Mason, Commodores roll into Independence Bowl with swagger

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Mason, Commodores roll into Independence Bowl with swagger

Vanderbilt Bowl Celebration December 4, 2016. Photo by Ziyi Liu.

Vanderbilt Bowl Celebration December 4, 2016. Photo by Ziyi Liu.

Vanderbilt Bowl Celebration December 4, 2016. Photo by Ziyi Liu.

Vanderbilt Bowl Celebration December 4, 2016. Photo by Ziyi Liu.

Cutler Klein, Sports Editor

Rocking his now-famous Nike vest and new customized Vanderbilt bowling shoes, head coach Derek Mason got up on stage at the Student Life Center and uttered three words Commodore fans have been waiting two long years to hear.

“We’re going bowling.”

Mason’s impassioned speech to the Commodore faithful was part of a raucous bowl celebration at the Student Life Center on Sunday night. Mason, along with some of his players, got the fans riled up as they begin to prepare for their matchup against North Carolina State in the Camping World Independence Bowl on December 26.

While Shreveport, Louisiana, might not be the most thrilling bowl destination, just the fact that they made it was all the Commodores needed to hear.

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  • Vanderbilt Bowl Celebration December 4, 2016.

  • Vanderbilt Bowl Celebration December 4, 2016.

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“We talked about that as a group right after the game when we had our Monday meeting,” Mason said after the event. “We knew we were going bowling, we didn’t care where, we just want the opportunity to play one more game, and we earned that. We didn’t back in, we earned that, and now, it’s just about doing the work that leads us to go out and win.”

Redshirt junior running back Ralph Webb echoed his coach’s sentiments.

“We’ve just been ready, it didn’t really matter where we played, we’re just happy to be able to go back and play in a bowl game,” he said.

While their bowl destination did not weigh on the Commodores’ mind, the way they clinched bowl eligibility did. They would have been in a bowl game regardless of their result against Tennessee last week thanks to a lack of six-win teams and a high Academic Progress Rate. However, Vanderbilt did not want to get into a bowl game through a loophole back door. It wanted to kick in the door.

That’s exactly what it did with a 45-34 win over the Volunteers last week.

“We wanted to earn it,” sophomore quarterback Kyle Shurmur said. “We didn’t want to leave anything to chance with the APR. Especially with the way we did it in the last two games, we wanted to steamroll our way into this bowl season. It was a great way to finish the year and head into the bowl season.”

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  • Vanderbilt Bowl Celebration December 4, 2016.

  • Vanderbilt Bowl Celebration December 4, 2016.

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For most of the Commodores, this will be their first bowl trip. However, the seniors on this team will have some experience to draw on, as most of them got to experience Vanderbilt’s trip to the BBVA Compass Bowl in 2013. For those veterans, now that they’ve matured and built the program with Coach Mason, they finally get to see the rewards of their hard work.

“It means a little bit more,” redshirt junior linebacker Oren Burks said of this year’s bowl berth. “We went my freshman year, but I redshirted so it wasn’t like we were really invested into that program. So it means a lot more, being able to produce on the field and really get towards this goal. It’s a huge team effort.”

Another practical aspect of going to a bowl game is the extra practice time. With a few more weeks until the Independence Bowl, the Commodores will get the chance to hit the practice field for an extended period of time. The players and Mason agreed that the extra time will help get veterans healthy and young players more time to continue their development.

Before their final two games of the season, the Commodores seemed like an afterthought in the SEC. They had just come off a terrible loss on the road against Missouri and had two tough opponents remaining in Ole Miss and Tennessee.

After manhandling the Rebels and stunning the Volunteers, the Commodores were suddenly the talk of the SEC. Reporters from around the country took notice of how Mason had finally shaped the program into his own and finished the season riding high.

Even though he doesn’t usually talk much about outside analysis of his team, Mason acknowledged the increase in coverage his team has seen.

Vanderbilt Bowl Celebration December 4, 2016.

Vanderbilt Bowl Celebration December 4, 2016.

“Yeah, it does shock me a little bit,” he said. “Sometimes, you really have to block out the noise and you’ve just got to focus on the day, the week, the game that you’re in. But, what I’ve seen over the last couple of weeks is nothing new. Even when we were struggling, you knew the fan base cared. They cared about this football team; they just wanted some results, as we all did.”

“I think everybody wants to see this team do something different. Now, what they have the chance to do is play a 13th game, go down to Shreveport and play on December 26 and show the world that Vanderbilt football is here to stay.”

Now, the team has to get back to work to prepare to take on the NC State Wolfpack. It’s a time for celebration and good memories, but Mason knows his team can’t forget their ultimate goal.

“You play the game to win, you don’t play to feel good about it or go on a bowl trip,” he said. “This is a business trip for us, and that’s exactly how we’re going to approach it.”

“But, you can have some fun in that process.”

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