Time (of possession) on Vanderbilt's side this season

Vanderbilt’s offense is selfish.

In terms of football, that’s a good thing.

The Commodores rank among the top 20 in the FBS (they’re 18th, to be exact) in time of possession and have had the ball more than their opponents in each of their first four games.

The last time the Commodores had the edge in four consecutive games was the final four contests of 2013. Then, they won all four, including the BBVA Compass Bowl, and finished the season 9-4.

Victories have not come nearly as often with this season’s hoggish performances but such possession proficiency does have its benefits.

"You can tell in the third and fourth quarter that defenders are starting to get tired,” tight end Steven Scheu said. “When you see that, you kind of know that you have them where you want them, and we are definitely improving in that aspect."

Vanderbilt has had the edge in possession time in 12 of this season’s 16 quarters. In every contest there has been one in which it has the ball for more than 10 minutes. Three times that quarter was the first and the other (Western Kentucky) it was the second.

A year ago they won time of possession just four times – period – in 12 games.

A quarter-by-quarter look at Vanderbilt’s time of possession in each of its first four games:




Austin Peay

Ole Miss



























It’s not hard to figure why the Commodores have held the ball so much longer than last season.

Under first-year coordinator Andy Ludwig, they have averaged 22 first downs and 8.3 third-down conversions per contest. A year ago, those numbers were 16.1 and 3.8, respectively. They already have 33 third-down conversions and at their current pace they will surpass their 2014 total (46) before the end of their sixth game.

“There are no moral victories for us,” coach Derek Mason said. “This team wants to win ball games, and we're going to put ourselves in position to win ball games.”

Having the ball is a good place to start.

Oct 1, 2015 6:47 AM

Vanderbilt's Sherfield one of 13 added to Biletnikoff watch list

Trent Sherfield has caught enough passes – particularly the last two weeks -- to catch the attention of those who administer one of college football’s top individual honors.

The Vanderbilt sophomore was one of 13 players added to the Biletnikoff Award watch list Tuesday. The original watch list included 50 players.

Middle Tennessee State’s Ed’Marques Batties also was among the additions.

Sherfield and Batties will have their own personal battle Saturday when the Commodores play the Blue Raiders at Murfreesboro (6 p.m., CBS Sports Network) in MTSU’s homecoming contest.

Sherfield leads the Southeastern Conference in receptions (28) and is second in receiving yards (402). He is one of 17 FBS players with more than 400 receiving yards and is 12th in total receptions.

He has had 23 catches for 295 yards in the last two games.

“You just have to keep working and just try to maintain that top position,” Sherfield said last week. “I’m not really too worried about the stats. I’m just coming out here and trying to play and dominate every chance I get.”

The last Vanderbilt receiver to make the list was Jordan Matthews in 2013. Matthews ended up a semifinalist.

Batties is third in Conference USA with 30 catches and is second with 446 receiving yards. His seven receiving touchdowns are second in the FBS.

“Ed'Marques Batties … is unbelievable,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. “A talented receiver, game-breaker, explosive who can make some plays.”

The Biletnikoff Award honors the country’s top pass catcher (wide receiver, tight end or running back). The Tallahassee Touchdown Club Foundation administers the award, which will be presented Dec. 10 during ESPN's The Home Depot College Awards.

(Photo: Joe Howell/Vanderbilt athletics)

Sep 29, 2015 10:17 PM

Rio Grande De-Fence Briefing: Vanderbilt tough on top offenses

Derek Mason says there is no secret to Vanderbilt’s play on defense.

The word is out, though. It is tough to move the ball against the Commodores.

Vanderbilt has faced three FBS opponents in its first four games and all three boast high-output, high-scoring offenses, none of which produced at the same level against the Commodores, with the exception of Georgia’s rushing offense.

“We just do what we do. I do not think there is any secret sauce,” coach Derek Mason, who doubles as defensive coordinator said following Saturday’s loss to Ole Miss. “I think it is in who we are and how we play and how we function.”

A comparison of season averages on offense versus performance against Vanderbilt for the Commodores’ three FBS opponents:

Western Kentucky


Season avg.

vs. Vanderbilt
















Season avg.

vs. Vanderbilt














Ole Miss


Season avg.

vs. Vanderbilt














Ole Miss second in the country in scoring offense and Georgia is in the top 15. They are the SEC’s top two in total offense, and the Rebels are first in the conference in passing offense while the Bulldogs are first in rushing offense.

Western Kentucky is just outside the top 20 in FBS for total offense.

