Derek Mason certainly embraces the rivalry.
Throughout history, Vanderbilt football coaches have adopted a wide range of attitudes toward the annual matchup with Tennessee. Mason, in his second season, does not run from it. He does not try to downplay the importance of it to his program or the fan base.
If nothing else, that should add some energy to things when the Commodores (4-7, 2-5 in the SEC) and the Volunteers (7-4, 4-3) meet once again Saturday at Neyland Stadium (3 p.m., SEC Network).
“It’s going to be a game between two teams that have a lot to play for,” Mason said. “We only have one guaranteed game left, but it’s not about just that. It’s about what this game means. It means a lot to the people in this state. And to the people here at Vanderbilt. Just know that I know how much it means.”
Three reasons to believe Vanderbilt will win Saturday
• Pushing the limits: Tennessee has not won five straight games since 2007, but that is exactly what it will attempt to do in this one. It’s one thing to learn to win. It’s something different to learn to deal with success and this group of Volunteers is now at a level it has not experienced. Just ask Florida how difficult Vanderbilt can make things on a team (even a good one) awash in prosperity.
• Kicking it: Kicker Tommy Openshaw has missed nine field goal attempts this season. Some of them (see: Western Kentucky and South Carolina) have been particularly costly. Tennessee has had a similar experience. Aaron Medley has missed nine field goals of his own. If it comes down to a kicking contest, the Commodores might not have an advantage but they’re not at an obvious disadvantage, either.
• Time to punt: One of the strengths of Tennessee’s defense is its ability to prevent third-down conversions. Vanderbilt is better in that regard. The Commodores have allowed opponents to convert just 26.1 percent of their third-down opportunities, which is best in the SEC. Tennessee is next with a 27.6 percent conversion rate. The UT offense has been good at converting on third down but has not faced this defense.
Three reasons to believe Vanderbilt won’t win Saturday
• Many happy returns: Vanderbilt will need a decisive and consistent edge in field position in this game. It’s not likely to get it given that Tennessee has the country’s leader in kickoff returns (Evan Berry, pictured) a top 10 punt returner (Cameron Sutton) and a punter who ranks sixth in the country with an average of 45.6 yards per pick. The Volunteers have a lot of ways to gain so called hidden yards.
• Get to the point: Tennessee has played 271 games since the last time it was shut out. That is the fourth-longest active streak among FBS programs and ninth all-time. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, was shut out last week, the second time in four games and third in the last 13 it failed to register a point. Unless both sides decide not to keep score, these are not good indicators for the Commodores.
• On the run: The strength of Vanderbilt’s offense is its run game. Tennessee’s is better. UT is second in the SEC in rushing offense with an average of 213.7 yards per game. Its 24 rushing touchdowns are three times the number the Commodores have mustered. Both teams have a 1,000-yard rusher but Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd averages 4.4 yards per carry while Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb averages 3.9, tied for worst among the SEC’s top 10 rushers.
The bottom line
The Volunteers come into the contest with all kinds of positive momentum. They have won four in a row for the first time since 2010 and they have a chance to get to eight wins for the first time since 2007.
Vanderbilt staggers in having lost three of its last four and ensured of a losing record for the second straight season.
The fact that the game is in Knoxville does not help the Commodores’ cause any. They have to do a whole bunch of things right in order to win this game, and the combination of the Volunteers and their crowd makes it highly unlikely Vanderbilt can do enough of those necessary things.
(Photo: Matthew DeMaria/Tennessee Athletics)
Tuesday’s game was about Kansas connections.
Now Kevin Stallings comes face-to-face with the source.
Stallings, a one-time assistant coach at Kansas, led his Vanderbilt team to an 86-64 romp over Wake Forest, coached by former Jayhawks great Danny Manning, on Tuesday in the semifinals of the Maui Jim Maui Invitational.
That put the 19th-ranked Commodores in the championship game against No. 5 Kansas on Wednesday (9 p.m., ESPN).
“Somebody mentioned it the other night at the banquet and you had [Kansas coach] Bill [Self] and you had (Manning), and you had me. Three guys that had been a part of KU's basketball program. Now let's see which guy kind of came in third in terms of their impact on the program. You've got Bill who has won National Championships. Danny won a National Championship (and was) one of the greatest players to ever play there.
