The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

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.

Commodores ready for next step against Tennessee

Bosley Jarrett
Vanderbilt vs. Tennessee at Vanderbilt Stadium 11/29/14

It’s the biggest game of Derek Mason’s Vanderbilt career.

After a season of ups and downs, the Commodores’ head coach has the chance to erase his team’s struggles this year against No. 17 Tennessee on Saturday. At 5-6, Vanderbilt touts a couple of nice wins over Georgia and Ole Miss and a couple of head-scratching losses at the hands of South Carolina and Missouri. For the first time since Mason has been in Nashville, his team carried in legitimate bowl expectations to the season. A win against an in-state rival and top 25 squad can assure that Vanderbilt meets those expectations.

How the Commodores perform in their first legitimately pressure-packed game remains to be seen, however. Vanderbilt hasn’t gotten to play for anything this deep into the season since Mason arrived in 2014, and it’s hard to say whether the team will rise to the occasion Saturday or fall flat on its face.

Season openers against Temple, Western Kentucky and South Carolina arguably represent the biggest games Vanderbilt has played in over the last three years, and none of those three come close to this one in terms of the ramifications it holds. This isn’t a bonus opportunity against Auburn or Texas A&M where fans simply hope Vanderbilt can compete. A Senior Night game against Tennessee with the hopes of clinching a bowl berth and eliminating the Volunteers from Sugar Bowl contention is far beyond the scope of anything any of Vanderbilt’s main contributors have experienced.

“You look at opportunities in college football and what it looks like to play in these types of games and maybe have it be your last home game in college football, that’s a sentimental moment for these guys,” Mason said. “I’m sure they’ll be excited, anxious, but it’s exciting for us. It’s exciting for me as a coach to get a chance to see this group off.”

There won’t be much sentimental value, however, if Vanderbilt loses. As will be apparent in the stands and on the sidelines, the high stakes nature of this game has the potential to put an emotional charge into every aspect of it.

“That’s part of playing in this game,” Mason said. “… There’s gonna be a lot of anxious fans and folks rooting their teams on, and for our guys, I want them to feel it. That’s college football.”

For Mason’s part, he holds the responsibility of choking off a Tennessee offense that is averaging 55.7 points per game over its last three contests and hung 53 on the Commodores last year. The Volunteers’ Josh Dobbs could be this year’s All-SEC second-team quarterback and has put up huge yardage numbers during UT’s three-game win streak while becoming the team’s primary rushing threat.

“Josh Dobbs is as good a quarterback as I’ve seen on tape,” Mason said. “You watch what he’s done the last two weeks; last week he put up 190 [rushing] yards himself. … For me, as I look at it, I think Josh Dobbs is capable of playing as well as any quarterback in the country, and that’s going to be a tough task for this defense.”

Stopping Dobbs proved to be a challenge last year, as he threw for two touchdowns and ran for a third. After struggling to contain dual-threat quarterbacks for much of the season, Mason’s defense contained Ole Miss freshman Shea Patterson last week and looks better prepared to deal with Dobbs this year.

“We got away from some things [in last year’s game] and looked at some defenses structurally that would give us an opportunity to create a different line of scrimmage,” Mason said. “… I think the formula is gonna lie in our ability to tackle. We’ve gotta be able to tackle, we’ve gotta be able to defend the one-on-ones.”

Vanderbilt’s offense moved the ball well last year in Knoxville and put 28 points on the board. Of course, the offense is also coming off arguably its best performance of the year against Ole Miss. Tennessee defensive lineman Derek Barnett is one of the SEC’s top defenders and has amassed 11 sacks this year, but the rest of the Volunteer defense has struggled with injuries and inconsistent play.

In wins over Kentucky and Missouri the past two weeks, the Volunteers allowed an average of 431.5 rushing yards. Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb looked healthier against Ole Miss after fighting a nagging ankle injury suffered against Kentucky, and he’s only 27 yards away from breaking the program’s all-time rushing record set by Zac Stacy.

“I’d say he’s gonna get more than [27] yards, and hopefully the offensive line can do that for him,” center Barrett Gouger said. “We did a pretty good job last week, which was good; we needed that after we had a pretty poor performance at Mizzou. So we gotta keep building on last week and practice hard this week and open up holes so we can take care of Ralph and all the running backs and do our job for them.”

The game could come down to who between Webb and Dobbs can create more offense for his team. A win for Webb to go along with the Vanderbilt career rushing record would surely make for a memorable day. But, ultimately, Saturday’s game is about putting an end to two-plus years devoid of accomplishment and full of losing football on West End.

“Why settle for second when first is available?” Mason said, quoting John F. Kennedy. “I think that’s the approach that we have to take. That’s the approach that I’ve taken with this football team. We’re gonna make sure that we go get everything that there is to get.”

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