So it’s not as if Vanderbilt hasn’t been tested.

“We are going to continue to get better,” Mason said. “Teams are not going to want to see us in October and November.”

Up next – on the first weekend in October – is Middle Tennessee State, which twice has scored more than 70 points and is currently 12th in the country (just behind Georgia) in scoring offense at 44.5 points per game.

(Photo: Joe Howell/Vanderbilt athletics)

Sep 28, 2015 11:34 AM

Highlight reel: Ole Miss 27, Vanderbilt 16

Vanderbilt did more than just make things interesting.

There were chances Saturday night for the Commodores to take control at Ole Miss. It was tied midway through the third quarter after Vanderbilt scored on its first two second-half possessions. Then a blocked punt and a missed field goal – among other things – allowed the Rebels to pull away and defeat Vanderbilt 27-16.

A look at some of the notable performers and moments from a promising, but ultimately disappointing performance:


Zach Cunningham, sophomore, linebacker

He led the defense with 11 tackles, including 1 ½ tackles for loss and one sack.

Three times he made tackles on first-and-goal from the 1 or 2-yard line. In one case, Ole Miss eventually got a touchdown. The others started a goal line stand that ended with the Rebels kicking a field goal.

He also had one third-down stop that forced a punt on a night when Ole Miss’ high-powered offense converted just three times in 13 attempts.

The only time he’s had more stops in a game was last year at Mississippi State, when the defense was on the field all night and could not make a stop. This was a much different performance.

Honorable mention
• Ralph Webb, RB: He ran for a season-high 90 yards, the third time in his career  he’s rushed for at least 90 against an SEC opponent. His effort included a career-best 43-yard run that led to the game-tying touchdown midway through the third quarter.

• Stephen Weatherly, OLB (pictured): He had three tackles, a sack, a tackle for a loss, two quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. In short: He was a general menace for the Ole Miss offense.

• Nifae Lealao, DT: He blocked a second-half Ole Miss field goal attempt that would have made it a two-score game and a little more than three minutes later it was a tie game.

The fair catch interference penalty against snapper Jacob Schultz with 3:47 to play in the first half

Vanderbilt was within a touchdown and was hanging around early when Ole Miss returner Carlos Davis allowed a punt to bounce right off his chest. Schultz went the ground and the Commodores seemingly were in business in Rebels’ territory.

Officials inexplicably threw the flag and awarded possession to Ole Miss even though Schultz was a good three yards or more – and stationary – from Davis when the ball arrived.

There’s no guarantee that Vanderbilt would have converted that opportunity into points but it should have had the chance to try – and it would have made the final minutes of the half much more interesting.

Honorable mention
• Oren Burks’ interception 1:43 into the contest: It was the first takeaway for the Vanderbilt defense this season and the first sign that it was going to be a much tougher test for the Ole Miss offense than most anticipated.

• Tommy Openshaw’s 28-yard field goal with 3:17 left in the first quarter: It gave the Commodores a 3-0 lead, which was the first time all season Ole Miss trailed.

• Openshaw’s missed field goal with 9:28 to play: After the defense’s second interception Vanderbilt failed to produce any points. This kick (32 yards) would have made it a one-point game.


• “To be great you have to be bigger than the moment. We just were not bigger than the moment. That is okay. We will take a look at it we fix it.” – Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, on the game.

• “I feel like anytime we get down to the red zone or the maroon zone or close to scoring and we don’t convert, it just sets you back. Our job is to score, so at any time we don’t score I feel pretty bad about it.” – quarterback Johnny McCrary, on the continued red zone struggles.

• “A lot of credit goes to Vanderbilt. They are a better team than people give them credit for.” – Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze.


This team is a lot better than it was a year ago and has come a long way since the start of the season. At 1-3 (0-2 in the SEC), it’s still a long way from bowl eligibility.

It was not that long ago that this type of result would have been deemed acceptable. No one can argue with the effort or the overall performance but Vanderbilt still does not do enough of the little things that make good football winning football, and those things are critical in games against teams as talented as Ole Miss.

(Photo: Joe Howell/Vanderbilt athletics)

Sep 28, 2015 6:37 AM

Vanderbilt vows to keep pace with up-tempo Ole Miss this time

Derek Mason knows he won’t have a lot of time to make calls on defense Saturday when Vanderbilt faces Ole Miss.

The head coach/defensive coordinator is equally certain, though, that he will have enough time to do what he needs to.