“And I was just a lowly assistant coach. But I was there for five great years with Roy Williams and very proud of my time there. Wonderful place. It's just a wonderful place.”
Maui has been pretty good to the Commodores as well. Against Wake Forest – for the second time in as many days – they jumped out to a big lead at the start and cruised all the way to the finish. In this case they scored the first seven points and led 21-5 after 8:14. Wake Forest got no closer than 13 points in the second half.
Damian Jones led Vanderbilt with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Wade Baldwin added 17 points and two steals.
The Commodores are playing at Maui for the fifth time. They won it in their first appearance back in 1986 and now are one victory away from their second title.
“That's what we expected coming in,” sophomore forward Jeff Roberson said. “We worked hard to get to this point. We didn't expect anything less. We just feel like we're a good group, we work hard and we want it all to pay off.”
Even the players on Vanderbilt’s defense are not sure who gets to rush the quarterback from one play to the next.
Imagine how difficult it must be for those opposing quarterbacks and offensive linemen to figure it out.
Among the many positive signs in the performance of Derek Mason’s unit this season is the fact that 14 different players have registered at least half a sack through the first 11 games. They have come from every area of the defense – six linebackers, five defensive linemen and three defensive backs – and have put themselves in some noteworthy company.
The only SEC schools that have gotten sacks from more players are Alabama and Florida, the two conference teams that average more than three sacks per game and (probably not coincidentally) the two that will meet a little more than a week from now for the SEC championship.
“That’s what the defense is built on,” Mason, the head coach/defensive coordinator, said. “It’s built on everybody having a chance to rush, everybody getting an opportunity to drop in coverage.
“You’ve seen linemen drop. You’ve seen (linebackers) drop and – obviously – secondary plays back there. But you’ve also seen everybody have a chance to blitz and that’s why it’s all over the place in terms of numbers.”
PLENTIFUL PASS RUSHERS
A look at the SEC schools that have gotten the sacks from the largest number of players (with record in parentheses):
15 – Alabama (10-1)
15 – Florida (10-1)
14 – Vanderbilt (4-7)
13 – Mississippi State (8-3)
13 – Georgia (8-3)
No one on the Vanderbilt defense ranks among the SEC’s top 15 in sacks. Linebacker Zach Cunningham has a team-high 4.5, which ties him for 16th. Linebacker Stephen Weatherly led the team last year with that exact number. As recently as 2011, though, a Vanderbilt player (Tim Fugger) had eight sacks.
Nearly half of the 14 that have gotten to the quarterback this fall (six) have exactly one sack.
“I think any defensive player, when your name is called on the blitz or the play is going for you that you kind of get excited that you get to run downhill,” linebacker Darreon Herring, who has one and a half, said. “Especially as a linebacker, you don’t get that many opportunities to blitz.
“If they call a blitz for you, you have to go out there and get it.”
Vanderbilt’s 26 sacks are fifth in the conference, already more than in 2014 and within reach of 30, a number it has reached only twice in the last decade.
It’s not as if that number has been inflated by one particular opponent either. The Commodores got to the quarterback multiple times in nine of their 11 contests and never more than four in a single game.
No one player has registered a sack in more than two straight contests.
“Right now I’m not worried about the individuals,” Mason said. “I’m more worried about the team concept, unit concept, what we do and how we play. So if the production comes from a no-name guy so be it. It’s just his turn. And everybody has to be willing to take their turn.
“… When you do that you push yourself toward a mentality that can put you in a place where winning is possible.”
If Alabama and Florida are any indication, he’s right.
(Photo: John Russell/Vanderbilt athletics)
It was anything but a half-hearted effort, which meant that none of Vanderbilt’s players had to be on the floor for much more than half the game.
The Commodores scored 30 of the first 35 points and opened the Maui Jim Maui Invitational with a 92-55 rout of St. John’s on Monday.
That big early lead allowed coach Kevin Stallings to substitute early and often, which should pay dividends in the next couple days. The eight teams in the event will play three games in as many days.
