Rivalry Week: Commodores look to make history in Knoxville

With a win, Derek Mason would become one of two coaches in Vanderbilt history (and the first since the 1920s) to beat Tennessee in four straight contests

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Rivalry Week: Commodores look to make history in Knoxville

Vanderbilt Playes Tennessee for Bowl eligibility on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018. (Photo by Hunter Long)

Vanderbilt Playes Tennessee for Bowl eligibility on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018. (Photo by Hunter Long)

Hunter Long

Vanderbilt Playes Tennessee for Bowl eligibility on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018. (Photo by Hunter Long)

Hunter Long

Hunter Long

Vanderbilt Playes Tennessee for Bowl eligibility on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018. (Photo by Hunter Long)

Simon Gibbs, Deputy Sports Editor

This week, the Vanderbilt Commodores seek to lay claim over the state of Tennessee for the fourth consecutive year. With a win, head coach Derek Mason would join Dan McGugin as the only coaches in program history to accomplish the elusive feat.

But perhaps it’s worth noting that McGugin did so in the 1920s.

To put things in perspective, Mason now draws up his gameplan in the McGugin Center, the home of Vanderbilt athletics. When Coach McGugin last pulled off a four-peat, General Robert Neyland was in his first year as head coach of the foes out east. Fittingly, Saturday’s contest will take place in Neyland Stadium, the sixth largest stadium in the world.

Only one team stands in the way of Vanderbilt making history. This week, as was the case for the past few years, Vanderbilt’s physical appearance serves as a reminder. A simple look around the locker room and one can decipher the opponent: Tennessee.

What began as a tradition amongst offensive linemen quickly spread to the quarterbacks. Then, as evidenced by defensive lineman Drew Birchmeier in Tuesday’s press conference, it’s spread to the defense. If a Vanderbilt Commodore grows out a mustache in late November, the Tennessee Volunteers must be on the horizon.

“The mustaches started well before my time,” said Shawn Sankavage, Vanderbilt’s backup quarterback from 2014-2018. “A former lineman told me the origin. The mustaches are a reference to playing dirty. We always wanted to have a dirty look going into Knoxville because they’re a dirty team, they’ve got dirty fans, Knoxville is a dirty city and we’ve got to fit the persona for the weekend. That’s why we grow out mustaches. In my junior year, I took the dirty look a step further and grew out a mullet.”

This is rivalry week.

‘Big Three’ on a Big Stage

Once upon a time, Vanderbilt’s “Big Three,” wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb, running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn and tight end Jared Pinkney, were in the national spotlight. Unfortunately, with three wins, eight losses and a decline in production, things haven’t quite panned out as the trio had hoped.

Pinkney has caught a mere 20 passes compared to last season’s 50. He’s found the end zone two times on 233 receiving yards, falling very short of last season’s seven on 774. Lipscomb’s 43 receptions are less than half of last season’s 87. His 916 receiving yards and nine touchdowns have been slashed to just 468 and and two. Vaughn on the other hand, formerly a member of a running back by committee, has seen an uptick in usage. The graduation of Khari Blasingame and Vaughn’s ability to stay healthy has led to 192 carries, 35 more than last season. However, opposing defenses have recognized and keyed in on the Commodore workhorse, making Vaughn far less efficient: his 7.9 yards per carry last year have declined to 5.3 in 2019.

This weekend, when the Commodores head to Knoxville, the three seniors will take a much bigger stage than usual. If Neyland Stadium is full, Vaughn, Lipscomb and Pinkney will be tasked with facing the roars of over 100,000 people in their last collegiate game.

“It’s electric,” Lipscomb said in Tuesday’s press conference. “It’s surreal. You go in there and your head is kind of buzzing, but once the first play is done, you just think, ‘Okay, let’s play ball.’ And you’ve got a team that the guys across from you want to be facing. We just have to counter with the same intensity. The enthusiasm around it is just high.”

Saturday will mark the end of an era for these three, as they’ll begin to focus their efforts on the 2020 NFL Draft after the final whistle. Perhaps the next time they face such a large crowd, it’ll be on a Sunday.

Trigger-Happy Tennessee

The Tennessee Volunteers have mounted a near-complete 180 from their Week One form, which saw them fall victim to an FCS team in Georgia State. In late August, the Panthers pulled off a miraculous 38-30 upset over the 26-point home favorites, but the Volunteers’ struggles didn’t stop there. In Week Two, they dropped another heavily favored home game – this one, in double overtime to the BYU Cougars.

Two and a half months later, that same Tennessee team will go to a bowl game regardless of Saturday’s outcome against Vanderbilt. They’ve picked up six wins since the skid, losing only to top ten teams in the country (Florida, Georgia, and Alabama) and scooping up key conference victories against Mississippi State, South Carolina, Kentucky and Missouri.

The Volunteers ride a four game win streak into Saturday, during which junior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano has done much of the heavy lifting. He’s carried the Volunteers with seven touchdowns and just one interception during the streak, leaning heavily on his 6′ 3″, 208-pound wideout Jauan Jennings. The senior has notched 408 receiving yards and three touchdowns in those four games. Lipscomb, Vanderbilt’s leading receiver, has just 468 yards all season.

With the help of Guarantano’s aerial attack, Tennessee’s trigger-happy offense has brought them back from the depths of despair.

Practice Like You Play

“For us, this game brings about a lot of feelings and emotions,” Coach Mason said in Tuesday’s press conference. “It’s a rivalry game. You try to give the the history of the game to these guys. You talk about what it means… You’re just really trying to give those guys who haven’t experienced the rivalry yet or understand much about the rivalry some history.”

The Commodores haven’t played in Neyland Stadium in two years. Some of the youngest players have yet to experience what it’s like to play their biggest rivals. Or what it’s like to play their biggest rivals on the road. Or to play their biggest rivals on the road with the chance to make history in front of over 100,000 fans.

On Tuesday, Mason explained how he’s preparing his team for the environment in Knoxville.

“In practice, we’re hearing Rocky Top just to get these guys used to the song and the crowd noise,” he said. “Just trying to familiarize these guys with the atmosphere a little bit.”

They’ll hear that same song time and time again on Saturday. Only time will tell if their preparation can pay off.

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