HIghlight reel: Western Kentucky 14, Vanderbilt 12

For much of its 2015 season opener Vanderbilt did everything but score.

When the Commodores did finally score a touchdown, with 33 seconds to play, the best it could hope for was to tie it up and force overtime. That didn’t work out, though, and they lost 14-12 Thursday at Vanderbilt Stadium.

The offense showed improved efficiency and the defense kept Western Kentucky’s high-powered offense in check for long stretches. When all was said and done Vanderbilt had decisive advantages in total offense (393-247), first downs (20-11) and time of possession (36:39-23:21) yet still managed to come up short on the scoreboard.

A closer look at some of the players and plays that made a difference:

VANDERBILT PLAYER OF THE GAME
Trent Sherfield, sophomore, wide receiver

Sherfield was the team’s leading receiver with four catches – the last three in the fourth quarter – for 63 yards and was a difference-maker when the Commodores finally graduated from moving the ball to putting points on the board.

His 31-yard catch-and-run on third-and-3 early in the fourth quarter set up a field goal that made it a one-point game, 7-6.

He then capped a 12-play, 77-yard drive with a touchdown catch on fourth-and-goal from the 2 with 33 seconds to play, which gave Vanderbilt a chance to tie and force overtime. He also had a 20-yard reception, one of two plays on that final drive that went for 20 yards or more.

Honorable mention: Ralph Webb, RB – He was the game’s leading rusher with 70 yards on 18 carries; Oren Burks, S – He was one of the Commodores’ leading tacklers with four, was credited with two of his team’s three pass breakups and shared a tackle for a loss.

NOTABLE MOMENT
Turnovers instead of touchdowns

Quarterback Johnny McCrary threw a pair of interceptions on plays inside the 10-yard line.

The first was on first-and-goal from the 9 early in the second quarter when it was still a scoreless game. The second came on fourth-and-goal from the 1 with 4:02 to play in the third quarter and cost the Commodores a chance to push a three-point lead to a 10-point advantage.

Vanderbilt also misplayed a punt, which WKU recovered, and was minus-3 in turnover margin. It was the fourth straight game dating back to last season and the seventh in 13 games under coach Derek Mason that the Commodores had at least three giveaways. In this case, the Hilltoppers did not turn any of their takeaways into points but both interceptions effectively took points off the board on a night when every point was precious.

Honorable mention: Kicker Tommy Openshaw’s missed 28-yard field goal in the first quarter – it was the first opportunity Vanderbilt missed to take the lead; The failed game-tying two-point conversion attempt with 33 seconds to play – tight end Nathan Marcus (pictured) did not run his route into the end zone, caught the ball short of the goal line and was tackled.

THEY SAID IT

• "They ran the exact play that offensive coordinator has ran for years for two-point conversions,” – Western Kentucky linebacker Nick Holt, on the two-point conversion.

• “Losing is losing. I’ll tell you that right now – I don’t accept losing. I don’t believe in it. That’s not who we are. So, for us, it’s time to get back to work.” – Mason, on the outcome.

•  “Those two mistakes could have possibly changed the outcome of the game. … Those were immature throws. Stuff you've just got to put in the past and get ready for the next game." – McCrary, on the interceptions.

THE BOTTOM LINE

For what it’s worth, you can point to a lot of things and say Vanderbilt was better in this game than it was at any time last year.

Right now, though, it’s not worth a whole lot. This was one Vanderbilt needed to win if it was going to reignite the fan base and stir visions of a return to bowl season. That didn’t happen.

Turnovers – perhaps the one area this team needed to improve above all others – continue to be a problem and until that changes it is going to remain difficult to get a victory.

(Photo: John Russell/Vanderbilt athletics)

Sep 4, 2015 1:21 AM

Mariota strikes quickly, ends long wait for first touchdown pass

If good things come to those who wait, then Tennessee Titans fans were certainly due.