Next up for No. 17 Vanderbilt (4-0) is Wake Forest, which upset No, 13 Indiana in the opening round (6:30 p.m., ESPN).
“When we got the lead, certainly that was something that was in the back of my mind,” Stallings said. “Damian [Jones] only played five minutes in the first half. I wanted to give him time in the second half. He picked up a couple more fouls, and I took him out. I didn't have to, but I took him out. But we wanted to limit minutes.
“Luke [Kornet] had 17 in the first half. I think Riley had 15, and I wanted to shorten those up guys up in the second half given the lead that we had.”
Wade Baldwin played a team-high 25 minutes for the Commodores. Kornet (23) and LaChance (21) were the only ones who played more than 20. Jones logged just 14 minutes.
Off the bench, Jeff Roberson played 19 minutes, Camron Justice played 18 and Nolan Cressler and Josh Henderson each played 17. In all, 12 Vanderbilt players were on the floor for seven minutes or more.
Kornet scored a team-high 13 points. Roberson and Justice added 11 each. Roberson also had a career-high 13 rebounds.
“Again, three games in three days is a challenge, especially against this quality of competition,” Stallings said. “I did not anticipate that the final margin would be the way it was. I was just pleased with the way that we approached the game and the way we played. We're always pretty good about sharing the ball.”
In this case, they were good about sharing playing time as well.
No one figured it would last forever.
The University of Tennessee’s defense wanted to extend its longest shutout streak in more than a decade a bit longer than the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 19-8 victory over Missouri.
Once it ended, though, the players quickly got to work on another. Missouri got the ball twice more after it scored and managed 48 yards on 11 plays.
“We were just trying to get that shutout,” linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin said. “[After the score] I just wanted to hold them and not let them get any more on the board.”
The streak began in the third quarter of the South Carolina game (the Gamecocks scored with 48 seconds remaining) and lasted 125:59 of game time before Missouri scored with 9:49 remaining in Saturday’s game. It covered eight complete quarters and parts of two others and included the 24-0 shutout of North Texas.
It was the Volunteers’ longest shutout streak since the end of 2002, when they held Kentucky and Vanderbilt scoreless in the final two games of the regular season.
Missouri only reached the red zone one time, on its 12th offensive possession. Once it did, it finally scored and ended the shutout streak but it took four tries from the 1-yard line to get a touchdown.
“We had to make them earn every yard and couldn't give up the big score,” coach Butch Jones said.
A week earlier, North Texas had failed to reach the red zone. The farthest the Mean Green got in 11 offensive possessions was the Tennessee 45.
Both teams crossed midfield just three times. The first time Missouri crossed midfield, the Volunteers forced a turnover (a fumble) two plays later. The second, it got as far as the UT 48 and punted.
Neither team ran the ball well. Tennessee held North Texas to 92 rushing yards and Missouri to 88 rushing yards.
"Everyone was just flying around,” sophomore defensive end Derek Barnett said. “Everybody, we had 11 guys around the ball. (Missouri) really didn't have anything to do. They ran a lot of draws and screens, but other than that, they didn't really have anything else to do."
(Photo: Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics)
One bad play did not define the effort of Vanderbilt’s defense but it did undermine any chance the Commodores had to upset Texas A&M on Saturday.
The Aggies spent most of the night kicking field goals. In fact, Taylor Bertolet’s six tied school and conference records for the most in a game. And he missed one.
Vanderbilt also blew one coverage, though, which led to the game’s only touchdown. In a contest in which the Commodores’ two quarterbacks combined for five completions and 23 passing yards, that was way too much to overcome.
A closer look at some of the noteworthy performers and moments from the contest:
VANDERBILT PLAYER OF THE GAME
Zach Cunningham, sophomore, linebacker
If the defense played well, which it did, chances are Cunningham had a big night, which he did.
He had 14 tackles (10 solo stops), which was one short of his career-high. He also had three tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble. Ten of the tackles came on run plays, and half of those were for a two-yard gain or less, which had a lot to do with why Texas A&M averaged just 3.8 yards on 38 rushing attempts.
