Commodore Brunch: Vanderbilt vs. South Carolina

Several Commodore defenders make a tackle

Several Commodore defenders make a tackle

Cutler Klein, Sports Editor

There are many four letter words that can describe Vanderbilt’s 13-10 loss to South Carolina on opening night.

I’ll go with the cleanest one I can think of: What?

That was the question many of us were asking as the Commodores blew a 10-point halftime lead to lose on a field goal in the final minute.

This game was marred by some bad personnel and clock management decisions, but also featured some bright spots and things to look for in the coming weeks.

Here are the items on your Commodore Brunch menu:

The Quarterback Circus

All summer, head coach Derek Mason talked about how he learned from the past and chose Kyle Shurmur as the one and only starting quarterback. He wasn’t going to lead them down the dark path of a quarterback revolving door, like 2014 and 2015. When he spoke to me for my feature on his third season, he told me he chose to name Shurmur as the sole quarterback because he was “two years wiser.”

After Shurmur led a 16-play, 67-yard touchdown drive in the first half, which might have been the best scoring drive of Mason’s tenure, he looked like a genius.

Then he put Wade Freebeck in for two drives.

In his postgame press conference, Mason said the move was pre-determined between him, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and the quarterbacks. However, he said this quick change was not the reason his offense sputtered after that. Instead, he said, “[Shurmur] never really found rhythm.”

After correcting himself to say Shurmur had momentum on the touchdown drive, Mason went on to say, “I’m not going to second guess that. That wasn’t the difference in the ball game. … We’re talking about something that really had nothing to do with the effect of this game.”

“Kyle’s got to play better. We’ve got to play better.”

So pulling the quarterback that just led perhaps the greatest Vanderbilt offensive drive in three years had nothing to do with the outcome of the game? I hardly believe that.

Yes, both of Freebeck’s drives were backed up very far into Vanderbilt territory, but you have to think that Shurmur might have been a little better in that situation.

Shurmur was by no means perfect in this game. He threw a couple of dangerous passes, but he managed to escape the game with no turnovers. Vanderbilt actually finished with a positive turnover margin. He only passed for 73 yards and went 8 for 22. But, he was good. He was solid out there. Pulling him accomplishes nothing and completely goes against everything Mason has said over the past three months.

Why exactly was this predetermined decision made, you may ask?

“Wade’s only one play away from having to start,” Mason said. “If he goes out there for any particular reason, we don’t want that to be his first snap.”

Fun fact: Freebeck has six games of college experience under his belt and, as far as I know, practices with the team.

Now, it’s unclear how much Mason himself actually had to do with that decision. Ludwig has almost complete control of the offense, so he likely had a lot of influence on this. That may be part of the reason why Mason’s excuses for the choice proved to be rather thin.

Regardless, that was a poorly timed decision to pull a sophomore quarterback after a confidence-boosting drive to put the team up 10-0 in the first half. It’s as simple as that.

Clock Management

Aside from the questionable decision to pull Shurmur for two drives, Mason let a couple of big opportunities slide thanks to bad clock management. At the end of the first half, Vanderbilt got the ball back and was driving a little bit with just under a minute to go.

Instead of trying to drive and maybe grab a field goal before halftime (and they had the timeouts to do it), they ended up running out almost a minute of clock to end the half.

Wouldn’t it have been nice to have a few more points, in hindsight?

Then, with a minute remaining in the fourth quarter, Vanderbilt let a lot of clock run off before South Carolina called a timeout and kicked the game-winning 55-yard field goal.

Those are two key situations that need to be locked down. It’s unclear if an extra 10-15 seconds would have helped in the end, but it has to be better than 35 seconds to win or tie a game. The clock management must be better if Vanderbilt is to win games.

On the bright side, Khari Blasingame is a military-grade tank

There are some good things to take away from last night’s game. Shurmur didn’t look horrible and the linebackers were stellar yet again. However, the star of the night for Vanderbilt was Khari Blasingame, the linebacker-turned-running back that absolutely demolished South Carolina’s defense. While Ralph Webb provided the lightning, Blasingame provided the thunder. He ran for 68 yards on 15 carries and scored the lone Commodore touchdown.

He showed incredible physicality with the ball, barreling over defenders and staying on his feet to stretch for extra yards. He was the strongest offensive player in this game, by a long shot.

A smash-and-dash combination of Blasingame and Webb is showing shades of what Chris Johnson and LenDale White did with the Tennessee Titans in 2008. It could be lethal, especially if Shurmur becomes more of a threat with his arm.

Quick sides:

-The inexperienced Commodore secondary looked gassed in the second half and gave up far too many big passes. Gamecock receivers had too easy of a time getting open. That may also be because the Commodore pass rush faltered as well.

-Special teams was a mixed bag once again. Tommy Openshaw missed a crucial field goal in the fourth quarter, but freshman punter Sam Loy looked strong, pinning the Gamecocks deep inside their own territory. After a shaky start for Reid Nelson at punter, it looks like Loy is the mainstay.

-Give the Commodore offense credit: They did not turn the ball over, and Shurmur never got sacked. That is a vast improvement over last season.

The Commodores hit the field next Saturday at home against Middle Tennessee State. Kickoff is scheduled for 3 p.m., as Vanderbilt looks to even up its record.

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