Commodore Brunch Week One: A hot start


Hunter Long

Vanderbilt plays Middle Tennessee State in Football on Saturday, September 1, 2018. (Photo by Hunter Long)

Max Schneider, Associate Sports Editor

It was the best of halves, it was the worst of halves.

There was no Charles Dickens in this game, but boy was this a Tale of Two Halves.

After a slow start in a game that looked sloppy at best, Vanderbilt turned on the jets in the second half, beating Middle Tennessee 35-7 at Vanderbilt Stadium and notching one in the win column to start the season.

Whatever was said in that locker room at halftime certainly did the job, and the Commodores played lights out football from that point forward.  If they continue to have success on both sides of the ball like they did in the second half, improvement over last season is inevitable.

Right now, they’ll take 1-0.

Here is your Commodore Brunch menu for Week One of the 2018 season:

Shurmur Shows Maturity

Vanderbilt plays Middle Tennessee State in Football on Saturday, September 1, 2018. (Photo by Hunter Long)

It wasn’t going his way early.  3-7 for just 28 yards in the first half gave Kyle Shurmur every reason to be frustrated, but Vanderbilt’s captain never lost faith.  He came out of the locker room in the second half and led the offense on a statement drive, going 92 yards for the touchdown to make it a two-score game.

From the outset, it was clear that Shurmur was looking for his favorite target, Kalija Lipscomb, and it was easy to see why.  Frankly, he was the only receiver getting any separation in the first half.  Shurmur knew to trust his top target, and he did, unleashing a long ball to Lipscomb early.  Only Lipscomb didn’t come down with it.  It hit right off his hands, then his helmet, then onto the turf.  But Shurmur didn’t let him dwell on the drop.

“That hurt, but Kyle told me to stick with it,” Lipscomb said of his quarterback.  “He’s the best leader in the nation.  He told me to stay with it and it would come back to me.”

And it certainly came back to him.  On a 3rd and 10 early in the fourth quarter, Shurmur rolled right and fired a pass toward a double-covered Lipscomb in the end zone.  The pass was perfect, but the catch was even better.

Lipscomb says these two “have a telepathy,” and after a play like that, who isn’t a believer?

While Shurmur and Lipscomb have a couple years of experience under their belts, the other receivers on this offense are brand new, and Shurmur made sure to get them involved.  His 49-yard bomb to Donaven Tennyson on the opening drive of the second half got the offense going.

Just two plays later, Shurmur hurled a touchdown to Chris Pierce, who made an excellent catch inches off the turf for the score. The quarterback’s faith in his more inexperienced receivers after a tough first half was refreshing, and it really paid off.

There’s still a lot to be desired from these younger receivers, but with the “best leader in the nation” at the helm, this offense looks sharp.

Three-headed Monster of a Backfield

There was a lot of talk about the running back position heading into this game; namely, who would end up being the bell cow?  Well, the answer is no one.  Believe it or not, when Mason lists all three guys as starters on the depth chart, he means it.

Khari Blasingame, Ke’Shawn Vaughn, and Jamauri Wakefield all saw plenty of action Saturday night, notching nine, nine, and ten carries respectively.

“That was the goal,” said Mason.  “The goal is always to make sure you can keep fresh backs in there.  These guys know, they’ve got to make their touches count.”

It was the BlasingTrain to start the game, and it didn’t take him long to leave the station.  On his fifth carry of the opening drive, the senior dashed through a hole on the left side of the line and was gone, taking it 30 yards to the house.

Vaughn took over the reins for the next few drives, and he was inches away from breaking one in the second half.  He also had a receiving touchdown called back on an illegal formation penalty.  It’s easy to see why Mason and his staff have been so excited about Vaughn with his speed and comfort level in the passing game.

Finally, Wakefield put the finishing touches on Middle Tennessee, gashing the defense in the fourth quarter and leading a touchdown drive of his own, although he might need to credit Blasingame and Vaughn a little bit for what they describe as the “softening process.”  Vanderbilt wore this defense down over the course of the game, and Wakefield’s yards were a perfect example of that.

Tarver Pulling Out All the Stops

It might be week one, but new defensive coordinator Jason Tarver wasted no time showing just what kind of season it’s going to be for this defense.

Tarver’s unit plays fast, sending blitzes early and often.  The Commodores rocked Brent Stockstill all game, sacking him six times and putting him on his back even more.

The blitzes did backfire a little bit early.  Stockstill often saw them coming and checked it down, which resulted in chunk plays and backs in open space, but Tarver will take the good with the bad, especially with a depleted secondary.

Early in the game, LaDarius Wiley, Vanderbilt’s leading tackler last season and the captain of this defense, was ejected for targeting, leaving a gaping hole at a safety position that already had question marks without Zaire Jones.  Mason said that a lot of the blitzes were to take some of the pressure off the secondary by giving Stockstill less time to throw.

While Tarver’s defense lacks the star power that Vanderbilt defenses of the past have showcased with Zach Cunningham and Oren Burks, this unit makes up for it with depth.  The Commodores rotated players in and out on all three levels of the defense, keeping fresh legs without worrying about a significant drop off.  New faces like Kenny Hebert and Louis Vecchio made names for themselves living in the backfield.

“I probably haven’t played that number of guys since 2010 when I was at Stanford,” said Mason.  “I don’t know how many stepped onto the field tonight but I know we played two deep easy.”

Bring Back Kickoff Returns

So Middle Tennessee’s Ty Lee called a fair catch on just about every kickoff last night, even the ones that didn’t go into the end zone.  Get rid of this rule.  We don’t like this rule.

Hopefully there are more kickoff returns next week, when Vanderbilt takes on Nevada at 11 AM at Vanderbilt Stadium.