HOUSTON, Texas — Okay, Houston. We’ve had a problem here.
Actually, more like 45 problems.
The Vanderbilt Commodores came to Houston with a mission: prepare hard, stay focused and bring home a win in the Texas Bowl to give head coach Derek Mason his first winning season.
Instead, running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn had the game of his life, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the most lackluster defensive performance of the season, and the Commodores fell 45-38 to the Baylor Bears in the Texas Bowl.
Some might see it as a sour end to a season full of triumph, adversity and lots of downright ridiculousness. Others might see it as just the same old Vanderbilt that can’t get out of its own way.
No matter how you see it, the hard truth is that this team gave everything it could in a wildly entertaining game of football, but failed to get the desired result on Thursday night in Houston. However, this squad has a lot to be proud of in the end.
Here’s your final Commodore Brunch menu for the 2018 season:
Vanderbilt fans have known for months that Vaughn is one of the most gifted running backs in the country.
Now, the entire world knows.
Vaughn rushed for 243 yards and two touchdowns, both of which were from more than 60 yards away. He could have had a third touchdown, but his angry run to end all angry runs was stopped one yard from the goal line.
Oh, and he did all of that on just 13 carries.
Regardless of the result of this game, no one should overlook what Vaughn accomplished on the field in this game. Quite simply, it was one of the most other-worldly performances that you’ll ever see by a running back at any level of football.
And boy was it fun to watch.
“There’s no one in the world that can run like that,” offensive lineman Bruno Reagan said. “To be able to just go down there and light dudes up and watch him light dudes up, more than us sometimes, is amazing.”
You can look at his performance and marvel at his unstoppable rushing power, or you can also sit and wonder why he was limited to just 13 carries in such an important game in which he was having unprecedented success.
It’s extremely fair to ask why the guy who was making a Big 12 defense look like…well, a Big 12 defense didn’t get to touch the ball more.
It might not matter in the end, though, as Vaughn could be on his way to the NFL in April. He told reporters after the game that he had not decided on his future yet, but it’s hard to imagine his draft stock getting any higher after doing what he did to Baylor on Thursday night.
If that was The Mamba’s last ride for the Commodores, then he deserves all the money that’s going to come his way at the next level.
Old Dog, No New Tricks
Vanderbilt allowed Baylor to generate 668 yards of offense in a bowl game on national television.
668. Take a cursed number and tacking on a two-point conversion for good measure.
While Vaughn was lighting up Baylor on the offensive side of the ball, the Vanderbilt defense was doing whatever the opposite of that was.
A month after effectively silencing the Tennessee Volunteer offense, the Commodore defense saw a lot of old problems re-emerge at the worst time. Baylor took chunks of yards at a time, getting past midfield in only a few plays. Sure-fire sacks turned into long runs for quarterback Charlie Brewer, who had 124 rushing yards to add to his 384 passing yards.
In addition, the Bears found themselves in lots of third and fouth-down situations with short yardage and were able to convert rather easily. Even on longer fourth downs, Baylor would just find a way to convert.
The tackling wasn’t there. The discipline wasn’t there. The only truly exceptional defensive play came in the second half with Randall Haynie’s fortuitous interception in the end zone.
“Taking time off from tackling and having to come out and perform on demand, I feel like we started too late in the game,” defensive back LaDarius Wiley said. “Our tackling didn’t go too well in the beginning, but I felt like we rallied at the end and you saw guys fighting and we all fought. I think that’s what we saw today.”
Aside from the tackling issues that plagued the team the entire game, the Baylor offense proved to be elusive and difficult to predict. Throughout the night, Baylor would get set on offense with a certain formation, then look back to the sideline for signals before getting reset.
Either they didn’t call a play until they got to the line or audibled a whole lot. No matter what actually happened, Baylor found ways to exploit every single weak point and mistake on Vanderbilt’s side, and it cost the Commodores the game.
“I thought they did a good job of keeping us off balance,” Mason said. “The dual-threat at the quarterback position, I thought was huge tonight. I thought he ran as well as their running backs did. The reality was, he was the difference in this ballgame when you look at it. I know they had some explosive plays, but he was able to keep drives alive with his legs and that was tough for us.”
Most teams that score 38 points should be able to win. Vanderbilt’s defense prevented that from happening, and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver should be spending his offseason trying to figure out how to make sure that a performance like that never happens again on a stage like that.
A Season To Remember, A Result to Forget
It’s a shame someone had to lose the Texas Bowl.
Both teams put on a display of offensive firepower that made the Cheez-It Bowl look like a game of Pop Warner. But just like any game, someone had to lose, and Baylor ended up getting the better of the result.
But don’t let the losing result of a Texas-sized shootout cloud your judgment of what was a truly remarkable year for the Commodores. This group of young men battled through tons of adversity on and off the field.
The team watched Turner Cockrell, one of the brightest souls you’ll ever meet, battle cancer all season and tragically pass away. Wiley, one of the team’s leaders, lost his father this season. Another veteran leader in Charles Wright was absent for most of the season for undisclosed reasons.
On the field, the team suffered close loss after close loss. The frustration was palpable after games that got away against Notre Dame, Florida, Kentucky and Missouri. Many other teams would have lost hope after that much heartbreak and frustration.
Even through all of those circumstances on and off the field, the Commodores fought through it and still found a way to get six wins and get the chance to play in a bowl game, something only eight other Vanderbilt teams have ever done.
That speaks volumes to the brotherhood that is Vanderbilt Football and the character of the team’s leader, Derek Mason.
“I wouldn’t have any other man leading us,” Wiley said. “I can say it as simple as that: I wouldn’t have any other man leading us. From my situation to Turner’s situation, to the group of guys and characters that he has to deal with on a daily basis, to his staff to his family. I wouldn’t have any other guy as the head coach of our team.”
Say all you want about the result in Houston, but the bottom line is that Mason’s leadership got the team through some unimaginable circumstances and led them to what ultimately should be seen as a successful season. The Commodores don’t want anyone else wearing the headset on the sideline, and frankly, that’s how it should be.
Next year’s team will look a lot different than this one, and Mason will have to find a new generation of leaders to take the helm of this team. The sendoff for seniors like quarterback Kyle Shurmur, running back Khari Blasingame and defensive lineman Dare Odeyingbo was not as special as it could have been, but according to them, they wouldn’t have made this journey with anyone else.
For Shumur in particular, he leaves a legacy of greatness as, at least statistically, Vanderbilt’s greatest quarterback of all time. But, that’s not what he’s going to remember about his four years as a Commodore. He said he would remember the experiences he had with his teammates, or as he said it, his brothers.
And if there’s one thing you remember about the 2018 Vanderbilt Commodores, remember them as a band of brothers that dealt with adversity with courage and made this university proud at every step of the way.
Or just keep venting those angry thoughts on Twitter. It’s your choice.