• Dallas Rivers, RB: The sophomore carried just three times but gained 30 yards. He looked fast and explosive on back-to-back second quarter carries of 16 and 14 yards. He also returned five kickoffs for 107 yards.
• Tre Bell, CB: He set career-highs with eight tackles and two passes defended. He had 13 and 0, respectively, for the season coming into the game but was reliable in one-on-one situations as A&M spread the field.
• Ralph Webb, RB: He got the offense moving with 51 yards in the first quarter but finished with 79, which was still enough to make him the fifth Vanderbilt player ever to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
Texas A&M’s 95-yard touchdown pass with 2:11 to play in the second quarter
Vanderbilt’s defense was doing its thing. It allowed one field goal on the previous three A&M possessions – and that was only after the Aggies blocked a punt and got the ball at the Commodores’ 13.
So with the score 6-0, it seemed an opportunity was at hand when Vanderbilt downed a punt at the A&M 4 yard line.
Then it happened. On third-and-9 quarterback Kyle Allen delivered a perfect pass to Josh Reynolds, who got behind cornerback Toren McGaster and outran safety Oren Burks for the longest play allowed by the defense all season.
The defense did not allow another touchdown the rest of the night but the damage was done – on the scoreboard and to the Commodores’ collective psyche.
• McGaster broke up a pass in the end zone on third-and-7 from the Vanderbilt 13 on Texas A&M’s first possession: It forced the Aggies’ first field goal attempt, which became a theme throughout the contest.
• Steven Scheu’s four-yard reception on third-and-5 early in the third quarter: Vanderbilt got the ball to start the second half and had a chance to get back in the game. Scheu caught a pass, however, and went to the ground a yard short of a first down. It was three drives later that the Commodores finally moved the chains for the first time in the second half.
THEY SAID IT
• "We were able to run the ball well, but we have to have a balanced run-pass. You have to make plays. You have to make sure all the pressure isn't on [Webb] and the run game.” – Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, on the offense’s struggles.
• “I'm very appreciate and thankful for the offensive line doing a great job all year, allowing me to get the runs that I got, but at the end of the day, I just want to get the win with my team.” – Webb, on rushing for 1,000 yards.
• "That play really didn't deter us at all. We just had to come out there with a mindset for the next couple of series. We were going to fix it and move on." – linebacker Darreon Herring, on the 95-yard touchdown pass.
Vanderbilt was shut out for the second time in four weeks and looked for much of the night as if it had no chance to move the ball. Once the A&M defense decided to focus its attention on Webb that was pretty much the case.
There is one week remaining in the season, which is not enough time to revamp the entire scheme, but coaches need to come up with something to allow the offense to contribute more than it has for much of this season, even some of the victories.
(Photo: Joe Howell/Vanderbilt Athletics)
Vanderbilt has played its best football of the season of late. Texas A&M has played some of its worst.
What that means when they meet Saturday at Vanderbilt Stadium (6:30 p.m., SEC Network) is anybody’s guess.
What seems certain is that Derek Mason’s as Vanderbilt coach is more secure than its been while Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin faces serious doubts for the first time. Still, both could use a win.
Three reasons to believe Vanderbilt will win Saturday
• Kid quarterback: Kyler Murray went from highly touted recruit to Texas A&M’s starting quarterback in a little less than two months. He is still very much a potential star, but he has started just three games (wins over South Carolina and Western Carolina, a loss to Auburn) so it seems safe to assume he has not seen all the things Mason will throw at him. Many of those things have foiled much more experienced quarterbacks.
• On the run: Vanderbilt has proved it will run the football. It has had at least 35 rushes in every game this season and is one of four SEC teams with more than 400 rushing attempts this season. Ralph Webb has rushed for 99 yards or more each of the last four weeks, and Darrius Sims (pictured) has gotten more opportunities. Oh, and Texas A&M has the SEC’s worst run defense.
• Consistent inconsistency: It has been more than a month since Texas A&M put together two good games in a row – and it’s not clear whether last Saturday’s 41-17 victory over Western Carolina qualifies as a good performance. The Aggies have lost three of their last four conference games as their point production yo-yoed from 23 to three to 35 to 10. They seem just as likely to lay an egg as they are to put up the big numbers they traditionally have during their brief time in the SEC.
