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The Commodore Review: An Inspiring Road Win (Against a Conference-USA team)

Vanderbilt probably shouldn’t have beaten Western Kentucky, but Saturday’s win could be a catalyst for the rest of 2016.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Western Kentucky Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

I was ready to write this team off.

The second the punt team stepped on the field to kick from the Western Kentucky 34 yard line, I had decided I’d heard this song before. Derek Mason was going to play the field position game and hope the Hilltoppers would hand the game back to him in the fourth quarter. When Sam Loy’s ensuing punt bounced through the end zone (a net of 14 yards), I knew there was only one way the followup drive would end — with WKU taking a seven-point lead.

The prediction held true. Vandy trailed 21-14, on the road, with a little over 11 minutes to play. The Hilltoppers had just cracked 400 yards of total offense and had only truly been slowed by their own mistakes. The Commodores, on the other hand, hadn’t led a football game since beating Middle Tennessee two weeks earlier.

A deep ball to Caleb Scott helped Vanderbilt close the gap to four points, but the ‘Dores inability to find the end zone after a 66-yard gain just looked like more evidence to bet against this team. With under six minutes to play, Western Kentucky just needed to sustain a drive long enough to starve out their visitors.

The WKU game plan was transparent; the Hilltoppers were going to run the ball and bleed as much clock as they could with a four-point lead. Despite the obvious call, Anthony Wales still ripped off 55 yards in just three runs to give Western Kentucky a chance to ice this game with a touchdown.

Every indication suggested this would be a “same old Vandy” loss, but something changed. WKU ran into the middle of the field to eat up time before settling for a short field goal. Shurmur got the ball with 1:02 remaining, zero timeouts, and a seven-point deficit.

The sophomore quarterback responded with the finest drive of his collegiate career. Four straight completions moved the ball from the VU 25 to the WKU 15 yard line. A spike, an incompletion, and a pass interference call in the end zone put the ball on the 2.5 with time for one final play.

And then:

Webb did this team’s dirty work, scoring his third touchdown of the day. He would up handling the ball 29 times, but it was Shurmur who led this oft-criticized defense to its biggest win of the year. Overtime’s two biggest plays were two completions — a 14-yard toss to Jared Pinkney on the first play of the frame, then a must-have five-yard dart to Nathan Marcus on third down to put the ‘Dores in the lead.

When the defense held tough on WKU’s two-point gamble minutes later, Vanderbilt escaped with a win.

Somehow, Mason’s conservative game plan paid off. Western Kentucky served the game back to the ‘Dores on a platter, and Shurmur was ready to take advantage of the opportunity. That doesn’t mean it’s the right strategy — every time a team punts from within its opponents’ 35 yard line, God kills a panda — but it worked against one of the better non-Power 5 teams in the country. And that’s because when an opponent moved to stop Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt finally had the passing proficiency to capitalize on it.

Playing not to lose won’t beat Tennessee, Florida, or Georgia.

Kyle Shurmur’s newfound confidence just might.

The Good:

C.J. Duncan returns. Duncan has been on the field every game this season after missing 2015 due to injury, but he had his biggest impact by far on Saturday. The junior led the Commodores with five catches and 66 receiving yards as the WR corps trended upwards for the first time in what seems like years.

Duncan, Kalija Lipscomb, Trent Sherfield, and Caleb Scott give this team a dynamic group of receivers, though there’s no one standout player yet. Here’s hoping Duncan’s big performance vs. WKU can jump start his ascension to the leadership role he’s destined to assume.

The defense gets opportunistic. Vanderbilt doesn’t win this game without the turnovers a swarming defense created. Even discounting the sideways pass Taurean Ferguson returned for a 91-yard should-have-been touchdown, the ‘Dores forced four turnovers, three of which took place inside the VU five yard line. Those huge swings kept Western Kentucky off the board and gave the offense the opportunities it needed to get Vandy back in this game.

The Bad:

The defense gets gashed. Without those huge turnovers, Vanderbilt would have likely given up 40+ points to a Conference USA opponent. The Hilltoppers have an explosive offense, but the Vanderbilt defense is supposed to be in a different league thanks to the combination of better players and a head coach who’s supposed to be a defensive genius. Instead, WKU spread the field and found the gaps MTSU and Georgia Tech had success exploiting the previous two weeks.

Like this:

CBS Sports

The playcalling. Specifically one play call. Fourth and nine at the WKU 34. Fourth quarter of a tie game.

I understand not wanting to throw Tommy Openshaw to the wolves, even though the hot-and-cold kicker made a 49-yarder against this same team last season. However, opting to punt and facing the stark reality that you’ll net just 14 yards was a momentum destroying decision.

Dial up a pass up the seam to a tight end. Engineer a home run out-and-up to Lipscomb or Duncan. Call a Ralph Webb draw play and hope for the best. Anything but the white flag next time.

Western Kentucky’s inability to close. Not a Vandy problem, but the Hilltoppers have to be kicking themselves this week. Our own Tom Stephenson summed up their total lack of killer instinct nicely:

  • In the first quarter, Western Kentucky intercepted a pass and started a drive at the Vanderbilt 42. They fumbled on the first play of the drive. Vanderbilt recovered.
  • On Western Kentucky’s next drive, the Hilltoppers drove 81 yards down the field and... fumbled again. Vanderbilt recovered.
  • In the third quarter, after a 13-play, 64-yard drive, Western Kentucky threw an interception when they had the ball at the Vanderbilt 11.
  • After a six-yard (!) punt by Vanderbilt, which gave the Hilltoppers possession at the Vanderbilt 16, Western missed a 25-yard field goal.
  • On its final drive of regulation, with a 21-17 lead, Western Kentucky went 70 yards in 6 plays, then effectively decided to settle for a field goal.
  • On 3rd-and-10 at the WKU 15, Vanderbilt got bailed out by a pass interference call in the end zone, and punched it in on the next play.
  • After scoring a touchdown in the first overtime, Western Kentucky went for 2 — and failed.

If Vandy had done this, you’d be hearing tragic reports about the whiskey shortage in Wisconsin this week.

The PiBB Ice Player of the Week: Kyle Shurmur

279 passing yards and a touchdown; Shurmur took advantage of a Hilltopper defense that sold out to stop Ralph Webb and wound up with his finest game as a college passer. His confidence and accuracy down the stretch was the difference between a win and loss. While he won’t be confused for a dual-threat quarterback anytime soon, but Shurmur was able to extend plays and even pick up a key first down with his scrambling. It was a strong all-around performance for the young athlete.