Vanderbilt got a badly-needed win on Saturday, taking this one 31-17 over the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers to snap a five-game losing streak.
Kyle Shurmur continued his stellar season, throwing for 220 yards and two touchdowns. Ralph Webb and wide receiver Trent Sherfield each ran for a touchdown en route to the win. The defense, despite some nagging problems, managed to rack up six sacks on the day.
Vanderbilt needed a reason to believe in themselves early on, and their first drive gave them just that. The Commodores marched 75 yards down the field in 11 plays, including 19 yards from Webb on four carries. A third-and-goal strike from Shurmur to Sherfield put them up 7-0 early in the first quarter.
Perhaps even more important to Vanderbilt’s confidence was the defense’s ability to get off the field. In previous games, opposing drives found new life wherever possible and kept Vanderbilt’s defense playing and tiring out. Western Kentucky couldn’t do that early on, however, as the Commodores got a three-and-out on the Hilltoppers’ first possession.
The Commodores put relentless pressure on the WKU quarterbacks throughout the game. Freshman lineman Dayo Odeyingbo racked up his first sack of his career in the second half. Head coach Derek Mason thought there was just a little more edge to the pass rush in this one.
“You’ve got to earn the right,” Mason said. “You’ve got to strain. I thought there was more strains to finish. You look at the play on Dayo, Dayo pushes through the tackle, the tackle grabs him. He lunges, almost stumbles and falls, and was able to put his hand on the ground and reach out and grab the quarterback. It’s about straining to finish. If sacks were easy, everybody would have one, but they’re not. You’ve got to strain when you’re out there. He strained.”
Later in the first quarter, Western Kentucky finally got on the board, but it took some trickery to do it. Wide receiver Nacarius Fant caught a backwards pass and proceeded to lob the ball up to a wide-open Quinton Baker across the field to tie the game. The play was reminiscent of Antwaan Randle El’s pass to Hines Ward in Super Bowl 40.
Vanderbilt would respond with a touchdown drive of their own. After Shurmur bailed his team out of a third-and-long with a 30-yard strike to Sherfield, Ralph Webb took it from there, scoring on an eight-yard run to give Vanderbilt the 14-7 lead as the first quarter came to a close.
With the touchdown, Webb became Vanderbilt’s all-time leader in total touchdowns. Webb sat out most of last Saturday’s game against South Carolina and fought through pain to play in this one.
Mason got choked up when talking about how much Webb has meant to his program.
“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.”
The second quarter turned into a stalemate until a 54-yard pass from Western Kentucky quarterback Mike White to Lucky Jackson set up a White rushing touchdown to tie the game
However, the Commodores had a little luck on their side. In the final minute of the half, a Shurmur pass looking for Chris Pierce deflected off of a Hilltoppers defender’s foot and into the hands of Trey Ellis, who took it over the goal line. Vanderbilt took that 21-14 lead into halftime.
While luck might’ve had something to do with it, Mason said it took a lot more to put Ellis in the position to make that play.
“It gives everybody a big lift,” he said. “There’s such thing as luck, man, but you’ve got to work hard for the opportunity, and he just happened to be Johnny-on-the-spot. I’ve seen a lot of those go against us in the last couple of years. That one went our way. He happened to be in the spot.”
Nothing like a good kick-to-catch TD pass. Wow. pic.twitter.com/BVOmUwXjIo
— Vandy Hustler Sports (@vuhustlersports) November 4, 2017
Western Kentucky picked up the pace on offense in the second half, keeping Vanderbilt’s defense on the field for a 17-play drive that resulted in a field goal. A batted pass on third down in the red zone prevented the drive from going for seven.
Vanderbilt couldn’t figure things out on defense yet again, letting Western Kentucky keep their drive going after a special teams miscue negated a shanked punt at midfield. They held them to no points, and the offense went to work. An end-around to Sherfield went for a 45-yard score to pad Vanderbilt’s lead to 11 late in the third quarter.
Tommy Openshaw hit just his second field goal on the season to extend Vanderbilt’s lead to 31-17 early in the fourth quarter. Vanderbilt held off a Western Kentucky drive in the final minutes, despite helping to extend that drive thanks to pass interference and holding penalties.
With the win, Vanderbilt moves to 4-5, two wins from bowl eligibility. They take on Kentucky at Vanderbilt Stadium next Saturday.