Marcus Mariota finally rewarded them on his last throw of the preseason. The rookie quarterback connected with Harry Douglas for a 59-yard touchdown, his first – and only – touchdown pass in 30 preseason attempts.

It came just 1:32 into the Titans’ preseason finale against Minnesota on Thursday at Nissan Stadium and gave them a lead they never relinquished. Tennessee eventually won 24-17.

“I was coming across on the shallow (cross), and everybody did a great job,” Douglas said. “ (Mariota) did a great job finding me. I saw a lot of green grass downfield. Antonio (Andrews) did a great job blocking downfield. That’s one of the things we harp on and preach every day in practice, running downfield, finishing and getting blocks so your teammates can get extra yards or even score.”

Mariota had not thrown a touchdown pass in his previous three preseason games. After last week’s loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, he said he wanted the Titans offense to get off to a fast start.

“It was good to come out and start fast,” Mariota said. “The guys did a good job blocking up front, the receivers got open, and we were able to to move the ball.”

PREP WORK

A look at Marcus Mariota’s preseason

 

          COM    ATT      %         YDS     TD       INT      SACK    RTG

at Atlanta                 7          8          87.5     94        0          1          1          76

vs. St. Louis               5          8          62.5     59        0          0          0          84.9

at Kansas City          7          11        63.6     99        0          0          1          92.6

vs. Minnesota          2          3          66.6     74        1          0          0          149.3

After the opening series, which resulted in a touchdown, Mariota was pulled in favor of Zach Mettenberger. It was evident that coach Ken Whisenhunt had seen enough of his star quarterback and did not want to risk a potential injury.

“We accomplished what we wanted to do,” Whisenhunt said. “We got our guys in there, we eliminated that bad taste in our mouth from last week, and we did some things we really like doing. It was a good start for us.”

Mariota finished the preseason with a 70.0 completion percentage and a passer rating of 102.9 and immediately shifted his focus to the regular season.

“It’s really exciting to be a part of this offense,” Mariota said. “Guys are continuing to get better, and I feel that we built a solid foundation throughout the preseason. Now its time to go.”

(Photo: Getty Images)

Sep 4, 2015 1:17 AM

HIghlight reel: Titans 24, Vikings 17

The Tennessee Titans started fast in their 24-17 victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Thursday night. It provided a much needed momentum boost given the way their previous game against Kansas City went.

A closer look at some of the players and plays that made a difference:

TITANS PLAYER OF THE GAME
David Fluellen, running back

Fluellen had 12 carries for 61 yards on a night when roster hopefuls on both sides saw more action than established veterans. The free agent rookie averaged 5.1 yards per carry and more than doubled his preseason rushing total (27 yards in the first three contests) in this one.

Fluellen finished tied with Bishop Sankey for the preseason team lead in carries and his 88 rushing yards were second only to Sankey’s 94. The question is whether he did enough to earn a spot as the Titans’ third running back, or at least a spot on the practice squad.

Honorable mention: Chase Coffman, TE – Coffman had another solid game with four receptions for 59 yards. He finished the preseason as the Titans’ leader in receptions, yards, and touchdowns; Michael Griffin, S – Although Griffin saw limited action in the final preseason game he still made an impact. He forced a fumble early in the first quarter, which helped the Titans build an early 14-0 lead.  

NOTABLE MOMENT
Marcus Mariota’s 59-yard touchdown pass to Harry Douglas

On Mariota’s third (and final) pass of the game he connected with Harry Douglas on a short pass that turned into a long gain. Douglas ran a shallow cross, picked up a couple key blocks from Delanie Walker and Antonio Andrews and kept going until he reached the end zone.

Honorable mention: Griffin’s forced fumble early in the first quarter – The recovery put the Titans in great field position and led to a Zach Mettenberger touchdown pass; Angelo Blackson’s two-point conversion – Although called back, the rookie defensive end caught an Alex Tanney pass on a two-point conversion late in the game. Blackson found himself wide open and reached up to grab the throw. It is an image that will stick with fans for some time.