“I’m not going to be stuck in the same call play after play,” he said this week. “That’s the whole idea of what they do. They want to make sure you’re paralyzed in one or two calls. That’s not the way we’re built.

“They’re going to go fast and we’re going to go fast.”

Ole Miss (3-0, 1-0 in the SEC) leads the NCAA in scoring through the first three weeks of the season with an average of 64 points per game. The Rebels, though, are 115th in time of possession at an average of 24:34 per game.

That amounts to an average of one play every 22 seconds of possession time.

By comparison, Vanderbilt’s offense is one of the NCAA leaders in time of possession with an average of 33:38 per contest. The Commodores have averaged one play every 25 seconds of possession time.

In terms of sorting out what to do from one snap to the net, three seconds can be an eternity.

“You understand that getting lined up is the biggest part of what tempo is about,” Mason said. “It is to get you rattled in terms of your defensive play call. What we have to do is make sure that we get our guys lined up.

“I look at last year's game [a 41-3 Ole Miss victory] and we never got lined up. When you don't get lined up you can't play football. The biggest thing we are going to do is make sure our guys get lined up.”

(Photo: Joe Howell/Vanderbilt athletics)

Sep 24, 2015 2:43 PM

Injury costs Vanderbilt its top tight end for remainder of season

De’Andre Woods delivered one of the biggest plays thus far this season for Vanderbilt in Saturday’s victory over Austin Peay.

The sophomore tight end also played his final play of the season, though.

Coach Derek Mason said Tuesday that Woods will miss the remainder of the season because of a torn knee ligament.

“With that, we lose a really good tight end who was really starting to come into his own,” Mason said.

They also lose one of the Southeastern Conference’s top receiving tight ends.

He is Vanderbilt’s leader at the position (fourth overall) with seven receptions for 129 yards. Only four SEC tight ends have more catches through the first three weeks of the season and none of those four have a yards-per reception average as good as Woods’ (18.4).

His 43-yard reception in the second quarter set up the Commodores’ first touchdown against Austin Peay. The only longer gain the offense has produced was wide receiver Trent Sherfield’s 44-yard reception a week earlier against Georgia.

The SEC leaders in receptions by tight ends (through Saturday):

Hunter Henry, Arkansas – 15
Sean Culkin, Missouri – 11
O.J. Howard, Alabama – 11
Gus Walley, Mississippi St. – 10
De’Andre Woods, Vanderbilt – 7
Ethan Wolf, Tennessee – 7

Woods signed with Vanderbilt in 2013 as a wide receiver but redshirted after he missed most of the season with an injury. He got into four games last year and did not have a reception and then moved to tight end in the spring.

“De’Andre was just starting to come into his own,” Mason said. “We saw some really good things out of De’Andre. He was starting to become a factor in our offense, a target that was dependable.

“I think when he comes back he’s going to be a really good player.”

(Photo: John Russell/Vanderbilt athletics)

Sep 22, 2015 2:26 PM

Sherfield works his way to top of SEC receiving leaders, Vanderbilt record book

Derek Mason does not open practices to the public so everyone will just have to take his word for it when he talks about Trent Sherfield’s work habits.

“When you come out to practice you notice Trent Sherfield,” Vanderbilt’s second-year coach said. “The dude’s running. He’s blocking. He’s doing all the things he should do.”

For those at Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturday afternoon, though, Sherfield was impossible to ignore during the Commodores’ 47-7 victory over Austin Peay.

The sophomore wide receiver set a school record with 240 receiving yards (on 16 catches), a performance that included four catches of more than 20 yards, 10 that went for first downs and his second touchdown of the season. Earl Bennett set the previous mark of 223 yards in 2007 against Richmond.

“I worked out with Trent every day this past summer, so I know the type of work ethic he has, and he has a great work ethic,” running back Ralph Webb said. “He's been working for it so he deserves everything he got (Saturday) night.”

Sherfield started out as primarily a first-down option. His first five catches came on first-and-10, the first of which came on the Commodores’ first offensive snap. By the third quarter he seemingly was quarterback Johnny McCrary’s first option on virtually every snap.

