Commodores aim to earn signature win as pieces come together
Tobias Hoonhout | Friday, September 14, 2018
During the tenure of head coach James Franklin, Vanderbilt emerged as a program on the rise. After winning four total games from 2009-2010, the Commodores righted the ship under Franklin, going to a bowl game for three straight seasons and winning nine games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history.
But with Franklin gone five seasons now and the Commodores (2-0) yet to finish with a winning record under head coach Derek Mason, the clock is ticking.
At this time last year, things were looking good. Vanderbilt started 3-0, including a win over then-No. 18 Kansas State. Then the Commodores ran into an Alabama team that dominated in a 59-0 victory.
That’s why Saturday’s matchup with the Irish might be the biggest game in Mason’s tenure so far — the statement win to mark a statement season.
The former Stanford assistant caused a stir in July, when at SEC Media Day he declared the Commodores “don’t worry about going to South Bend.” But while Vanderbilt may be the underdog, the pieces are in place for a potentially historic win.
“We have an SEC opponent coming into town, good personnel,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday on facing the Commodores. “Physical, good quarterback. [Kyle] Shurmur has done a nice job. Defensive structure is really solid, sound.”
As a four-year starter in the SEC, Kyle Shurmur certainly has been in high-pressure situations on the road before. The senior threw for almost 3,000 yards and a program-record 26 touchdowns last season. This season, the Commodores have dominated in their first two games against Middle Tennessee State and Nevada, respectively, outscoring both by a combined 76-17.
“A couple things, first of all, the cohesiveness of the offensive line, a group that’s played together. I don’t think you can ever feel like a good offensive line that plays together is not a strength of your team. I think that stands out to me,” Kelly said of Vanderbilt’s strengths on offense. “The other notes that I took down with Kyle, plays a lot of snaps in the SEC. He’s a guy that’s going to come in here with a lot of confidence. This entire team will. They played in a lot of tough locations.”
To complement Shurmur, the Commodores utilize a platoon in the backfield, as well as two main threats through the air in junior wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb and redshirt junior tight end Jared Pinkney
“The three backs, I think [redshirt junior] Ke’shawn Vaughn, the transfer, he does a lot of really good things. Can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, really an outstanding back,” Kelly said. “ … The tight end I think is a pro prospect. Pinkney is a guy that Shurmur looks for, and Lipscomb, the wide receiver, those are two guys in particular. Lipscomb is shifty, maybe he’s not a burner, but he routes and runs extremely well. He goes and gets the football.”
Defensively, the announcement of the return of sophomore safety Zaire Jones after sitting out the start of the year with a two-game suspension is a major boost for a unit that has excelled in two games against weaker opposition. Vanderbilt has yet to face a quarterback with dynamic ability like Brandon Wimbush’s, something the Commodores have been focused on stopping this past week in practice.
“He’s a little bit of both [running and throwing],” Vanderbilt redshirt senior linebacker Charles Wright said on the playmaking ability of Wimbush. “There are times he’s running out the pocket downfield, and times he’s running out of the pocket looking to make a play. You’ve got to be prepared for both. We’re excited to play him.”
Ultimately, Mason and Vanderbilt are hoping their experience and momentum carry over into a special performance.
“We feel like this is the game that our fan base, our guys have been looking [forward to],” Mason said Tuesday. “Game three was circled on the calendar when we came into the season, but you had to go get through game one and game two to get to game three, so here we are. A great challenge in front of us, I know our guys do as well. Let’s get ready to anchor down.”