“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” -Lao-Tzu, Chinese philosopher and, as it turns out, football analyst.
The Vanderbilt Commodores took that single step in their journey to save their season with a 31-17 victory over Western Kentucky. Sitting at 4-5 now, the Commodores are in position to get the six wins needed for bowl eligibility, or at least get to five wins and sneak in based on APR, with three games left against Kentucky, Mizzou and Tennessee.
It’s hard to call this win “convincing,” however, as there were some issues that still reared their heads in this matchup.
Here is your Commodore Brunch menu for Week 10.
Cherish This Offense
Through all the trials and tribulations of this season, it’s sometimes hard to recognize just how good this Vanderbilt offense is this season.
After a win like this, let’s take a moment to step back and recognize that this might be the best offense Vanderbilt has had in recent memory. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better Vanderbilt offense, aside from perhaps the 2012 team that featured names like Stacy, Rodgers, Matthews and Boyd.
It’s rare to find an offense that boasts a quarterback that fires on all cylinders in Kyle Shurmur, wide receivers that can flat-out make plays and one of the top SEC running backs of all time in Ralph Webb.
With the running game bottled up in recent weeks, this offense more-or-less became one-dimensional. This time around, they found some balance, rushing the ball 35 times and throwing it 21 times. Webb got past the 100-yard mark again, despite still dealing with an injury that occurred last week against South Carolina. Trent Sherfield made some incredible plays, even scoring on an end-around run.
That kind of diversified rushing attack was a big reason why the offense achieved balance.
“That is a part of our offense, we just make sure guys that have that specialty utilize it in the game,” Sherfield said. “We practiced that all week and it was open all week so I knew I was going to have a chance to get a touchdown. I knew I was going with C.J., he had the most important block on that play and I wouldn’t have got that without him.”
As for Webb, he now owns the Commodore record for career total touchdowns, passing Zac Stacy. An emotional Derek Mason tried to put into words just how much Webb has meant to him.
“Love that dude,” Mason said while fighting back tears. “It’s hard sometimes. You coach a lot of kids. You coach a lot of young men. They work hard, they play hard. Ralph Webb is as good as it gets. I’ll take that dude with me anytime, anyplace, anywhere. He comes to practice, you know he’s hurting, he gets through it, he works through it.
“Again, a lot of times, why you see such emotion from me is because we love on each other. I love these kids, these kids love me and work hard for one another. But, that dude has just been consistent. Nobody knew his name when he walked in here. Everybody’s going to know his name when he leaves. And that’s what’s special.”
Cherish these last three (and perhaps four) games, Commodore fans. And don’t blink, you might miss Webb bursting through the line for another touchdown.
Better, not Best for the Defense
Do you want the good news or the bad news about this defense first?
You know what, it’s been a tough few weeks, let’s start with the good news.
The good news is that this defense finally figured out how to stop a running back. Vanderbilt conceded a total of -6 (that’s right, minus-6) rushing yards in this game. Western Kentucky had to beat Vanderbilt through the air, throwing for over 300 yards. While those are impressive passing numbers for the Hilltoppers, those yards were not nearly enough without a run game.
In the last few weeks, Vanderbilt struggled to contain even the weakest of run games from Ole Miss and South Carolina. This week, they made no mistake about it, preventing the Hilltoppers from even getting any positive yardage. That has to bode well for this team moving forward.
They also racked up six sacks on the afternoon, the most they’ve gotten in one game all season.
“We gave up over 300 yards passing, but when you face a team like Western Kentucky, that’s what happens,” Mason said. “We stopped the run and made them one-dimensional. We got off the field. We did a good job [overall]. Our guys played really hard. We’ll clean up some things for next week, when we play a good Kentucky team.”
Now, about those things they need to clean up, also known as the bad news. Vanderbilt could have had a much easier time on defense today if they didn’t continue to shoot themselves in the foot.
Both on special teams and on defense, Vanderbilt did themselves a disservice. They squandered many opportunities to get off the field, mostly thanks to penalties. A punt bounced off Kalija Lipscomb’s helmet in the first half, drawing a flag for fair catch interference and giving the Hilltoppers a fresh set of downs.
In the fourth quarter, Vanderbilt had the chance to kill the game if they could just stop Western Kentucky’s drive. Instead, a pass interference penalty on Ryan White and a holding penalty on Joejuan Williams let the drive continue until the clock struck zero.
While Vanderbilt was actually pretty decent on third down today, stopping the Hilltoppers on 13 of their 21 third down attempts, they found more creative ways to keep themselves on the field.
The defense improved this week, there’s no denying that. But, a better football team will make them pay for penalty mistakes. That can’t continue.
After nearly a month-long hiatus from Vanderbilt Stadium, the Commodores were ready to return home to play in front of their peers and their home fans.
All *checks notes* 26,000 of them?
It’s hard to blame most of the empty seats on anyone but Alabama fans. Crimson Tide fans bought up mini plans to get a ticket to their game in Nashville back in September, and this was probably one of the games on the plan. They just ate the cost and didn’t show.
Where are all the fans today? They're sitting in Tuscaloosa, eating chips, eating the cost of a 3-game package to see the Crimson Tide here pic.twitter.com/YCMOVXgwMK
— Vandy Hustler Sports (@vuhustlersports) November 4, 2017
However, the student section was noticeably empty. And many of the students that did show up left at halftime. That drew the ire of some commenters on Twitter, who have seemingly never been happy with student attendance.
In complete fairness to my fellow students, the tailgates in the morning were also noticeably light. It’s hard to blame the students for not showing up when they didn’t want to go anywhere at all.
Put yourself in a student’s shoes, perhaps a student that isn’t a football fan. If you are not already a football fan, are you going to drag yourself out of bed after a night at a sorority formal to go watch a football team that lost five games in row play a team with an amorphous red blob as a mascot? I don’t think so.
As frustrating as the lack of support from the student body for this team can be to those outside the Vanderbilt community, it’s still difficult to blame most students for not showing up this Saturday.
However, I would like to make this appeal to my fellow students: please, please, please show up next Saturday when Vanderbilt takes on Kentucky.
It’s a 3 PM kickoff, which gives you plenty of time to sleep in, get some food, get some drinks and head off to the stadium. It’s an SEC opponent, one that you’ve definitely heard of even if you never watch football. Vanderbilt has a chance of winning, despite what you may think about this team. They also have the chance to, in essence, clinch a trip to a bowl game with a fifth win.
There are more reasons to go to the game than to stay home next weekend. My fellow students, I have passionately defended you against criticism from alumni and fans for as long as possible. If you don’t make a showing next weekend, it will be extremely hard to keep that up.
Show the Commodores some love. They deserve it, and you deserve a fun afternoon out at Vanderbilt Stadium after putting in countless hours of work all week.
Featured photo by Clay Leddin.