The Vanderbilt Commodores had lost five consecutive season openers entering Saturday night’s game against the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders. It quickly became clear that the drought was about to end.
Junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur threw for 296 yards on 20-of-28 passing and three touchdowns, and the Commodores’ defense held Middle Tennessee to just 215 yards of total offense in a surprisingly easy 28-6 win in Murfreesboro.
After struggling on the offensive side of the ball for much of 2016, Vanderbilt scored on its first three possessions of the season. Shurmur found Kalija Lipscomb for a 37-yard touchdown pass on the first drive of the game. After a Bryce Lewis interception gave Vanderbilt good field position at the MTSU 40, Shurmur hit Ralph Webb two plays later for a 30-yard pass; Webb then punched in a TD from one yard out to make it 14-0. Lipscomb found paydirt again in the second quarter on a four-yard pass from Shurmur; after halftime, Shurmur found Webb for a 73-yard touchdown pass on 3rd-and-3.
On the other side, MTSU’s offense, which averaged 39 ppg in 2016, was held out of the end zone for most of the game and only scored a late touchdown after the game was well out of reach. Vanderbilt’s Nifae Lealao blocked the PAT attempt, though, and linebacker Charles Wright sacked MTSU’s Brent Stockstill three times.
Here are three things we learned.
Vanderbilt’s passing game should prevent teams from loading the box
At least, in theory, but that didn’t really stop Middle Tennessee. Ralph Webb, the school’s all-time leading rusher, was kept in check most of the night, notching just 49 yards on 24 carries (though he did get 3 catches for 104 yards and a receiving TD.) But that was mostly because MTSU completely sold out to stop them; and unlike the last couple of years, Vanderbilt’s passing game was good enough to make them pay. Nine different players caught a pass for Vanderbilt, and the Commodores were an impressive 8-of-16 on third down.
The defense is still stout, too
There were some question marks heading into the season about how Vanderbilt’s defense would fare without Zach Cunningham, but after holding Middle Tennessee to six points, those seem to be unfounded. Derek Mason had earned the benefit of the doubt on the defensive side of the ball; this confirmed it. Vanderbilt’s front seven was in Brent Stockstill’s face all night, and Stockstill could never really get comfortable. What’s more, Middle got absolutely nothing going on the ground (though they more or less gave up on the ground game after getting in a big hole.) And, the Blue Raiders were 0-for-12 on third down, and 0-for-2 on fourth down.
This team won’t go quietly in the SEC East
Vanderbilt was a popular pick to finish sixth or seventh in the East in the preseason, and while there are still some questions — particularly on the offensive line — either the East is incredibly deep or this isn’t a team that will finish seventh in the East. While it’s probably not smart to overreact to a Week 1 win, this was still an impressive win over a decent Group of Five team. Vanderbilt should win at least a couple of SEC games this year and might make it back to a bowl game for the second year in a row.