A breakdown of Trent Sherfield’s record-setting performance Saturday against Austin Peay:

• 8 yards on first-and-10 from the VU 34
• 8 yards on first-and-10 from the VU 46
• Incomplete on first-and-10 from the APSU 42
First quarter totals: 2 receptions, 16 yards

• 22 yards on first-and-10 from the APSU 46
• 21 yards on first-and-10 from the VU 47
• 16 yards on first-and-10 from the APSU 32
Second quarter totals: 3 receptions, 59 yards

• 42 yards on third-and-6 from the APSU 45
• 25 yards on second-and-6 from the VU 36
• 2 yards on third-and-5 from the APSU 34
• 9 yards on first-and-10 from the VU 49
• 5 yards on second-and-1 from the APSU 42
• 6 yards on first-and-10 from the APSU 37
• 26 yards (TD) on first-and-10 from the APSU 26
• 15 yards on first-and-10 from the APSU 49
• 7 yards on first-and-10 from the APSU 34
• 11 yards on third-and-3 from the APSU 27
Third quarter totals: 10 receptions, 148 yards, TD

• Incomplete on first-and-10 from the VU 11
• 17 yards on second-and-10 from the VU 11
Fourth quarter totals: 1 reception, 17 yards

On the strength of that performance, Sherfield enters the week as the Southeastern Conference’s leader in receptions and receiving yards. He has three more catches than Alabama’s ArDarius Stewart – and no one else has more than 16 receptions thus far this season. He is 48 yards ahead of Ole Miss’ Cody Core and the only SEC player with more than 300 receiving yards for the season (he has 347).

“He got his just due (Saturday),” Mason said. “When you work hard like that, on the other side of hard work and opportunity is success. It’s just a small taste of what Trent Sherfield can do. Now what he has to do is show he can do it every day, every week in the SEC. It’s a great first step for him, and I’m proud of him.”

(Photo: Joe Howell/Vanderbilt athletics)

Sep 21, 2015 6:47 AM

Highlight reel: Vanderbilt 47, Austin Peay 7

It was slow going at first and there were even some tense moments — particularly the three minutes, 54 seconds of the second quarter when Vanderbilt actually trailed.

Eventually though, the Commodores took control and pulled away. They scored the final 44 points of the game, including 16 in a span of 6:25 late in the second quarter after they had fallen behind.

A look at some of the notable performers and moments from Vanderbilt’s first win of the season:

Trent Sherfield, sophomore, wide receiver

He broke Earl Bennett’s school record for receiving yards in a single game with 240 (on 16 catches).

To put into perspective exactly what he did, consider that only four Vanderbilt players had more receptions and receiving yards in the entire 2014 season. He had more catches in the third quarter of this contest (10) than any Commodores player had in any game last season.

Four of Vanderbilt’s five touchdown drives while the starters played included at least one Sherfield reception. Five of his catches went for more than 20 yards.

Honorable mention
• Johnny McCrary, QB: He set the school record for single-game completion percentage at 84.8 (28-for-33), threw for a career-high 368 yards with two touchdowns and ran for another 41 yards and a touchdown.

• Ralph Webb, RB: The sophomore scored three touchdowns, including the first receiving touchdown of his career. He rushed for just 54 yards on 15 carries but that was more than anyone else for either team.

• Adam Butler, DT: He had two tackles for loss (they were both solo stops) as the defense limited Austin Peay to an average of 1.1 yards per rush and a mere nine rushing yards on 18 attempts after halftime.


Tight end DeAndre Woods’ 43-yard reception with 11:18 to play in the second quarter

Vanderbilt had just fallen behind 7-3 after Austin Peay converted a muffed punt into a touchdown. Before the ensuing drive even got started, the Commodores were called for delay of game, which meant they had a first-and-15.

The converted wide receiver got open on the right side —  once he caught the ball — had room to run. It was the second-longest play for Vanderbilt’s offense this season and really got the offense going.

Seven plays later, the Commodores had the lead for good.

Honorable mention
• McCrary’s eight-yard completion to Sherfield on Vanderbilt’s first offensive snap: No one knew it at the time but it was a sign of what was to come.

• Webb’s 2-yard touchdown run 1:50 into the second half: Vanderbilt had not scored a point in the third quarter of either of its first two games and had struggled to get touchdowns in the red zone. It took care of both with that one, the first of three third-quarter touchdowns in this game.


• “This was a game we were supposed to win and we won it. And we won it the way we needed to win it.” — coach Derek Mason

• “No concern at all. We knew if we come out and played our hardest and played our best and stuck with the game-plan, we would come out with a victory.” — safety Andrew Williamson, on the team’s approach when Austin Peay had the lead.

• “When we really execute out there, things start popping open. Things started looking as they should. We have a great offensive coordinator, great offense and when things are working as they should, that’s the kind of result you get.” – McCrary on the performance of the offense.


