We all know what happened last weekend.
A mix of poor performance by the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the Ball State Cardinals executing well on their game plan, and ND probably not taking their opponent seriously all culminated in a horrifically ugly 24-16 win for the #8 team in the country.
Now that we know every opponent needs to be taken seriously, it’s time to wipe last week’s game from our memories and prepare for an SEC foe — albeit a team that is consistently at the bottom of the SEC — but an SEC foe nonetheless.
The Vanderbilt Commodores come into this one with a 2-0 record, outscoring the Nevada Wolf Pack and Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders 76-17 so far this season. With some momentum and confidence and nothing to lose on the road against the #8 team in the country, Vandy is going to come into this one and look to give the Irish an even better game than that team from Muncie that we are no longer going to talk about.
So, because we as fans need to prepare ourselves for each opponent as if we were on the team, I spoke to Tom Stephenson over at SB Nation’s Vanderbilt site, Anchor of Gold. Tom gave us some fantastic detail on the Commodores’ balanced offense, who to watch on their defense, which Irish players he’s scared of, and a look into how a leprechaun and commodore would fare in hand-to-hand combat.
I also spoke to my Official Panel of College Football Fans (AKA my friends I talk to in a GroupMe chat) to gather their insight going into this matchup, so be sure to look out for that nonsense below.
Let’s do this!
1. So far this season Vandy is 2-0 and has outscored its opponents 76-17. Granted that those opponents were MTSU and Nevada, what can you glean from those first two games, and how do you think the rest of Vandy’s season will play out? What’s this team’s ceiling?
It wasn’t so much that Vanderbilt won both games, it’s that they completely dominated.
There was a time within my memory that Vanderbilt would have struggled to put away teams like that (and maybe even lost) because the team wasn’t very deep by SEC standards, but Derek Mason seems to have done an excellent job of developing the depth chart.
I think the ceiling is a bit higher than I thought a couple of weeks ago — entering the season, I thought the ceiling was that this might be a bowl team, but now it’s not completely crazy to think this is the second-best team in the SEC East (behind Georgia.) That’s in part because the rest of the division still looks kind of trashy, but this is legitimately a better team than I thought going into the season.
2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of Vanderbilt QB Kyle Shurmur, and how do you think he will perform against a good, but certainly not perfect, Notre Dame defense? Who are his best weapons at receiver/tight end that the Irish need to really focus on in coverage?
Kyle Shurmur, the son of New York Giants head coach Pat Shurmur, embodies all of your stereotypes of a coach’s son (Student of the game! Makes good reads! Gamer!).
His main weakness is that he’s about as fast as you or me, and his arm strength is merely adequate. That’s fine, though, because he’ll probably still be a mid-round pick in the NFL draft because bloodlines.
Shurmur’s two favorite targets are wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb and tight end Jared Pinkney and then... things really tail off after that. There are a couple of true freshmen in the receiving corps (specifically, Cam Johnson, who was a rare four-star recruit at Vanderbilt) who may break out at some point, but Lipscomb and Pinkney have been heavily featured in the passing game so far this season.
3. How’s the Commodores’ running game looking this season with guys like Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Jamauri Wakefield, and Khari Blasingame in the backfield, and how do you think it will hold up against the ND front seven?
We thought going into the season that Vaughn would be the featured back, but it’s really turned into a three-headed monster with each having their strengths and weaknesses — Vaughn is a home-run threat who could be an every-down back if Vanderbilt needed him to be; Blasingame runs... about like you would expect a converted linebacker to run; and Wakefield if anything is a combination of the two.
This will be an excellent test for Vanderbilt’s offensive line, which returned all five starters from a year ago and has managed to help improve the running game even with Ralph Webb graduated (Before you ask about the competition, it was apparent last year against MTSU that Vanderbilt was going to struggle to run the ball, and that hasn’t been the case through two games this season).
4. The Vanderbilt defense has done its job so far in stifling the offenses of bad opponents - do you think that unit will continue to play that well against an offense with more talent, but also its fair share of major struggles, like Notre Dame’s? Who are the big playmakers on that side of the ball for Vandy?
Well... I don’t really want to answer this question because last year, Vanderbilt’s defense smothered its first three opponents, then got into SEC play and set an SEC record for most points allowed in conference play. That’s the one real question mark that I have about the team — we saw this early on last year, too, and we saw how that turned out.
There are some playmakers in the front seven, but by SEC standards they’re a bit undersized. At the very least, sophomore defensive end Dayo Odeyingbo is SEC-sized and already has a defensive touchdown this season, and linebacker Charles Wright should have been on the All-SEC team last year. Linebacker Kenny Hebert has been a revelation early this season. Oh, and I don’t recommend throwing in the direction of cornerback Joejuan Williams.
5. Give me one X-factor each on offense, defense, and special teams for Vanderbilt. What players’ performances are absolutely crucial to the Commodores having a chance to pull off the upset?
Vanderbilt will have a chance to win this game if Kyle Shurmur has time to throw. Senior left tackle Justin Skule is quietly one of the SEC’s best in pass protection, but right tackle Devin Cochran was a bit raw as a freshman last year. Cochran will be tested by Notre Dame’s front seven, and this will be a good chance to see how much he’s improved.
