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.
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)
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)
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)
Derek Mason believes he gains a competitive advantage because he won’t publicly name a starting quarterback in advance of Vanderbilt’s season opener.
It’s not that the uncertainty makes it more difficult for Western Kentucky’s defense to prepare. It’s that the silence makes it easier for the top two Commodores’ quarterbacks, sophomores Wade Freebeck and Johnny McCrary, to get ready for Thursday night’s game at Vanderbilt Stadium (7 p.m., SEC Network).
“My idea is to take the pressure off these guys and let them go play the game,” Mason said Tuesday. “It’s not about who the fans want to see or what they need to know. It’s about what puts these guys in the best possible situation to play well and right now I’ve been able to sort of provide a shield around these guys so we can focus on the task at hand.
“The task at hand is not who’s the starter. The task at hand is to go win. That’s (how) we’re functioning. These guys haven’t had to answer any questions. They’ve been about getting the work they need to to push this offense forward and that’s where we’re going to stay.”
Mason said he and first-year offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig settled on the starter a little more than a week ago.
The Week 1 depth chart lists McCrary or Freebeck – in that order, which is not alphabetical. Perhaps that is an indication of what is to come.
Then again, McCrary is a third-year sophomore and has seniority over Freebeck, a member of the 2014 signing class. So maybe that’s why they are listed in that manner.
Another explanation is that McCrary was listed first and Freebeck second – minus the ‘or’ – in the media guide, which was produced early in the summer, before the two battled it out in preseason camp. It’s possible, therefore, that it’s a simple matter of cut-and-paste.
What’s important to Mason is that McCrary and Freebeck know – and they know why.
“A decision was made and you talked to both of the young men and you say, ‘OK, let’s move forward,’” Mason said. “That’s what we did. Just make sure you have a discussion. Make sure you’re up front and honest and that you provide the data for those young men about what it looked like and then you move forward.”
This way, everyone with an interest in Vanderbilt football has something to look forward to at the start of the game.
The trick is make sure whoever plays does so well enough that he and the Commodores are worth watching throughout the entire game and beyond.
“I won’t tell you what’s going to happen on Thursday – what these quarterbacks will or will not do – but I’ve been here, this is my fifth season now and I’ve seen some guys train hard,” center Spencer Pulley said. “These guys have been working harder or just as hard as some of the great quarterbacks I’ve been around.
“So I’m very excited and I think people will be pretty pleasantly surprised Thursday night.”
If it seemed there were times during games last season that Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason was not sure what to do — let’s be honest, there definitely were times it seemed that way — perhaps this is the reason.
Even though the second-year coach has added the role of defensive coordinator to his duties for 2015, Mason said Tuesday he feels better prepared for whatever happens in a game because of a recent discovery he made in his personal football library.
“I had a sheet that I had been looking for for the last 18 months,” Mason said. “Lo and behold, about two weeks ago, it popped up. I found it in my library of football books.”
What he found was a detailed list of game situations and what he should do in each of them. According to his timeline, he had it when he accepted the job at Vanderbilt last January (or shortly thereafter). He was without it, though, when the Commodores went 3-9 and failed to win an SEC game for the first time in five years.
“I had already gone through that list and really remembered a couple of items on there that needed to be checked off,” Mason said. “Now, I feel really good about what we’re doing and where we’re at.”
He noted that the ‘gameday checklist’ he has produced for this season includes 65 items “and it covers everything I need to know.”
“I’m never going to go into a game unprepared for the situation at hand,” Mason said. “Some things come up, but with that I’ve got to be charged with making good decisions and making sure our football team goes forward.”
(Photo: Joe Howell/Vanderbilt athletics)
It’s anything but a case of don’t ask, don’t tell.
The question of who will be Vanderbilt’s starting quarterback in 2015 has been asked repeatedly since Patton Robinette announced in March that he decided to give up the game to focus on academics.
Derek Mason said Thursday he has made his choice – and he has told.
During his first radio show of the season the second-year coach said his team knows who will be under center next Thursday when the Commodores open the season at home against Western Kentucky (7 p.m., SEC Network). Everyone else will find out when the game is played.
“The team knows who the starter is and … we’re not splitting reps or sharing reps,” Mason said during Commodore Call-In on WLAC-AM 1510. “There’s a starter and there’s a backup. We’re actually preparing that way. We’ve got seven days until game time and right now the reps are efficient. Guys are playing well. Everybody understands their role.”
It was a choice between sophomores Wade Freebeck and Johnny McCrary, who combined to start nine of Vanderbilt’s final 10 games last season. Neither had much success.
Freebeck started in victories over Massachusetts and Charleston Southern but did not finish either contest. Robinette replaced him against UMass and played most of the game.