Yes, a victory over Austin Peay — no matter how decisive — is not going to impress or frighten anyone in the Southeastern Conference. It does, however, give the Commodores reason to feel good after a couple disappointing results to start the season.

As Mason said: “A win does a lot for your confidence. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. It really does.”

(Photo: John Russell/Vanderbilt athletics)

Sep 21, 2015 6:19 AM

New coordinator keeps Vanderbilt offense grounded

Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb is not the Southeastern Conference’s leading rusher.

In fact, he’s not even among the top 10 through the first two weeks of the 2015 season. He is 11th with 138 yards, five behind Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara.

It is not for lack of opportunity, though.

First-year offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has shown a willingness to stick with the sophomore (specifically) and the rest of the run game (in general) even when it does not work as well as hoped, as was the case last Saturday against Georgia.

The result is that through two games only two SEC backs – Auburn’s Peyton Barber and Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd – have more rushing attempts than Webb, who set a Vanderbilt freshman record with 907 yards last season.

“In running the football, there’s a softening process to it,” Ludwig said. “Now there wasn’t much softening going on last week, but we’ve made a commitment to running the football, trying to play to what we think is our strengths and not lending ourselves to letting edge rushers pin their ears back, which is the way that game last week kind of shaped up. We do everything we can to avoid those situations.”

The Southeastern Conference leaders in rushing attempts (through Week 2):

Peyton Barber, Auburn – 47 (240 yards)
Jalen Hurd, Tennessee – 47 (232 yards)
Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt – 43 (138 yards)
Tra Carson, Texas A&M – 39 (155 yards)
Nick Chubb, Georgia – 35 (309 yards)

Against Georgia, a 31-14 loss, Webb (pictured) carried 25 times.  Six of those carries went for no gain or a loss, including four of his first seven. Another six went for just one or two yards.

Still, Ludwig kept calling runs as long as he could. Webb carried 11 times in the first quarter, eight in the second, four in the third and two in the fourth.  Last season he never had more than 19 carries in a loss.

As a team, the Commodores have run it 81 times in their first two games, 34 more than at the same point in 2014. Only two SEC teams (Tennessee with 109 and Texas A&M with 94) have run more often.

“We’ve got to be able to stick with the run because that’s part of who we are in terms of having balance,” coach Derek Mason said. “Everybody thinks we want to run just to run. We run to have balance in our offense. It keeps us looking at our gameplan and our matchups.”

It also means they have to keep an eye on Webb.

The 5-foot-10, 202-pounder says coaches employ a limited running back rotation but that more often than not he comes out only when he says he needs a rest.

“It’s basically my decision, for the most part,” Webb said. “I know myself. I know when I need to get a blow. I’m not going to go out there and try to be Superman every play, if I know I’m tired.

“I want to put myself in a position to help my team be successful, and I can’t do that if I’m dog-tired.”

He also can’t do it if he does not get the ball, which does not seem to be an issue this season.

(Photo: Frederick Breedon)

Sep 17, 2015 12:46 PM

Freshman assumes starting role on Vanderbilt's offensive line

A lineup change has added a different element to Vanderbilt’s depth chart.

Justin Skule is listed as the starting right tackle for Saturday’s game against Austin Peay, and coach Derek Mason confirmed the move Tuesday.

That makes the 6-foot-6, 305-pounder from Clifton, Va., the only freshman to occupy any top spot on the Commodores’ two-deep. And he is a true freshman.

“It says that he has talent,” Mason said. “But talent has to be challenged. It has to be stressed and only then can it become fruitful. Right now Justin’s still learning. He’s swimming a little bit. But the one thing he is, he’s athletic and he loves to play the game.”

Skule, one of five true freshmen who have played this season, replaced starter Blake Fromang early in Saturday’s loss to Georgia and played the rest of the way. He’s now part of an offensive front that features four other starters who are fourth-year juniors or seniors.

He was a first-team all-state player in 2014 who allowed just one sack as a two-year starter in high school. The most high-profile rating services all tabbed him as a three-star recruit.

Experience should not be too much of a factor, and he definitely will have a size advantage in his first start. Austin Peay, an FCS program, starts a 6-foot-2, 255-pound freshman at one defensive end and a 6-foot-3, 231-pound sophomore at the other.

“He’s been playing hard and he’s been making plays,” senior center Spencer Pulley said. “He’s been executing the offense and he’s a guy we think can play with us out there and play well. I think he proved that on Saturday. He, obviously, has a lot of work to do but I believe he has a lot of guys around him on the offense that will help him through that.”

Sep 15, 2015 2:28 PM