THEY SAID IT

• “It’s definitely a confidence booster. It’s good for us to learn and battle through a little bit of adversity and as a whole were excited to get going and get the season going. Obviously now it counts and we’re looking forward to it. I think we’ve built a solid foundation for this season and we’re excited to take this and show it out on the field. Stats mean nothing, as long as you put up wins that’s all that matters.” – Mariota on finishing the preseason and preparing for the start of the regular season.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Titans looked effective and played well. However, it is just the preseason and the final one at that. If ever there was a “meaningless game” the fourth preseason game is it.

Mariota did get his first touchdown and the offense looked good on the opening drive. With that being said, the quarterback only played one series and the rest of the Titans starters were pulled not long after him.

This game served its purpose: the starters got a little work then the reserves get the chance to state their case for a roster spot.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Sep 4, 2015 1:11 AM

Vikings bring lengthy preseason win streak into finale with Titans

For Ken Whisenhunt, the primary purpose of preseason games is to help reduce the roster.

His counterpart in Thursday’s 2015 preseason finale, Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer, looks to be more intent on piling up wins. Or maybe it’s just worked out that way.

“All I do look for is how we play, the performance that we give, the things we’re doing, if we’re doing things right or wrong, because I think that will tell you more about your football team than the preseason record,” Zimmer said recently.

Nonetheless, the Vikings come to town having won nine straight preseason games, including two against the Titans. Their streak started with a 24-23 victory over Tennessee at Minnesota in the final tune-up of 2013 and continued last year with a 19-3 victory at Nissan Stadium.

This year Minnesota won the Hall of Fame Game and, thus, already is 4-0. No other NFL team is unbeaten in the 2014 and 2015 preseasons.

PRACTICING TO WIN
A look at the Minnesota Vikings’  current eight-game preseason win streak:

2013
Minnesota 24, Tennessee 23

2014
Minnesota 10, Oakland 6
Minnesota 30, Arizona 28
Minnesota 30, Kansas City 12
Minnesota 19, Tennessee 3

2015
Minnesota 14, Pittsburgh 3
Minnesota 26, Tampa Bay 16
Minnesota 20, Oakland 12
Minnesota 28, Dallas 14

All that winning in the preseason did not make the Vikings a playoff team last year. They did finish 7-9, though, which was an improvement of two victories over the previous seasons.

The Titans are a combined 3-4 in the preseason under Whisenhunt, which – of course – on either side of a 2-14 regular season.

“Just because you take ‘X’ number of snaps, or you play in so many games, doesn’t mean you’re ready for the regular season,” Whisenhunt said. “I don’t know that there’s any criteria for judging that. I hope we are. That’s our goal, and that’s what we’ve been working on since back in the spring. We’ve had a lot of practices, we’ve had a lot of reps, we’ve had some game action.

“So it’s all about getting geared towards being ready to go and getting the best 53. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Sep 3, 2015 3:01 PM

MTSU won't rely on one back to make running game go

It has been said that you can never have too much of a good thing. For Middle Tennessee State, this is true of it running backs, in terms of their numbers and experience.

“There’s not a bell cow right now but I’ve been very pleased with the progress that those guys have made in camp so far,” coach Rick Stockstill said. “We’ve got three running backs that I feel could start for a lot of teams across the country. They’re very selfless players and they’ve got a wonderful attitude.”

Shane Tucker, Jordan Parker and Jeremiah Bryson combined with former starter Reggie Whatley to average 213.8 rush yards per game last season. MTSU finished 30th in FBS and second in Conference USA in rushing offense.

“Jordan Parker and Jeremiah Bryson are seniors Shane Tucker is a junior,” Stockstill said. “They push each other in practice and they compete against each other in practice. All three of them are a little bit different from a skill set standpoint but they’re very similar in other aspects.”

Parker and Tucker played in all 12 games (Parker started nine and Tucker started twice) and Bryson played in 11 games.