Three reasons to believe Vanderbilt will lose Saturday
• Kid quarterback: Kyle Shurmur has settled the Vanderbilt offense but has no exactly ignited it. Yes, the Commodores have won two of the three games he started (Missouri and Kentucky) but they have averaged just 13.3 points in those games. The Aggies have some real playmakers on their defense, most notably defensive end Myles Garrett, who will exploit any bit of inexperience that shows.
• Getting started: The Commodores finally scored a first-quarter touchdown last Saturday against Kentucky but they still have scored just 16 first-quarter points all season. A&M has scored 14 or more in the first quarter three times and is 5-0 this season when it leads after the first quarter. Vanderbilt has to keep a lid on things early.
• Getting Streaky: The good news is that Vanderbilt has won four of its last eight games. The bad news is that it still has not managed back-to-back victories under Mason. In that light, the victory over Kentucky looks more like a harbinger of doom than a sign that this team has taken a significant step forward.
The bottom line
A month ago this looked like a game in which Vanderbilt would have no chance. Texas A&M undeniably remains the favorite but a much less convincing one.
The Commodores have found their formula: Rely on the defense to keep the opposing team’s score down, hope the offense does not make too many mistakes and find just enough points to get the win.
They’ll need to stick with that approach — only do it even better than they have thus far — if they want to win this one.
(Photo: John Russell/Vanderbilt Athletics)
Yes, they were disappointing.
Yet Butch Jones’ take on the University of Tennessee’s four losses this season is that they also were understandable, given what those four teams have accomplished this season. Plus they were motivational, given how close the Volunteers came to winning each of them.
Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas and Alabama defeated UT by a combined 17 points and the most lopsided of those (seven points to Oklahoma) was decided in double overtime. Three of those four are 9-1 and ranked among the current College Football Playoff top 10. The other, Arkansas, is 6-4 but tied for second in the SEC West.
At least once in each of the previous 13 seasons the Volunteers lost at least one game by 17 points or more. There’s still time for that to happen in 2015 but it should be noted that their remaining two games are against Missouri and Vanderbilt, the conference’s two lowest scoring offenses.
“I think now it’s evidence of how close we’re getting in building this football program,” coach Butch Jones said this week. “I think it has shown our players that we needed to do a little bit more. We needed to continue to work on the fundamentals and what it really takes to play a winning football game.”
A brief recap of the University of Tennessee’s four losses this season:
Sept. 12: Oklahoma 31, Tennessee 24 (2OT)
The Volunteers scored the first 17 points, gave up the next 17 (14 in the final 8:20 of regulation) and failed to answer OU’s second overtime touchdown.
Sept. 26: Florida 28, Tennessee 27
Tennessee led 20-7 early in the third quarter but was outscored 21-7 the rest of the way as Florida rallied with two touchdowns in the final 4:09.
Oct. 13 Arkansas 24, Tennessee 20
Fewer than seven minutes into the contest the Volunteers were up 14-0. Arkansas pulled even (17-17) on the final play of the first half and went ahead to stay with a touchdown drive to open the second half.
Oct. 24: Alabama 19, Tennessee 14
UT went ahead for the first time (14-13) on Jalen Hurd’s 12-yard touchdown run with 5:49 to play. Alabama answered with a 71-yard touchdown drive of its own.
Tennessee is the only team among the Sagarin Ratings’ top 20 that has played three teams among the top 10 – and two of those games were against the Nos. 1 and 2, Alabama and Oklahoma, respectively, in those ratings.
It also is one of two schools with four losses yet rated among the top 25. The other is Arkansas (24th).
“I think we’ve had one of the most difficult schedules in all of the country,” Jones said. “I think that needs to be taken notice of. I look at all the combined records of all the other teams in the country. Look at the success that Florida is having, the success that Oklahoma is having, the success that Arkansas is having.”
(Photo: Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics)
Everyone needs a little reminder now and then.
Even college basketball players who are destined to be in the NBA someday.
