HOUSTON, Texas — On Wednesday afternoon, more than 24 hours before kickoff, Vanderbilt safety LaDarius Wiley said his biggest concern heading into the Texas Bowl was tackling.
“One thing that you see in bowl games is a lack of defensive efficiency,” said Wiley. “Especially tackling, because you haven’t tackled in a month.”
The senior captain probably wishes he didn’t prophesize his team’s defensive effort to a tee, but poor tackling and pursuit of the ball seemed to be exactly what plagued the Commodores in their 45-38 loss to the Baylor Bears in the Texas Bowl on Thursday night. Baylor notched 668 yards of total offense, converted all five fourth down attempts, and didn’t punt until 1:40 left in the third quarter.
“Taking time off from tackling and having to come out and perform on demand, I feel like we started too late in the game,” said Wiley. “As a defense we pride ourselves on getting off the field on third and fourth downs and we struggled with assignments today. That was our Achilles heel.”
The loss marked the last game in the storied career of quarterback Kyle Shurmur, and quite possibly the last game for running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, whose performance only ensured the likelihood that he’ll fly up boards should he declare for the NFL Draft. Shurmur completed 18 of 37 pass attempts for 286 yards and a touchdown, breaking the school’s all-time record for completions and passing yards in the process.
Vaughn was responsible for 13 carries for 243 yards and two scores himself. His 243 rushing yards are the second-most in a single game in Vanderbilt history and the most since Frank Mordica ran for 321 in 1978.
“He’s unbelievable,” center Bruno Reagan said of Vaughn. “There’s nobody in the country who can run like that. It’s fun to just go out there and light dudes up and watch him light dudes up.”
A neck-and-neck game throughout the first half, Baylor began to emerge in the third quarter, and found themselves facing a 4th and 13 from the Commodore 30-yard line. Rather than electing to kick a 47-yard field goal, Baylor head coach Matt Rhule kept his offense on the field, and Charlie Brewer found Denzel Mims for 15 yards and a first down in the face of a blitz. Three plays later, Brewer punched it in on a quarterback sneak to put the Bears up 31-21, the first and only two-score lead of the game for either side.
Shurmur led Vanderbilt right back down the field, firing a dart to Jared Pinkney to put the Commodores inside the five, but the junior tight end fumbled going to the ground, and Blake Lynch recovered it to end the threat and put Baylor back in business. The Bears’ play out of the locker room proved to be the difference maker.
“We didn’t get the outcome we wanted but this offense battled,” said head coach Derek Mason of his team’s effort. “It’s just really a microcosm of the season. Defensively we didn’t play well, we didn’t tackle well, and that reared its ugly head. Generally during bowl season it does, but today there were just too many missed opportunities and that’s unfortunate. It’s unfortunate for this football team. I thought our offense played well enough but it just wasn’t good enough to win.”
Vanderbilt battled injuries throughout all four quarters, most notably at the cornerback position. Joejuan Williams had been limited in practice throughout the team’s preparation headed into Thursday night’s game, and he sat the first quarter. His replacement, Alim Muhammed, was sidelined at the start of the second quarter, forcing the injured Williams into action.
Offensively, Kalija Lipscomb routinely came up limping, favoring his right leg in addition to an already aggravated thumb injury, leading him to be a virtual non-factor in offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s game plan. With Lipscomb hobbling, the Commodores turned to their other backs and receivers, including CJ Bolar, Blasingame, and Vaughn.
Vanderbilt jumped out to a quick lead to start the ballgame, receiving the opening kickoff and scoring on just the third play from scrimmage when Blasingame took a screen pass 65 yards to the house.
The defense, for its part, struggled to contain Brewer and the Bears offense. Brewer would finish the game with 493 total yards and three touchdowns. The sophomore from Austin, Texas established an early connection with Denzel Mims, who took advantage of Williams’s initial absence. His 35-yard catch-and-run on Baylor’s opening drive led to a Bears field goal.
After a Vanderbilt punt, Baylor finished off its next drive with a 12-yard touchdown run by John Lovett, but the Commodores quickly answered. Vaughn took off through the right side and dashed 68-yards untouched for the score to give his team a 14-10 lead.
Just minutes later, after a JaMychael Hasty touchdown run, the Nashville native broke through again, reclaiming the Commodore lead on another long run, this time from 69 yards out. Vanderbilt had a chance to extend its lead going into the locker room, but a missed 45-yard field goal off the foot of Ryley Guay kept the score at 21-17 Commodores at the half.
Baylor came out hot in the second half, scoring on its opening possession when Trestan Ebner broke a couple of tackles and took a handoff into the end zone from 34 yards out.
Down 31-21 late in the third quarter, Shurmur found Amir Abdur-Rahman for a catch-and-run that put the Commodores at the two-yard line, and Blasingame promptly punched it in to cut into the Baylor lead heading into the fourth.
On the ensuing possession, Vanderbilt’s defense finally caught a break. A deep shot from Brewer to Mims bounced off the receiver’s knees and into the waiting arms of Vanderbilt cornerback Randall Haynie for a touchback.
“That’s football man. It’s just a great play by a DB and a missed opportunity on their part,” said Mason of the pick.
With the lead in sight, the Commodores wasted no time capitalizing. Vaughn went to work, taking an off-tackle run that looked like it was going nowhere, stiff-arming a defender, breaking tackles, and dashing 66 yards to the one-yard line, where Blasingame would promptly finish the job and give the Commodores a 35-31 lead.
The lead wouldn’t last long, though. On the next play from scrimmage, Brewer found Ebner for a 75-yard score to give the Bears a 38-35 advantage.
Vanderbilt answered with a field goal, but Brewer wasted no time taking the lead back again, this time finding Marques Jones for a 52-yard score.
Down 45-38 with just 1:50 to play, Shurmur inherited the ball to try to extend his Vanderbilt career just a couple minutes longer, but the offense sputtered, and Baylor hung on to win a shootout in the Texas Bowl.
Heading into the offseason, Vanderbilt will have to worry about more losses than just this game. Vaughn seemingly cemented his status as an NFL running back, while Williams and Pinkney are likely to test the waters as well.
“I don’t know how I’m gonna do it and I don’t know how soon it’ll get done, but once I do come up with a decision I’ll let everybody know,” said Vaughn on his timetable for potentially declaring for the draft. “This game plays no part in my decision.”
Most importantly, though, the Commodores lose Kyle Shurmur, and while Shurmur didn’t have his best night in Houston, he remains one of the best quarterbacks in program history. Filling his shoes will be a tall task.
Vanderbilt kicks off its 2019 season at home against the Georgia Bulldogs, looking to start its trek back to a bowl game and win the program’s first in the Derek Mason era.
Notes: This marked the first game for the Commodores since the death of tight end Turner Cockrell. The players wore helmets with his number 82 on the front.
The attendance at NRG Stadium was 51,104.