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The Commodore Review: It’s a different Vanderbilt, just not a good one

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The Commodores played two quarterbacks against South Carolina for reasons still unclear to mankind.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not “same old Vandy.” No, this is a distinct new strain of Vandy that’s endemic to Derek Mason.

A stout, talented defense works its ass off until a litany of three-and-outs means they’re doing more work than a Crossfit trainer. Then, as the fourth quarter creeps in, a tiring defense starts giving up plays they wouldn’t have two hours earlier. A close game gets out of hand. Frustrated alumni switch from beer to whiskey.

The culprit this time was an offense that had no answers outside of the dynamite platoon of Ralph Webb and Khari Blasingame. Vandy’s quarterbacks completed just eight of their 23 passes tonight. Every time they dropped back, the team gained an average of 3.2 yards. The biggest gain of the night was the result of a muffed punt in the first quarter.

And yes, that’s quarterbacks plural, despite Derek Mason’s preseason assertion Kyle Shurmur was the man. For one glorious drive, he was.

Shurmur looked poised in the pocket as he completed 2-4 passes for 22 yards in a 13-play march to the Gamecock end zone. Vanderbilt was rolling with the sophomore in the huddle; he was doing enough work in the pocket to prevent South Carolina from selling out on the run. All of the sudden, Webb and Blasingame had the space they needed to thrive. The better they got, the more room the Commodores had to pass the ball.

And then, for reasons still inexplicable after last night’s press conference, Shurmur was gone. Spirited away to the Upside Down. In came Wade Freebeck. To his credit, the junior looked sharper with his first pass — a 10-yard gain to Trent Sherfield -- but a holding call brought that back and Freebeck never looked the same afterward.

Neither did Shurmur. Here are his stats before getting yanked: 4-6, 25 yards passing. After? 4-16 for 48 yards.

So why pull the emerging sophomore? Why risk shattering a young quarterback’s confidence? Why flush the momentum of a 10-0 lead?

"We needed to see Wade Freebeck make some good decisions," Mason told ESPN at halftime. Of course, he had all preseason to do that. He has four non-conference games to test his second-team quarterback. But instead, he chose the second quarter of the team’s season opener.

And I have no idea how to defend that decision.

The Good:

Khari Blasingame and Ralph Webb succeed despite South Carolina knowing exactly what will happen. The Gamecocks didn’t have to worry about Vanderbilt’s passing attack, so Will Muschamp crowded the box and forced the ‘Dores duo to beat them on their own. And they nearly did. Aside from their ability to gain yards on the ground, the two were effective blockers who deflected blitzers and kept Kyle Shurmur upright most of the night.

Sam Loy is the truth. In a sea of special teams uncertainty, the true freshman stood out. Six punts for 241 yards, only one of which was returned. When Vandy was pinned deep in its own territory, Loy showed up in a big way to give his defense some breathing room.

Stephen Rivers has a sense of humor.

Literally the second best part of my night. Sorry about, well let’s just say the past two years of coverage, Stephen.

The Bad:

Special teams. Reid Nelson won the starting punting job. Then he averaged 28 yards per kick before getting pulled for Sam Loy. It was another up-and-down moment for Vandy’s revamped special teams. Ryan White called for a fair catch at the seven-yard line on one punt return. C.J. Duncan muffed a punt and then got laid out before his teammates could recover.

The Gamecocks didn’t return a single kickoff, but one of those three faded out of bounds and gave the visitors a comfy spot on the 35-yard line. Tommy Openshaw drilled a 36-yard field goal, but with the pressure on, he pushed a 45-yarder wide left. All in all, an auspicious start for the new era of Vanderbilt’s special teams.

Vanderbilt’s wideout play. Trent Sherfield dropped a key pass that would have put Vandy near field goal position in the second half. The team’s leading receiver was Ralph Webb, who gained 28 yards through the air. Part of this failure can be tied back to conservative play calling to Shurmur’s inability to find his receivers in their windows of opportunity, but it’s clear this team still lacks the kind of playmaking presence players like Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause gave the team in 2013.

The Pibb Ice Player of the Game: Khari Blasingame

Look, Ralph Webb was a trooper. He turned blown plays into Vandy gains all night, and anyone who dismisses his abilities as a back due to a low YPG has no idea the work he has to do against opposing defenses who constantly stack the box. Freshman Sam Loy deserves recognition as well; after Reid Nelson gave USC the ball on Vandy’s 35-yard line, Loy stepped in to blast six punts, only one of which was returned.

But good lord, Blasingame was a revelation as the thunder to Webb’s lightning. If anyone can save this team’s offense, it’s that duo. No one man is going to bring this former linebacker down:

Blasingame finished his first true game as a running back with 68 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown. He is already my favorite player and I plan on going to my local Humane Society and naming every mean looking pit bull they have there after him.