On defense, running quarterbacks have often presented problems for Vanderbilt in the past. Sophomore safety Zaire Jones is back after missing the first two games due to a suspension, and if he’s ready to play, he and senior LaDarius Wiley will probably have the task of trying to contain Brandon Wimbush.
Junior walk-on Ryley Guay took over placekicking duties this season and went 2-of-3 on field goals last week, with the miss being from 48 yards. He’s got a booming leg and could be a factor in a close game.
6. Which ND players scare you the most in this one?
Brandon Wimbush scares me because running quarterbacks always seem to be the kryptonite of the Vanderbilt defense. Honestly, I like the matchup if Brian Kelly decides to get pass-happy with his playcalling, but if Wimbush is allowed to run it could be a long day for the defense.
WE INTERRUPT THIS VERY GOOD Q&A FOR SOMETHING INCREDIBLY STUPID: TIME FOR A WORD FROM PAT’S PERSONAL PANEL OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL FANS, AKA SOME BUDDIES OF HIS
Pat: Hey I’m gonna need some solid Vanderbilt content from you guys for my Q&A article. So whenever you wanna, please send me your thoughts.
Hux: I got you. Let me sleep on it. Needs to be a lot of Jay Cutty.
(the next day)
Serglock Holmes: Make sure to include that I’ll be referring to them as “Vanderbutt” this week
Hux: You should really get John Bryant in on this. Didn’t his sister and brother-in-law go to med school there? And I think they were on some Vandy med school reality show
Hux: Vanderbilt MDs...LMAO
Pat: Any other thoughts on Vandy besides that I should watch that show about doctors?
Prison Mike: As much J Cutty content as can fit on the page
Hux: Don’t ever refer to them as “Vanderbilt,” only use Jay Cutler University
Hux: There’s just nothing sexy about Vanderbilt football except for Jay Cutty and the Nashville chicks
NOW I WILL BRIEFLY APPEASE PRISON MIKE’S REQUEST FOR J CUTTY CONTENT, ALTHOUGH I GOTTA SAVE SOME FOR MY FRIDAY GAME PREVIEW SO PLEASE BE WARNED THAT THIS IS NOT GOING TO COMPLETELY SUFFICE:
7. Notre Dame has a freshman running back named C’Borius Flemister. What are the best names on the Vanderbilt roster, and do any of them top my guy C’Bo?
This being Vanderbilt, there aren’t too many great names — but we do have brothers Dare and Dayo Odeyingbo (that’s pronounced “o-DANG-bo”) on the defensive line, and there’s also true freshman safety Max Worship, which sounds like the fake name Tim Tebow uses to check into hotel rooms. I don’t think any of those come up to the level of C’Borius though.
8. Karaoke contest between Brian Kelly and Derek Mason -- what song(s) does each coach sing, comment in detail on each coach’s stage presence, charisma, ability to control the crowd, etc., and tell me who ultimately wins.
Do you really want to do this? Derek Mason used to be a DJ. I don’t know enough about Brian Kelly to comment on him, but this is going to be no contest. He’ll sing “Love Rollercoaster” and bring the house down.
9. You’ve been tasked with taking the One Ring to Mordor to destroy it and save Middle Earth from darkness...which 8 Vanderbilt players do you choose to accompany you as your Fellowship of the Ring?
I don’t understand the question. I’ll send somebody else from Anchor of Gold who knows what this question means to answer it in the comments section.*
*Editor’s Note: Someone please help the man out in the comments
10. If a Commodore and a Leprechaun are competing in the below events, please tell me who wins each one:
Boxing Match: Commodore
Street Fight: Leprechaun
Foot Race: Commodore
Game of Connect Four: Commodore
Beer Chug: Leprechaun
Hotdog Eating Contest: Leprechaun
One-on-One Basketball Game: Commodore
11. Anything else ND fans should know about Vandy’s team, program, fans, traditions, etc.?
We used to be good at football, we swear! In like 1922! Tennessee hired Bob Neyland specifically because they were tired of losing to Vanderbilt!
12. Prediction time — give me a score, who wins, and how/why you think that result will come about
I don’t think this will be a blowout. Vanderbilt’s offense is run-first, and I think Notre Dame’s front seven will do enough to slow down the running game and force Kyle Shurmur to beat them with his arm — which he can do, but it’s definitely not Plan A.
Vanderbilt will get in enough blows to keep this interesting for three quarters, but eventually Notre Dame will make enough big plays to put Vanderbilt away.
Final score: Notre Dame 31, Vanderbilt 21.
I want to give a big-time shout out to Tom for answering all of my questions so thoroughly and thoughtfully (except for the Lord of the Rings one). For any and all Vanderbilt updates heading into the game, please be sure to check out the Anchor of Gold site (especially for my answers to their Q&A, coming soon), as well as their Twitter @AnchorOfGold.
Furthermore, please give Tom a follow on Twitter for even more coverage and knowledge heading into Saturday’s game. He can be found at the Twitter handle @tcstephenson1.
Finally, a special thanks goes out to my friends Hux, Serglock Holmes, and Prison Mike, who, per usual, delivered incredibly useful and wise content for this game. Our College Football Fan Panel is truly an asset to us all.
See you in my Game Preview on Friday — Go Irish!