Commodore Brunch Week Three: Close but no cigar

Vanderbilt takes on Notre Dame in South Bend on September 15th, 2018. (photo by Hunter Long)

They were oh so close.

After a hard-fought battle that pushed No. 8 Notre Dame to its limits, the Vanderbilt Commodores fell 22-17 in South Bend.

Vanderbilt showed once again its second half prowess, turning a nightmare first half into a brilliant display in the second, making it a five-point game midway through the fourth quarter.  For that moment, the Commodores had the eyes of the nation on them, and everyone was rooting for the black and gold.

At the end of the day, Vanderbilt is right where everyone expected it to be, 2-1 heading into a home game against South Carolina, but that one in the loss column perhaps says more about this team’s grit than those two wins ever could.

Here’s your Commodore Brunch menu for this week:

Failure to Finish

Vanderbilt plays Notre Dame on Saturday. September 15, 2018. (Photo by Hunter Long)

All game, it seemed that Vanderbilt got itself in perfect position, and came up just short.  Early in the game, that came most notably on the defensive side of the ball.  It was clear from the outset that Notre Dame wasn’t going to beat Vanderbilt through the air, and they went to the ground one play after another.  The Commodores had no trouble getting to the ball, but they simply couldn’t finish tackles, bringing back shades of last year’s defense’s inability to make a form tackle in space.

Tony Jones Jr. and Brandon Wimbush both gobbled up yards on the ground as a result, and if Vanderbilt had made some more open field tackles early, they might not have needed three touchdowns late to win the game.

The same can be said about the offensive side of the ball.  The Commodores marched right down the field on four consecutive drives stretching from the end of the first half to the beginning of the second.  Those four drives ended in a fumble, a field goal, an interception, and a missed field goal.  The offense failed time and again to finish long drives with touchdowns, dropping balls in the end zone and turning the ball over.  That isn’t going to cut it against one of the best football teams in the country, and Derek Mason knows that.

“I think we played even,” said Mason.  “And if you play even at Notre Dame, you’re going to lose.”

At times, it didn’t feel like the Commodores were playing even.  It felt like they were the better team, moving the ball down the field with ease, but they just left too many points on the board in the first half to win this game.  This is a good football team, but if they don’t finish tackles and finish drives with touchdowns, they won’t reach their potential.

Passing Game on Point

The Vanderbilt Football team plays at Notre Dame on Saturday, September 15, 2018. The Commodores lost 17-22. (Photo by Claire Barnett)

Kyle Shurmur is an NFL quarterback.  If you didn’t believe it before, then you better start believing it now.  Against a historically great defense, Shurmur put on a show, completing 26 of 43 passes for 326 yards and a touchdown.  He looked comfortable in the pocket.  He made quick decisions.  He showed pinpoint accuracy on his throws.  And through it all, he looked like a consummate professional.

On the final drive of the game, Shurmur rolled out to his left on 3rd and 10, saw nobody open and the pressure in his face.  Instead of forcing a throw down the field, he simply threw it away and lived for fourth down.  It’s not a flashy play.  It shows up as an incomplete pass on the stat sheet, but it’s a sign of his maturity that has blossomed over the past couple years.  That’s not an easy decision, and it’s not one that the Kyle Shurmur of old probably would have made.  Shurmur had the confidence in his offense to convert on fourth and long with the game on the line, and he converted, but that doesn’t happen if he throws an ill-advised pick on third.

Give a lot of credit to Andy Ludwig for facilitating this passing offense.  While there were a couple questionable play calls, like sweep plays to Cam Johnson, or runs on first and second down on the final drive, overall, he called a great game.  He trusted his quarterback and let the offense run through Shurmur, not limiting him to short passes and screens, but allowing him to push the ball down the field with NFL throws, and Shurmur delivered.

Opening up the playbook for Shurmur allowed his weapons to continue to shine.  Kalija Lipscomb put together his second consecutive game with double-digit receptions, and the chemistry between him and Shurmur looks as sharp as ever.  After these first three games from Lipscomb, it’s far from an exaggeration to say he’s the best wide out this school has had since Jordan Matthews, and there’s a place for him at the next level.

(Side note: The only reason anyone thinks Lipscomb should have caught that last ball is because he has raised the bar so high that people think he’s infallible.  Maybe Julio Jones holds on to that ball.  Not many other receivers withstand a defender’s elbow coming to the ground.)

And as good as Lipscomb was in this game, Jared Pinkney was the team’s leading receiver for the second week in a row.  He made one catch after another in traffic, showing off his ferocity in the open field in the process.  His 18-yard touchdown catch was a long time coming, and Vanderbilt isn’t in this game without his 111-yard contribution.

This passing game looks sharp, and if the offense can clean things up in the red zone, expect a whole lot of high-scoring games from the Commodores down the road.

Moral Victory?

Vanderbilt plays Notre Dame on Saturday. September 15, 2018. (Photo by Hunter Long)

Derek Mason doesn’t believe in moral victories.

“You win or you lose.  That’s it,” he said.  “At some point in time your culture’s got to grow up.  The idea of just being in ball games, man that ain’t good enough.”

It’s an admirable mentality, and he’s right.  Fans left the stadium last night in South Bend wanting more, not completely satisfied with testing a top team.  Vanderbilt has played in a lot of close games over the past few years, and just the nature of the games being close doesn’t mean anything when the bowl conversation starts in November.

It’s refreshing to see that Mason has higher expectations for his team, but even with these expectations, he has to be proud of what he saw yesterday.  Last year, this team would have folded after a disastrous first half like that one.  This year, they fought back.  They showed a lot of heart to get back into that game and give themselves a chance to win it.

Sure, it doesn’t mean as much as a notch in the win column, but the Commodores proved on a national stage yesterday that they belong, and that they’re not okay bringing up the rear in the SEC.  And they made a lot of believers out of it.

Vanderbilt will look to capitalize on its momentum next week when South Carolina comes to town.  Kickoff is at 3 PM at Vanderbilt Stadium.

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Max Schneider, Associate Sports Editor
Max Schneider ('20) is the Associate Sports Editor of the Vanderbilt Hustler. He is majoring in Communications Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. Max has previously written for Sportsblog.com and worked for The Players' Tribune. When he is not writing, you can find Max watching Friends and Game of Thrones reruns or constantly checking his fantasy football lineup.

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