run-heavy offense is built to set up big plays to shifty wideouts like Trent Sherfield and Kalija Lipscomb. Last week, and early on Saturday, Shurmur’s heaves downfield made those big plays an impossibility. His passes were either poorly thrown, into double-coverage (or worse), or both.
Then, once he established a rapport with his receivers, Shurmur began to make his reads more clearly, understand where single-coverage was, and regain the accuracy that made him the team’s starter in the first place. They weren’t always successful — only two of the team’s pass plays went for more than 15 yards — but they established Vandy’s offense as more than just a running threat and gave Webb the latitude he needed to gash MTSU for big gains.
Sam Loy’s punting. Loy changed up his style to make rugby kicks when the situation called, and he proved to be just as good running to his right as he did from a static base last week. He averaged 49.3 yards per boot against MTSU and is shaping up to be an important special teams weapon for the ‘Dores.
Vanderbilt’s special teams trend back upwards. Mason’s strategy of using valuable starters like Ralph Webb and Torren McGaster on punt and kickoff coverage is controversial, but it paid off against Middle Tennessee. Webb’s strip of Richie James led to an early safety, and McGaster pinned the Blue Raiders on their own 15 with a kickoff tackle. The return of Darrius Sims helped as well; his 47-yard kickoff return in the second quarter set up a touchdown drive that gave Vandy a lead they never gave back.
Tommy Openshaw’s completely useless fake punt. I’m pretty sure this was just Derek Mason punishing the kicker for missing a late field goal last week against South Carolina.
Vanderbilt’s receivers. The ‘Dores wideouts rebounded from an awful start filled with dropped catches to give Kyle Shurmur some reliable targets. However, their ineffectiveness led to Vandy’s horrid start on offense and led to calls for Shurmur’s ouster behind center (from Jordan Rodgers, no less). C.J. Duncan, Trent Sherfield, and Kalija Lipscomb did their young QB no favors by dropping catchable passes and preventing the team from finding a rhythm early on.
The secondary. MTSU’s ability to find gaps and creases in the Commodores’ second level forced Derek Mason to resort to three- and four-man pass rushing schemes after the first quarter. Despite dropping as many as eight men in coverage throughout the second half, Brent Stockstill completed 38 passes (out of 65) for 399 yards. Stockstill is a legit quarterback — he fit several passes into windows to beat out superb coverage — but drops prevented him from having an even bigger night in Nashville.
MTSU’s basic etiquette. Sometime in the second half, the Blue Raiders flipped the switch from “chippy” to “dirty.” Cases in point:
It’s fortunate none of these cheap shots led to Commodore injuries — especially given the number of starters Vanderbilt plays on special teams.
The PiBB Ice Player of the Week: Ralph Webb
He ran for more yards in a single game than any Commodore since Frank Mordica murdered Air Force back in the 1970s. He also did this:
which put his point total at 14 for the day. That was pretty neat.