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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Behind Enemy Lines: MTSU

Ziyi Liu
Ralph Webb (7) runs the game winning touchdown during Vanderbilt’s 17-13 win against Middle Tennessee State University October 3, 2015.
The Vanderbilt Hustler sports editor Robbie Weinstein and Sidelines sports editor Connor Ulrey discuss the state of the Commodores and Blue Raiders ahead of Saturday’s game.
Robbie Weinstein: Vanderbilt’s defense mostly held the MTSU offense in check last October. Vandy brings back most of its production on defense, so what does MTSU need to do this time around to put more points on the board?
Connor Ulrey: I think there are a few factors into what makes this different. Last year’s game, MTSU struggled to put points on the board but were a late Ralph Webb touchdown away from winning that game. This time around they boast OC Tony Franklin, who returns after coaching Jared Goff at Cal. They have a more seasoned Brent Stockstill, whose efficiency through week one has been somehow better than last season and even with receivers going down in camp have executed the “next man up” approach with ease. Also, it doesn’t hurt having hometown kid I’Tavius Mathers to run the ball. I think for Middle it comes down to the spread offense and Brent’s ability to move the ball around while creating sustained drives.
RW: MTSU clearly got off to a pretty good start with a 55-0 win over Alabama A&M. But considering the low level of competition, what can those who follow the Blue Raider program really take from that game?
CU: If you ask any player on the team, every game is important. Coach Stockstill uses that cliche of the “one game season” well, and it takes hold. Does a 55-0 win over a team that struggled in the SWAC say much? Probably not, but when you look deeper into the game, the win helped solidify the offense and improve the chemistry of the defense. Whether a home opener is a cakewalk or a close win, it’s a test for a team coming into a new season.
RW: In last year’s matchup, it seemed like MTSU quarterback Brent Stockstill rarely threw the ball more than 15 yards downfield. Do these dink-and-dunk throws still compose the bulk of MTSU’s plan of attack, and do you think the Blue Raiders will need to stretch the field more on Saturday?
CU: I would say that the spread offense hones in on that well. Quick screens, passes over the middle and moving the ball up the field in chunks isn’t a bad move. Stockstill has that knack to lull a defense to sleep before striking downfield. We saw that last week on the Desmond Anderson touchdown catch. Coach Franklin draws his plays well, and I definitely think that’s a part of it going into Saturday. Whether they’ll need to stretch the field remains to be seen, but there’s definitely ability to do so.
RW: I’Tavius Mathers went from having arguably the best name in the SEC to having arguably the best name in Conference-USA upon transferring to from Ole Miss to MTSU. One-game sample size notwithstanding, how big of a role does he project to have this year in the Blue Raiders’ offense?
CU: I’Tavius is a work horse, that’s for sure. His pure ability to read the defense even mid-play is something to watch. I think making that move back from Ole Miss, being at a [Power Five school], coming home to Murfreesboro and playing in front of people who’ve seen you for years is a big thing. He’s the starter, and going into week one that was always the plan. Winning so large, I’Tavius wasn’t needed as much in the game, and that gave way to guys like Terrelle West, who had a great opener.
RW: How do you see this one playing out? Make a score prediction, if you would like.
CU: I think Middle comes into this one with a bit of a chip on their shoulder, to say the least. Losing on Homecoming last season, especially the way they did, they want a win. Playing on the road isn’t easy but I think the Blue Raider fans will travel well. I know Vanderbilt will be looking to get over a bad loss to South Carolina. I think Stockstill and Co. find good rhythm offensively against a tough returning defense for Vanderbilt. I’m taking the Blue Raiders 24-14.
CU: [VU took] a tough loss against South Carolina to open the season in a game where the Commodores led for most of the game. What’s the team’s mindset heading into this week?
RW: Vandy has given the typical “PR” responses you would expect after any crushing loss, as the ‘Dores say they’ve moved on to this weekend’s game and still have confidence in themselves. I can’t speak to what, if anything, is going on in the locker room, but I expect that they’ll probably be fine mentally and in terms of confidence if they can get off to a good start. If the team starts slow on Saturday, it’s anyone’s guess as to how the players will respond.
CU: Only 73 yards passing last week for Vandy. How’s the quarterback situation playing out currently? Is Shurmur their man, and how are the Dores looking to improve upon that this weekend?
RW: It’s complicated: The coaching staff says Shurmur is the starting quarterback and backup Wade Freebeck will move forward with a situational role, specifically as a more mobile option. Freebeck isn’t known as a dual-threat quarterback himself, so on the surface the move doesn’t make much sense. Although head coach Derek Mason named Shurmur the starter months ago, Freebeck pushed him in preseason camp; it makes sense that Freebeck’s strong form in practices is contributing to the split in playing time, as practices have been closed to the media since early-ish August. There’s no public evidence that Freebeck is better than Shurmur, so presumably the coaching staff liked what it saw from the backup during closed practices.
CU: Like you said, there are lots of returners on defense for Vanderbilt but also some returners on offense. Who from last year’s game still looks to make an impact for you guys?
RW: Ralph Webb is the obvious choice here, as he’ll still get his 20-plus carries. I’d be surprised if starting wide receiver Trent Sherfield repeats his 6-catch, 63-yard performance from last year’s game, but he’ll probably provide some production. Sherfield is off to a slow start, however, as South Carolina’s secondary held him to zero catches last week.
CU: A field goal and a touchdown in the first three drives against South Carolina, but then seven straight punts, a missed field goal and the turnover on downs late. What has Coach Mason said about the inability to move the ball after getting the lead, and how do you think they plan to correct that this week?
RW: As I’d expect from just about any college football coach out there, Mason said very little of substance about the lack of offensive production from last week. After the loss, he did attribute it to a lack of execution rather than poor play-calling, but there was a lot of coach-speak. VU hasn’t given many indications as to what adjustments it might make, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the coaches mostly roll with the same plan of attack with confidence that it will work against a (possibly) weaker defense.
CU: Scoring predictions for Saturday’s game?
RW: I guess I’ll take Vanderbilt, 20-14. This is mostly going off of last year’s result and the change of venue, as it’s hard for me to take anything from MTSU’s first win.
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Ziyi Liu, Author

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