Likewise, McCrary did most of the work against Charleston Southern. After that he started the final five games, including a victory over Old Dominion.
Freebeck completed 47.2 percent of his passes with one touchdown and five interceptions. McCrary completed 51.3 percent of his throws with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions.
“The quarterback position is probably the most improved – as it should be,” Mason said. “We needed that position to be better.
“… We have a starter and we do have a backup. And I feel good about both of those guys and what they’re going to do for us.”
He’s just not going to say which is which.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Vanderbilt had a hard time last season figuring out how best to use Caleb Azubike and Darrius Sims.
Each played multiple positions throughout the course of the 2014 season, one in which the Commmodores went 3-9 overall and failed to win a conference game.
Tuesday, the rest of the SEC coaches made it clear where they think those two players do well. Both were named to the preseason coaches All-SEC third team.
Azubike (pictured), who switched between defensive end and linebacker last year, was chosen as a defensive end, which is where second-year coach Derek Mason has said he will remain this fall. The senior out of McGavock had a career-high with 39 tackles and tied his personal best with four sacks.
Sims, who played offense, defense and special teams, was selected as a return specialist. He tied an NCAA record when he returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in a single game last fall. He averaged 24.5 yards per return for the season. Coaches have said he will be a running back/wide receiver this season who will continue to have a big role on special teams.
This is the 13th year SEC coaches have voted on preseason all-conference teams. They were not allowed to vote for players from their own programs.
PRESEASON COACHES ALL-SEC TEAMS
QB: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
RB: Nick Chubb, Georgia
RB: Leonard Fournette, LSU
WR: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina
WR: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
TE: Evan Engram, Ole Miss
OL: Cam Robinson, Alabama
OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
OL: Vadal Alexander, LSU
OL: John Theus, Georgia
C: Mike Matthews, Texas A&M
AP: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina
QB: Maty Mauk, Missouri
RB: Derrick Henry, Alabama
RB: Alex Collins, Arkansas
WR: D'haquille Williams, Auburn
WR: Malcolm Mitchell, Georgia
TE: Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Germain Ifedi, Texas A&M
OL: Dan Skipper, Arkansas
OL: Denver Kirkland, Arkansas
OL: Greg Pyke, Georgia
C: Ryan Kelly, Alabama
AP: Leonard Fournette, LSU
QB: Jeremy Johnson, Auburn *
QB: Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee *
RB: Jonathan Williams, Arkansas
RB: Russell Hansbrough, Missouri
RB: Kelvin Taylor, Florida
WR: Demarcus Robinson, Florida *
WR: Travin Dural, LSU *
WR: Josh Reynolds, Texas A&M *
TE: O.J. Howard, Alabama
OL: Sebastian Tretola, Arkansas
OL: Alex Kozan, Auburn
OL: Devonte Dazney, Auburn
OL: Brandon Shell, South Carolina *
OL: Jordan Swindle, Kentucky *
C: Evan Boehm, Missouri
AP: Speedy Noil, Texas A&M
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
DL: Myles Garrett, Texas A&M
DL: Chris Jones, Mississippi State
LB: Reggie Ragland, Alabama
LB: Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
LB: Curt Maggitt, Tennessee
DB: Vernon Hargreaves, Florida
DB: Cyrus Jones, Alabama
DB: Jonathan Jones, Auburn
DB: Jalen Mills, LSU
DL: Jonathan Bullard, Florida
DL: Derek Barnett, Tennessee
DL: Jonathan Allen, Alabama
DL: Montravius Adams, Auburn
LB: Kendell Beckwith, LSU
LB: Antonio Morrison, Florida
LB: Kentrell Brothers, Missouri
DB: Tony Conner, Ole Miss (117)
DB: Cameron Sutton, Tennessee
DB: Will Redmond, Mississippi State
DB: Tre'Davious White, LSU
DB: Tony Conner, Ole Miss
DL: Carl Lawson, Auburn
DL: Davon Godchaux, LSU
DL: Caleb Azubike, Vanderbilt
DL: Ryan Brown, Mississippi State
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB: Cassanova McKinzy, Auburn
LB: Lorenzo Carter, Georgia
DB: A.J. Stamps, Kentucky
DB: Eddie Jackson, Alabama
DB: Rohan Gaines, Arkansas
DB: Johnathan Ford, Auburn
DB: Trae Elston, Ole Miss
P: JK Scott, Alabama
PK: Marshall Morgan, Georgia
RS: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina
P: Jamie Keehn, LSU
PK: Austin MacGinnis, Kentucky
RS: Leonard Fournette, LSU *
RS: Isaiah McKenzie, Georgia *
P: Drew Kaser, Texas A&M
PK: Elliott Fry, South Carolina
RS: Darrius Sims, Vanderbilt
RS: Speedy Noil, Texas A&M
(Photo: Getty Images)
For the second time in a little more than a week, one of Vanderbilt’s best players on offense sustained a season-ending injury.