Tucker starts the season on the Doak Walker Award watch list. The award honors the nation’s premier running back.

BEEN THERE, DONE THAT

A look at what MTSU’s top three running backs have done the last two seasons:

 

                                    Rush Att          Rush Yds         Avg. Rush        Rush TD

Shane Tucker              

2014                            97                    486                  5.0                   8

2013                            44                    241                  5.5                   5

 

Jordan Parker             

2014                            128                  546                  4.3                   2

2013                            146                  745                  5.1                   6

 

Jeremiah Bryson        

2014                            42                    221                  5.3                   4

2013                            82                    398                  4.9                   3

“They will all three play a bunch because you’ve got to have them, you’ve got to have running backs in this day and time,” Stockstill said. “All three of those guys are really talented and I think Jeremiah from January until now, the end of August, has improved as much as anybody we have.

“They can all (three) play every down, they can play without the ball, they’re good in protection, they’re good in the passing game, and obviously they’re good running the ball. I’ve got a lot of respect for those guys, probably as much for how they handle their position, because everybody wants to be the guy and those three guys are very selfless and great teammates and all they care about is helping this team win.”

Given that all three running backs are expected to share the ball fairly equally don’t expect to see any animosity or jealousy on the MTSU sideline.

“As a running back unit I know especially me, Jordan, and Shane I feel like we’re the closest anybody can be on any team,” Bryson said. “If I see them score a touchdown it makes me just as happy inside as me scoring a touchdown just because we see each other grind and see each other when we’re hurt, we know what we go through to get to that point, we all feed off each other’s success.” 

Sep 3, 2015 2:58 PM

Reasons to believe: Vanderbilt vs. Western Kentucky

There is no preseason in college football.

The best anyone can do is guess which teams will be good, which won’t and to what degree in each case. Often, those impressions are based largely on what happened the previous season. Thus, Thursday night’s season opener between Vanderbilt and Western Kentucky (7 p.m., SEC Network) looks like a dangerous game for the Commodores given their 2104 struggles.

Guess again, say Vanderbilt’s players and coaches.

“I’m certain that this is going to be a better year for us,” senior linebacker Darreon Herring said. “Teams and analysts think they know what’s coming this year but they really don’t. I have confidence in our offense and confidence in the defense that teams are going to be shocked this year at what we do.”

 
Three reasons to believe Vanderbilt will win Thursday

QB question: At this point, it is not as important who plays quarterback for the Commodores as it is that either Wade Freebeck or Johnny McCrary plays well. Between them, they accounted for nine starts in last season’s 12 games, but neither provided any consistent production. It should be noted, though, that McCrary’s best game (20-28, 281 yards, five touchdowns) came against a Conference USA opponent, Old Dominion. So if nothing else, there is reason to think he should be the guy and could play well enough in this one.

Multi-tasking Mason: The jury is still out on whether Derek Mason can and will be a good head coach. His reputation as a defensive coordinator is rock solid, though, and he’ll be the one calling the defensive signals this season. He got a head start on the dual role in last year’s season finale against Tennessee and the Commodores allowed a season-best 4.0 yards per play and allowed just three third-down conversions on 13 attempts. It seems a safe bet that the defense will be prepared for WKU’s high-scoring offense.

Big boys: Nothing is certain, but Vanderbilt is still an SEC program and Western Kentucky is a Conference USA program, one that has been an FCS member for just seven years. The Commodores have won 16 of their last 19 non-conference games and are 25-4 all-time against current Conference USA members. 

 
Three reasons to believe Vanderbilt won’t win Thursday

QB consistency: Regardless of what takes place the next three months, the best thing that happened to WKU this season was that the NCAA granted quarterback Brandon Doughty (pictured) a sixth season of eligibility because of injuries he sustained in 2011 and 2012. He led the NCAA in passing yards (4,830) and passing touchdowns (49) in 2014 and provides much-needed stability and experience for a high-powered offense. In one game last season, Doughty threw more touchdown passes (five) than incomplete passes (three).

