I believe if T.S. Eliot were a Vanderbilt fan, he’d say “This is how the season ends, not with a bang, but with an ACC blowout.”
Going into their Camping World Independence Bowl matchup with the NC State Wolfpack, the Vanderbilt Commodores had the opportunity to cap off a season of monumental progress for the program with a big exclamation point and a winning record.
That dream disappeared faster than your money in a slot machine at the Sam’s Town in Shreveport.
Vanderbilt struggled mightily in their 41-17 loss to the Wolfpack in the Independence Bowl. Some new and old issues reared their heads, but Vanderbilt has a lot to hang their hats on as they prepare for Spring ball in a few months.
Here is your final Commodore Brunch menu of the 2016 season:
Pass Protection Disappearing Act
Throughout the season, the Commodore offensive line had done a good job of keeping quarterback Kyle Shurmur on his feet and giving him time to throw. In 12 games, they only gave up 27 sacks, even against some tough SEC defenses. In their two consecutive SEC wins to finish the season, they only gave up a total of three sacks.
They gave up five against NC State.
That’s the second-most sacks this offensive line has given up all season. Only that disastrous performance at Mizzou tops it with six sacks conceded.
Senior offensive lineman Barrett Gouger didn’t really have an excuse for his offensive line.
“I’d say they just played harder than we did,” Gouger said. “We felt that we had a good game plan and prepared, but at the end of the day, we didn’t get it done. [Shurmur] got hit too many times, we gave up too many sacks and didn’t push the line of scrimmage. All the credit to NC State and their front seven. They came out and got after us. That’s strictly on the O-line. It was a bad performance.”
It wasn’t just the sacks that got to Shurmur. He was hurried a lot more than usual and didn’t seem to get himself in a rhythm. Head coach Derek Mason acknowledged that Shurmur neither established a rhythm nor got comfortable out there.
The NC State front seven was ruthless in their pursuit of Shurmur. Even when they couldn’t sack him, they put him on the ground and got him out of sync. One of Shurmur’s three interceptions came early in the third quarter when Shurmur was clobbered in the pocket and threw up a sitting duck lob pass that was easily intercepted.
While that was an ill-advised throw, the offensive line did not give him proper time and space to establish a rhythm and get into the game. Shurmur was successful towards the end of the season because the offensive line gave him a wide open pocket and plenty of time for him to complete his reads and get the ball downfield to his open receivers.
He had none of that time against NC State, and it rendered the offense nearly useless.
Bursting The Bubble Screen
The staples of NC State’s offense in this game were the quick slant and bubble screen. On most passing plays, Wolfpack quarterback Ryan Finley would have the ball out of his hands within seconds. On the majority of those plays, a wide receiver was set up to get the pass and go downfield with blockers clearing a path.
Even though they knew of this effective bubble screen going into the game, the Vanderbilt defense couldn’t stop it. At all. Finley picked apart the Vanderbilt defense for 19 completions for 235 yards, dumping the ball off to Jaylen Samuels on bubble screens for all three of NC State’s offensive touchdowns, one of which was from 55 yards out.
Giving up a 55-yard touchdown on a screen pass means either a) Vanderbilt’s tackling was completely embarrassing b) the receiver is fast or c) some mixture of both that is still completely disastrous.
No matter what the right answer is, some adjustment needed to be made.
Inexplicably, no such adjustment was made.
“We saw it on film,” Mason said of the NC State bubble screen. “We worked on it, but you have to set edges. We talked about setting edges, sometimes we got cut, sometimes the edge got soft. That’s football. You can see it on film but you still have to be able to execute it. Again, I bring that back to me. I could have done a better job at just making sure that I moved the stress around, that’s what I was looking to do.”
Even though it’s clear Vanderbilt did prepare for the bubble screen, they were completely ineffective in stopping it. Samuels torched the Commodores secondary play after play, and NC State didn’t have to make the big play to keep the ball moving. All they had to do was work the sideline on slants and set up Samuels with the screen pass.
In general, Vanderbilt must work on improving their secondary before the 2017 season kicks off. Too many teams were able to find space beyond the front seven and let the ball fly downfield this season. Something has to give, because Vanderbilt’s front seven is too good to be hampered by a secondary like that.
The Webb Jet Stays In Flight
Even after a disastrous game like this, the Commodores got some very good news afterwards: Ralph Webb is sticking around for one more year.
Even though the redshirt junior running back’s draft stock wasn’t very high, he still had the option to leave. But, even after breaking the Vanderbilt all-time and single-season rushing yard records, he decided to return for his senior season and make those records virtually untouchable.
Webb had 116 yards on 21 and a touchdown in the Independence Bowl and was perhaps the lone bright light on the Vanderbilt offense.
However, he isn’t just coming back to maintain the status quo: Webb is coming back to blow the roof off the SEC.
“Bowl game,” Webb said on his goals for next season. “Double the wins. We’re not playing just to get six wins and barely go to a bowl game. We’re coming out here to compete, we’re coming out here to win. As a leader on this offense and with [Shurmur] right beside me, we’re going to make sure we do that.”
You heard it here first, folks: Ralph Webb is not here to mess around. He has all the school records he wants. Now, he wants to win.
Don’t Cry Because It’s Over, Smile Because It’ll Happen Again
Was this bowl game loss incredibly disappointing for Vanderbilt? Yes.
Will this bowl game loss sting for a long time? Yes.
Will Vanderbilt suddenly revert to 2014 Vanderbilt next season? Absolutely not.
The 2016 Vanderbilt Commodores are no fluke. They’ll be back next season with an elite SEC running back ready to roll again, a very experienced quarterback and the vast majority of their starters on both sides of the ball returning (even if linebacker Zach Cunningham decides to enter the NFL Draft).
Most of the people that made this team effective throughout the season will be back to do the same thing, and more. Yes, this bowl performance was abysmal, but if this team can hammer home the things they did well and string together performances like their games against Ole Miss and Tennessee, they’ll have no problem getting more wins and back to a bowl game.
Their 2017 schedule also works in their favor. The Commodores beat five of their 2017 opponents this season (MTSU, Georgia, Ole Miss, Western Kentucky and Tennessee) and nearly beat two of them (Florida and South Carolina).
If Vanderbilt was a few corrected mistakes from being an eight-win team in 2016, imagine how much they can do with more experience and more wins under their belt next season.
Also, did you forget that James Franklin also lost his first bowl game as Vanderbilt head coach? He didn’t let that define his tenure or become a fluke and neither will Mason.
Make no mistake: Vanderbilt football isn’t going anywhere.