For Vanderbilt’s Damian Jones, such a moment came Thursday. Sophomore point guard Wade Baldwin figured the junior post player, who already has announced his intention to declare for the NBA draft after the season, needed a refresher on just how good a player he is.
“(He) said, ‘Damian, you’re the best player on the floor, you need to start acting like it,’” coach Kevin Stallings said. “That wasn’t a coach. It was a player.”
Not long after, Jones’ layup with 6:52 to play in the second half started a 15-9 run that got Vanderbilt into overtime against Stony Brook. His layup with 1:01 remaining put his team on top 66-64 and forced the visitors to make a jumper with one second remaining just to get into overtime.
Jones, who finished with 13 points and six rebounds, then scored the first four points of the extra period and the 17th-ranked Commodores (3-0) pulled out a 79-72 victory at Memorial Gymnasium.
“I think it was effective because Damian is our most dominant player on this team,” Baldwin said. “These first couple games he’s been dealing with foul trouble. So getting him going and getting him a little bit more aggressive, I think, is the best version of Damian and the best thing we need for this team.
“He came out, made crucial buckets for us and played a lot stronger. And he was a very big key in why we won.”
Whatever his struggles, Jones is the Commodores’ second-leading scorer (to Baldwin) through three games with an average of 11.7 per contest. He is second in rebounds and blocked shots and is one of five Vanderbilt players with multiple steals.
Those numbers don’t yet measure up to the standard he set in his first two seasons. Already, though, he has shown — when prompted — that he won’t shrink from a big moment.
“Damian, of course, asserted himself down the stretch, which we really needed,” Stallings said. “And we got a win.”
(Photo: Joe Howell/Vanderbilt athletics)
Even during good times of the not-too-distant past, Vanderbilt was not so good against running quarterbacks.
With head coach Derek Mason as the signal caller this season, though, the Commodores have made it difficult for opposing passers to do anything but throw it. None has run for more than 39 yards, which has a lot to do with why Vanderbilt is fourth in the SEC in scoring defense and fifth in rushing defense.
Just how far the defense has come in that regard will be evident in the final two weeks of the regular season, when Vanderbilt faces two of the SEC’s top three running quarterbacks.
Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs is the SEC’s leader in rushing yards by a quarterback (476) and A&M’s Kyler Murray (pictured) is third (353). First up is Murray, who faces the Commodores on Saturday (6:30 p.m., SEC Network).
“At practice we do a lot of drills to kind of pocket the quarterback and not let him get loose,” Vanderbilt senior linebacker Darreon Herring said. “If he’s running to one side [we] make sure that the person chasing him is climbing high so he won’t cut back to the other side of the field. It’s just little things like that we do in practice to kind of help us out.”
NOWEHERE TO RUN
A game-by-game look at how many rushing yards opposing quarterbacks have had against Vanderbilt this season:
• Western Kentucky: Brandon Doughty, minus-32 yards (5 carries)
• Georgia: Grayson Lambert, 2 yards (3 carries)
• Austin Peay: Taylor. minus-9 yards (7 carries)
• Ole Miss: Kelly, minus-10 yards (5 carries)
• Middle Tennessee State: Brent Stockstill, 11 yards (3 carries)
• South Carolina: Orth, minus-13 yards (4 carries)
• Missouri: Lock, 39 yards (8 carries)
• Houston: Gary Ward Jr., 33 yards (19 carries)
• Florida: Treon Harris, 34 yards (8 carries)
• Patrick Towles, 26 yards (8 carries)
Total: 81 yards (70 carries)
In 2012, Florida’s Jeff Driskel ran for 177 yards and three touchdowns and almost single-handedly led the Gators to a victory. That season opened with back-to-back losses, the first to South Carolina, which got 92 yards on 14 carries from Connor Shaw, and Northwestern, which got 66 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries by Kain Colter.
The next season, Bo Wallace scored two rushing touchdowns and led Ole Miss to a victory over Vanderbilt in the opener. Shaw had a game-high 84 rushing yards and Dylan Thompson added 23 yards and a touchdown for South Carolina, which again came out on top.
And so it went.
Those days – it seems – are gone.
POSTDATA: WARRANTY DEEDS