Piling up points: At the end of the day, it’s still the team with the most points that wins and only six teams averaged more points per game in 2014 that Western Kentucky (44.4). In addition to Doughty, the Hilltoppers also return running back Leon Allen. Together, those two made WKU the first team in NCAA history with a 4,500-yard passer and a 1,500-yard rusher in the same season. Vanderbilt’s offense scored 20 touchdowns (seven rushing, 13 passing) last season. Western Kentucky’s had had more than that rushing (21) and passing (49).

Backs to the wall: There are nine returning starters on the Western Kentucky defense, which was the only defense in the country last year that had four touchdown returns of 80 yards or more (three interceptions, one fumble). That unit was 17th in the country in red zone defense with 49 scores allowed (42 touchdowns, seven field goals) in 66 trips.

 
The bottom line

Vanderbilt has better players and is a better, higher-profile program. It just has to play much better football than it did for most of last season.

Yes, Western Kentucky is a dangerous opponent. If the Commodores don’t beat themselves, though, it’s doubtful that the Hilltoppers will be able to do it.

 
(Photo: Getty Images)

Sep 3, 2015 10:51 AM

Commentary: On Derek Mason and his long-lost list

Derek Mason has been honest about what happened last season.

Honest with himself. Honest with everyone else.

He owned up to some mistakes with the staff changes he made after the Commodores went 3-9 in his first season in charge. He also admitted publicly that there were things about being a head coach for which he was not prepared – and let’s face it, the SEC is hardly the best place to learn on the job.

Such candor is rare for someone is his position, yet he remains consistent in that regard.

The latest example was at his Tuesday press conference when he revealed that only recently he found a paper that he considers critical to his coaching. He said it is the basis for a 65-item ‘game day checklist’ that reinforces exactly he wants to do in every conceivable situation that might arise during the four quarters of a college football contest – and it had been missing for roughly a year and a half, basically ever since he took the job.

When he brought it up, it was clear how happy he was to have found the paper. It also was part of the larger narrative that he feels much better prepared for his second year on the job.

Predictably, he was excoriated for it.

People on social media and sports talk radio shows had a field day with it and the myriad opinions expressed all were based specifically on one’s own rooting interest. Optimistic Vanderbilt fans saw it as a positive and sought to defend their guy (some even suggested Mason was joking, which he was not). Pessimistic Vanderbilt fans considered it proof that something akin Woodyball 2.0 is at hand. Tennessee fans roared with equal parts delight and derision.

Nearly everyone overlooked the fact that he simply told the truth and offered some uniquely interesting insight.

The problem for Mason is that these days you’re not allowed to be honest and interesting if you don’t win – and right now has a career .250 winning percentage as a head coach. As Crash Davis explained to Nuke LaLoosh in Bull Durham, “If you win 20 in the show, you can let the fungus grow back [on your shower shoes] and the press'll think you're colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you are a slob.” In the age of Twitter and Facebook, et. al., the press is everyone because everyone has the opportunity to share their message with a broader audience.

As a colleague noted, if Les Miles said the same thing everyone simply would have chuckled and thought, ‘Typical Les Miles.’ And that would have been the end of it. Miles, of course, has won more than 72 percent of his games as a head coach, claimed one BCS title (2007) and finished runner-up for another (2011). Les Miles is colorful.

No doubt Miles and every college football coach also has some version of a game day checklist just like every coordinator has a call sheet. There is no time to waste thinking about what to do. Everything must be considered in advance and action must be predetermined – i.e. when to go for two, how and when to use timeouts, opportunities to exploit obscure rules, when to pick up the pace or when to let the clock run out and so on.

That Mason has one is no big deal.

