Vanderbilt falls to NC State in Camping World Independence Bowl

Photo by Claire Barnett

The Vanderbilt Commodores couldn’t slow down a potent NC State offense as they lost 41-17 to the Wolfpack in the Camping World Independence Bowl.

Jaylen Samuels caught three touchdown passes for the Wolfpack, setting an Independence Bowl record. Kyle Shurmur threw 19 completions for 158 yards and three interceptions, the most picks he’s thrown in a single game in his career. He was also sacked five times on the night.

“I just have to do a better job,” Shurmur said. “Personally, I will take the blame for the offense not producing. I feel like I could play a lot better. This stings a lot.”

Vanderbilt running back Ralph Webb rushed for 11 yards and a touchdown, setting the Vanderbilt single season rushing record, passing Zac Stacy. He already broke the Vanderbilt career rushing record earlier in the season.

Webb also announced that he will be returning to Vanderbilt for his senior season in 2017.

NC State dominated most of the game, but Vanderbilt looked ready to produce a comeback when running back Khari Blasingame capitalized on a 71-yard punt return by Kalija Lipscomb with a touchdown to bring the Commodores within 11 in the fourth quarter. But, NC State’s Nyheim Hines took the ensuing kickoff 100 yards to the end zone to put the final nail in Vanderbilt’s coffin.

“They did a great job of controlling the line of scrimmage throughout the day,” head coach Derek Mason said of NC State. “Their front seven did a good job of tackling. We, conversely, didn’t do as good of a job of tackling on the other side. Anytime you don’t tackle, and your edges get soft, it leads to explosive plays, and that’s what I saw.”

The Commodores got on the board first with a 52-yard Tommy Openshaw field goal midway through the first quarter. It was the longest field goal in Independence Bowl history, and the longest Vanderbilt field goal in a bowl game, beating Bryan Hahnfeldt’s 45-yard game-winner in the 2008 Music City Bowl.

However, Vanderbilt’s offense sputtered through most of the first half. Shurmur was just 6 for 18 for 62 yards and an interception in the half. The Commodores got close to the end zone thanks to a 45-yard end-around by Trent Sherfield, but failed to pick up points after a Sherfield drop in the end zone and Openshaw missed 27-yard field goal attempt midway through the second quarter.

NC State put some solid drives together in the first quarter, driving into Vanderbilt territory on each possession. However, the Vanderbilt defense held strong, recovering a fumble on the first drive and following it up with a forced punt and a goal line stand to end the opening frame.

The Wolfpack took the lead early in the second quarter after a Shurmur interception led to a nine-yard passing touchdown to Samuels. NC State quarterback Ryan Finley picked apart Vanderbilt’s secondary with a mixture of bubble screen passes and sideline throws.

“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.”

The Finley-to-Samuels combo proved lethal yet again late in the second quarter, as the pair linked up yet again late in the half for a 55-yard Wolfpack touchdown. It was a simple screen play, but the Commodore defense could not find the right angle to tackle Samuels, and he went into the end zone virtually untouched to give NC State a 14-3 halftime lead.

Vanderbilt started the second half flat-footed as Shurmur threw a sitting duck interception to Josh Jones after being hit in the pocket. That set up a five-yard touchdown run by Reggie Gallaspy to extend the Wolfpack lead to 21-3.

“[Shurmur] never really got settled,” Mason said of his quarterback. “It didn’t seem like he felt comfortable in the pocket, got hit a couple of times and it really, at times, just didn’t look comfortable.”

Throughout the game, the NC State defensive line put the pressure on Shurmur. He was sacked and hurried constantly, which is one of the reasons why he threw two interceptions on the day.

“I’d say they just played harder than we did,” offensive lineman Barrett 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.”

The sophomore quarterback himself knew there was pressure coming, but didn’t put the blame on his offensive line.

“I think pressure is going to happen and I have to play better and get the ball out,” he said. “That’s it.”

NC State kept up the offensive pressure, and using the same offensive formula of bubble screens and quick passes, scored again midway through the third quarter to pad the Wolfpack lead to 28-3.

The Commodores finally got in the end zone when Webb ran 30 yards to the house to bring the Commodores to within 18 points late in the third quarter. Early in the fourth quarter, a monstrous Lipscomb punt return set up an easy one-yard touchdown by Blasingame to cut the NC State lead to 11 with a little over 10 minutes remaining in the final frame.

It wouldn’t last, as Hines ran the ensuing kickoff back 100 yards for another NC State touchdown to seal the game.

Mason said he takes the blame for that play, as he didn’t make the right call on that kickoff

“Again, that’s on me,” Mason said. “I would have liked something different, and it didn’t work out that way. I thought we had some momentum going our way. You had some options: kick away, onside kick, pooch kick, lot of different things. I missed that opportunity. Again, I’m the head coach and that’s on me.”

He also thought that the coverage on the kickoff wasn’t where it needed to be.

“We’ve got to cover, I do know that,” he said. “We knew their guy was explosive, but we did a poor job of hitting the alleys and getting that thing to bounce. He came straight down the middle and across the field. When that happens, you’re talking about the kicker getting him down, and that’s a tough opportunity that we couldn’t take advantage of.”

With the loss, Vanderbilt finishes the season 6-7, failing to produce a winning record for the third season in a row. They are also now 4-1-3 in bowl games all-time.

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