As the countdown to kickoff winds down, the Vanderbilt Commodores will have a tall task against North Carolina State in the Camping World Independence Bowl on Monday. They are currently six-point underdogs, but with both teams riding high to finish the regular season, anything can happen.
Here are five major keys for the Commodores if they want to take down the Wolfpack and finish the season with a winning record:
Start Strong, Start Smart
Vanderbilt has had trouble starting games well throughout this season. The Commodores have scored just 49 points in the first quarter all season, and have given up 95 points in the opening quarter. The Wolfpack have been marginally better on offense, scoring 58 points in the first quarter, but have been much better than the Commodores on defense, only allowing 46 points.
After a lengthy break since the last weekend of the regular season, the opening drives of the game will be especially important. A few early scores by the Wolfpack or turnovers by the Commodores could shake even the strongest of teams.
Vanderbilt has played with confidence in the second half, especially in its last two games against Ole Miss and Tennessee. However, a good start, or at the very least a non-bad start, will set them up to control the game and wear down the Wolfpack.
Withstand the Elements
The weather forecast for Monday’s game calls for rain and thunderstorms throughout the afternoon. Vanderbilt has not had to play in many adverse weather conditions this season. The only time they did was in week two against MTSU, but the game was suspended due to lightning and most of the game was played before and after the storms.
Head coach Derek Mason knows the weather conditions will not be ideal, but he’s used to adverse conditions.
“You’ve got to play the game with the elements you’re given,” Mason said at a press conference on Saturday. “Football’s been around a long time. I had the great fortune to coach with the Minnesota Vikings and play in some harsh weather, whether it was at Lambeau Field or in Chicago. The elements are part of this game. Our guys embrace the elements as well. They like being outside more than they do being inside. Whether it’s rain or sleet, these guys are going to play good football.”
If it’s really rainy and windy, then quarterback Kyle Shurmur will not be able to manage the passing game like he did at the end of the regular season. This game could turn into a run-heavy affair, as the Commodores and Wolfpack will likely rely on their 1000-yard rushers, Matthew Dayes and Ralph Webb, respectively.
As Mason noted, that might not be the worst thing in the world for either side.
“You’ll see two good teams with two complete run games,” he said. “Both offensive lines are really good. When I look at Dayes, he’s as good a running back as we’ve seen all year long. You watch what he’s done in the ACC and you watch how consistent he’s been.”
“If it winds up being a ground game with some gadgets and tricks, isn’t that what a bowl game’s all about?”
Don’t Get Chubb-y
The Commodores have faced their fare share of defensive stalwarts this season, like Tennessee’s Derek Barnett. However, they’ll have to face another one on Monday in NC State DE Bradley Chubb, cousin of Georgia running back Nick Chubb.
Mason knows his offensive line will have their work cut out for them.
“He’s hard to stop,” Mason said of Chubb. “He’s spectacular. We play against good players all the time, but when I look at Bradley Chubb, he’s dominant. He’s a true penetrator with the ability to disrupt, whether it’s run game or pass. Really reminds me of Barnett in our conference in terms of what Barnett was. He really impacts games. You always have to be aware of where he is.”
In addition, NC State’s defense will be tough to solve for Shurmur, Webb and the Commodore offense.
“I’ll tell you what, their front’s been spectacular,” Mason said. “What they’ve done with their safeties being the leading tacklers. They do a great job of getting teams in long yardage situations and being opportunistic. When I look at what the front has done, especially with Chubb, they’re going to be formidable. They’re going to do what they do; we’re going to do what we do.”
Shine in the Spotlight
For the vast majority of this Commodore squad, this will be their first experience in a bowl game. Even though the game is on ESPN2, it will still be a big spotlight. A large national audience will be watching, and it should be a good crowd.
With that, some of these young players will need to “get back to the middle,” as Mason always says. The extra pressure of a bowl game cannot get to their heads. If they succumb to the pressure, it could end up costing them in the form of a turnover or serious misstep.
This one’s self-explanatory: He needs to wear the vest.
The Commodores kick off against NC State on Monday at 4 PM central at Independence Stadium. It will be aired on ESPN2 and the WatchESPN app.