Tennessee trounces Vanderbilt 53-28 in season finale

Vanderbilt+vs.+Tennessee+November+28%2C+2015+at+Neyland+Stadium

Vanderbilt vs. Tennessee November 28, 2015 at Neyland Stadium

Ben Weinrib

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Although Vanderbilt had its highest scoring output of the season against an FBS team, it was the defense that let down the Commodores at Neyland Stadium.

Vanderbilt allowed its largest scoring output on the season in a 53-21 loss to Tennessee. Despite the the Volunteers only having the fifth-best offense the Vanderbilt has faced all season, Tennessee well surpassed the 34 points the Commodores allowed at Houston.

“We definitely came away form this game surprised,” senior linebacker Darreon Harring said. “That’s not our defense out there that played tonight. We’re a much defense. Coaches coached us well this week. They probably came in here and took the blame, but at the end of the day it came down to the players on the field, and just the execution that we didn’t really have out there.”

Previously, the defense had been Vanderbilt’s strength. The unit ranked 4th in 3rd down defense, 5th in red zone defense, 14th in scoring defense and 22nd in total defense coming into the game, but it struggled all around Saturday.

Tennessee converted 7 of 13 3rd downs (Vanderbilt’s season average was 26.1 percent), allowed 51 points in eight red zone trips (season average 3.4 points per trip), allowed almost 35 more points than its season average 18.1 points allowed per game, and gave up 520 totals yards (season average 334.8 yards).

“I thought for us, we just didn’t tackle very well,” head coach Derek Mason said. “We didn’t get off blocks, we leaked a little too much. I didn’t call anything that I haven’t called before. It wasn’t a new defense, give Tennessee some credit for executing. Really, it was more on us, I thought we were there to make plays, we just didn’t make plays.”

Vanderbilt was able to keep up with the Volunteers’ high-powered offense for the first quarter on the backs of a couple big plays.

Ralph Webb ripped off a 50-yard rush that eventually led to a 7-yard rushing touchdown for Darrius Sims. Webb would finish the day with 149 yards on 21 carries and became the first Vanderbilt player since 1995, and the ninth ever, to rush for 100 yards against Tennessee. He also finished the season with 1152 rushing yards, fifth in the SEC and the most ever for a Vanderbilt sophomore.

“The one thing I will say about Ralph Webb is that Ralph Webb has done exactly what we thought he would do this year,” Mason said. “He came, he competed, he played extremely well, he never backed down, he showed up every week. That’s the type of young man I’m looking for … I am just proud of Ralph.”

Down 17-7, Kyle Shurmur followed up a 19-yard reverse by Trey Ellis by floating a beautiful pass to Caleb Scott for a 36-yard gain. Two plays later, Trent Sherfield scored his first touchdown in nine weeks on a 12-yard pass.

But for the rest of the game, the Commodores were inept; for nearly 41 minutes following the second score of the game, they could barely move the ball.

Vanderbilt lost any momentum it had going into the half when Tennessee returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown and then picked off Shurmur in the red zone the following drive.

Tennessee would go on to score 36 unanswered points.

“I believe when you go back and you look at those two big moments in the game, they were game-changing,” Mason said. “The return obviously takes the wind out of your sails, but then you come back and you have a chance to move the ball down the field and get points, even a field goal. I just whispered to the young QB, I said, ‘Listen, always take the points, understand where we’re at, you saw the receiver fall, I know you thought he could make a play, but just take the points.’ Again, just a young guy growing up, learning how to make good decisions and really take care of the football.”

Vanderbilt did add two more scoring drives in the last five minutes with a 3-yard pass to Steven Scheu and an 8-yard pass to Dallas Rivers. But at that point, it was too little too late.

After Vanderbilt’s touchdown to start the second quarter, it picked up 243 yards of offense. Shurmur was just 12-30 for 150 yards with a touchdown and interception, and the running backs picked up 93 yards on 23 carries.

Vanderbilt finishes the season 4-8, possibly one win away from making a bowl game, in Mason’s second season as head coach. Now the team will move forward led by Shurmur, the true freshman who started the last three games of the season.

“I think he has the ability to be something special,” senior center Spencer Pulley said. “I think this team moving forward is going to be something pretty special. I think there are a lot of good players that aren’t known yet. I think that, along with the experience Kyle has gotten with the competition there is going to be pretty amazing.”