That he acknowledges that whatever version he used last fall was not as complete as he would like is startling. The overwhelming majority of college football coaches (pro and high school coaches too, for that matter) are loathe to admit they are in any way fallible. Most won’t concede their shoes are untied even after they’ve tripped over the free flying laces.

Mason’s revelation that he misplaced something he considers so important to his job performance was the type of honest and interesting moment that rarely occurs in a press conference.

It’s exactly the type of thing we all want to hear. And it’s exactly the type of thing no one will allow Derek Mason to say simply because he has not won enough.

(Photo: Joe Howell/Vanderbilt athletics)

Sep 3, 2015 9:40 AM

Tennessee announces date for second 'Checker Neyland' game

It was considered one of the most memorable games of the University of Tennessee’s 2014 football season.

And the Volunteers did not even win.

So there’s a chance the whole ‘Checker Neyland’ thing can be a bigger success the second time around.

UT officials formally announced Wednesday that this season’s first home game, Sept. 12 against Oklahoma, would be the second attempt to have fans at Neyland Stadium replicate the famed end zone checkerboard pattern in the seats. Ticket holders are asked to wear white or orange, depending on where they sit and the effect is certainly eye-catching.

The school has created a website for ticket holders to check which color they should wear to this year’s game.

The inaugural ‘Checker Neyland’ contest was Oct. 4, 2014 when the University of Florida played in Knoxville.

The Volunteers dropped that one 10-9, which capped a run of three straight defeats that started with a 34-10 loss at Oklahoma.

The Sooners are ranked 19th in the Associated Press top 25. UT is ranked 25th.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Sep 2, 2015 4:15 PM

Blackhawks goalie rooted for Predators during playoff series

Not every member of the Chicago Blackhawks was thrilled with goalie Scott Darling’s unexpected star turn against the Nashville Predators in this year’s NHL playoffs.

Antti Raanta, the third string goalie during Chicago’s run to a third Stanley Cup in six years, actually rooted against him and his team.

Yahoo.com reported Wednesday on a story from the Finnish website Ilta-Sanomat, in which Raanta said he pulled for the Predators in the Western Conference quarterfinal series.

“I was really hoping Nashville would beat us in four games and I could get back to Finland. I was [so pissed off] about how Chicago was treating me.”

According to Raanta, Blackhawks were suffering of weak team spirit and head coach Joel Quenneville didn't seem to like him.

“I noticed that coach didn't like me, in that position it is pretty difficult to fight the windmills,” Raanta said.

Darling replaced starter Corey Crawford in each of the first two playoff contests against Nashville and started each of the next four. He was the winning goalie in three of the first four games of the series, which the Blackhawks won in six games.

Raanta, who appeared in 14 games during the regular season (the same number as Darling), did not see any action in the playoffs. The Blackhawks traded him in June to the New York Rangers.
 

Sep 2, 2015 1:56 PM

Sanders starts out with starting job for Notre Dame

Even at 5-foot-8 – or perhaps because he is so small – C.J. Sanders has managed to stand out on the Notre Dame football team.

And he has done so before he has played his first game.

Coach Brian Kelly said this week that Sanders, a true freshman, would be the starting punt returner for the Fighting Irish when they open the season Saturday against Texas (6:30 p.m., NBC).

“I just think C.J. just has kind of a unique knack of breaking some tackles and (is) hard to find sometimes and kind of comes out of there and pops out of there,” Kelly said, according to reports. “That's why we went with him.”

Sanders is the son of former Tennessee Titans wide receiver Chris Sanders and former multi-sport star at Brentwood Academy (2012 and 2013). He played his senior season (2014) in the Los Angeles area, where he also has a budding acting career – he has appeared in nine television shows.

He won a preseason competition with junior Will Fuller for the job. Fuller was Notre Dame’s leading receiver last season and was third in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 15 touchdown receptions.

“I think we have two real good ones, two really good options,” Kelly said. “We are splitting hairs probably with both of them. And I could see us going back and forth with both of them playing.”

Sep 2, 2015 1:31 PM

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