Vanderbilt comes out strong on both sides of the ball, ends opening game woes

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Vanderbilt comes out strong on both sides of the ball, ends opening game woes

Ralph Webb takes the handoff on Saturday night's victory over Middle Tennessee

Ralph Webb takes the handoff on Saturday night's victory over Middle Tennessee

Ralph Webb takes the handoff on Saturday night's victory over Middle Tennessee

Ralph Webb takes the handoff on Saturday night's victory over Middle Tennessee

Max Schneider, Associate Sports Editor

It looks like Vanderbilt’s days of playing its openers on Thursday are over.

The Commodores won their opening night game for the first time since 2011 by a score of 28-6, defeating the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders on Saturday night in Murfreesboro.  Vanderbilt switched its opening games to Thursday nights in 2012, and proceeded to lose all five of those openers before switching back to Saturdays this season.  The move proved to be the right one, and Derek Mason notched his first opening game victory at Vanderbilt.  Mason was adamant about getting that first victory and knocking that chip off his shoulder, and he was able to get it done thanks to some stellar play on both sides of the ball.

Going into this football game, everybody expected the running game to guide this team to victory, but it was Kyle Shurmur, not Ralph Webb and Khari Blasingame, who shouldered the load and uplifted the offense.  Shurmur looked excellent on the night, shutting down all notions of inadequacy that surrounded him coming into this season.  There were a few errant passes here and there, and Shurmur was bailed out by his receivers a couple times, but Derek Mason will take the good with the bad, and this outing was certainly a good one.

“Anytime you get experience you get more confidence,” said Shurmur of his confidence-level after this game.  “Our offense as a whole had a lot of guys returning and it felt like we were playing with a lot more confidence for sure.”

Shurmur showed flashes of his performance against Tennessee last year, where he looked like the star quarterback Vanderbilt fans hoped he could be.  This season, he might just be that guy for them.  Kyle Shurmur completed 20-28 passes for 296 yards and three touchdowns, and probably could have padded the stats a little more if the offense didn’t go completely conservative later in the game.

The Commodores came out firing, taking just five plays to score on the opening drive of the game.  After a couple darts from Shurmur, Kalija Lipscomb got loose in the secondary and made an impressive grab adjusting to the ball for a 37-yard score.  On the ensuing Middle Tennessee possession, Stockstill moved the ball well, utilizing the hurry-up and a West Coast style offense characterized by short passes and screens.  On their first real shot down the field, however, Stockstill was drilled by Jonathan Wynn, causing an overthrow that sailed right into the hands of Vanderbilt defensive back Bryce Lewis.

The interception gave Vanderbilt a short field at the MTSU 40-yard line, and the Commodores needed just three plays to hit paydirt.  Ralph Webb weaved his way through the defense on a perfectly-executed slip screen, gaining 30 yards down to the one-yard line.  Webb finished it off from there up the middle to put Vanderbilt up 14-0 in the first quarter.

Middle Tennessee drove down the field again, this time with Stockstill predominantly using his legs.  The offense was also aided by a pass interference call that nullified an interception, as well as a fumble that found its way into the hands of running back Shane Tucker, who was able to gain positive yardage on the play.  Down 14-0, coach Rick Stockstill elected to go for it on fourth down in Vanderbilt territory, and an illegal touching penalty forced a turnover on downs.

Shurmur and the offense capitalized yet again, with a dart to Sherfield and a big third down conversion to Jared Pinkney.  Third down conversions became a theme in the first half for the Commodores, converting their first six of the game.  After a highlight-reel truck from Pinkney, Vanderbilt once again found itself by the goal line, and Shurmur wasted no time.  He found Lipscomb on an out route for a four-yard score, Lipscomb’s second of the game.

Middle Tennessee went three-and-out on their next three drives, as the offensive line struggled to contain Vanderbilt’s pass rush, causing Stockstill to find himself on his back often.  2.5 of those sacks came at the hands of Charles Wright.

“Before I got to the game I wrote down a couple goals,” said Wright.  “It was two sacks, one [tackle for loss] and one tipped pass and I just like to speak things into existence.”

The offense took over, and Shurmur orchestrated a drive down the field late in the second quarter, but a missed field goal by Tommy Openshaw kept the score at 21-0 entering halftime.  It wasn’t just the score that was lopsided, though.  The Commodores outgained the Blue Raiders in the first half, piling up 245 yards to Middle Tennessee’s 72.

Vanderbilt started the second half with a bang, as the offense picked up right where they left off.  On a third and short, Shurmur found Webb in the flat, who torched the Middle Tennessee defense, taking it 73 yards to the house.  It was much of the same for the Vanderbilt defense in the third quarter, as well.  Dare Odeyingo’s sack of Stockstill forced a fourth straight three-and-out.

MTSU looked to have some life on Vanderbilt’s next possession.  Walter Brady put a huge hit on Shurmur that almost knocked the football free, forcing the Commodores to punt.  A couple drives later, the Blue Raiders found themselves deep in Vanderbilt territory.  The offense alternated finding Richie James and Ty Lee to maneuver their way downfield.  James, who caught 14 passes for 183 yards in last year’s matchup between these two teams, was active again in this outing, catching ten balls for 112 yards Saturday night.  The Blue Raiders once again stalled in the red zone, failing to convert on third and fourth down, turning the ball over on downs.  Middle Tennessee did not convert a third down all night, going 0-12 in the night.

Middle Tennessee finally gained their first points in the fourth quarter, as Stockstill connected with Richie James on a perfectly thrown ball for a 22-yard touchdown.  The extra point was blocked by Nifae Lealao, keeping the score at 28-6, where it would remain the rest of the game.

Vanderbilt will look to build off this momentum next week, when they host Alabama A&M at home.

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