Starting left tackle Andrew Jelks hurt a knee during Wednesday night’s workout on the team’s indoor practice facility. Thursday morning coach Derek Mason announced the Jelks would miss the entire season, which kicks off in two weeks.
“I’m really disappointed for Andrew because he’s such a fine young man,” Mason said in a release from the athletics department. “Andrew was having an excellent camp and was looking forward to having a big year. He’s a tremendous talent who commands respect throughout the locker room. Andrew’s a dedicated, hard worker and I know he will come back even stronger.”
Jelks (6-foot-6, 307 pounds), out of Henry County High School, redshirted in 2012, which means 2016 will be his final season of eligibility unless he petitions the NCAA for a sixth season of eligibility. He started 22 games the last two years, including all 12 at left tackle last fall. He was an SEC All-Freshman selection in 2013.
According to the preseason depth chart, the top four backup tackles include redshirt-freshman Bailey Granier, junior college sophomore Egidio DellaRippa and true freshmen Justin Skule and Jared Southers – none of them have any game experience with the Commodores.
“It’s time for others to step up and claim a more substantial role in the success of our offense,” Mason said. “We definitely have players on our roster that can fill the void left by Andrew’s departure.”
Early last week, wide receiver C.J. Duncan, the Commodores’ second leading receiver in 2014, was the first to sustain a season-ending injury.
(Photo: Vanderbilt athletics)
There are two obvious ways for Vanderbilt fans to look at the fact that a starting quarterback has not yet been named for the season opener, which is now just over two weeks away.
Either no one has done enough to distinguish himself at this point, which would be bad. Or the coaches plan to take as much time as possible so that they’re certain of their choice, which would be good given what happened last year with the position.
Here’s a third option. Maybe Derek Mason and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig are just waiting for what they think is the right time.
A year ago, it was one week before the opener that Mason named Patton Robinette the starter, and it sounds like the second-year coach is working on a similar timetable this time.
“By game week we’ll have a guy,” Mason said. “That guy will take the reps in practice and you’ll see who we trot out there on game day.”
The competition, of course, consists of two players, third-year sophomore Johnny McCrary and true sophomore Wade Freebeck (pictured). Freshman Kyle Shurmer is not completely out of it but the preference is to go with someone who has some experience.
• Mason on McCrary: “I think Johnny is doing a terrific job of just making sure he’s going through his reads. When there’s nothing there he uses his legs. He finds ways to extend plays.”
• Mason on Freebeck: “Wade is doing a better job looking off the defense when he needs to and delivering the ball.”
Ludwig called the competition “a day-to-day thing.”
“We’re making progress every day,” he said. “The one thing I’ll tell you is I’m very proud of the way they’re working and they’re improving and they’re competing every day. The best man’s going to win the position and I’m excited to watch him play two weeks from Thursday.”
The fan base will be glad to hear him name the winner – likely a week from Thursday.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Vanderbilt’s most productive wide receiver in 2014 will miss all of the 2015 season.
C.J. Duncan sustained a leg injury late in Tuesday afternoon’s practice, the day’s second workout, coach Derek Mason announced Wednesday. Mason said the coaches do not expect to have the 5-foot-11, 200-pound sophomore available this fall.
“I know C.J. is disappointed with the injury, and we share his disappointment,” Mason said in a statement from the athletics department. “He’s one of our most versatile and proven offensive performers, but even more than that, C.J. is very much a team-oriented player. As he recuperates, C.J. will be an encouraging and helpful presence to the receiving corps.
“We have several talented receivers on the roster with the ability to contribute more significantly to our offense. We expect them to step up to this challenge.”
Duncan had 28 receptions for 441 yards and four touchdowns last season as a redshirt freshman. He tied tight end Steven Scheu for the team lead in touchdown receptions. Only Scheu had more catches and receiving yards.
First-year offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig planned to use Duncan in a variety of ways.
A quarterback during his high school days in Montgomery, Ala., Duncan had a team-high nine rushing attempts (for 25 yards) in this year’s Black and Gold game that concluded spring workouts.
“C.J. … will be featured predominately at wideout,” Ludwig said last week on the eve of preseason camp. “But you can see some situations where you come out in a three-wide receiver set and C.J. lines up in the backfield as a tailback.”
Now they won’t see him anywhere.
(Photo: Getty Images)
POSTDATA: WARRANTY DEEDS