Just a few days from the last non-conference game of the 2015 season, the Blue Raiders opened the week making their final preparations for Homecoming against in-state opponent Vanderbilt. Sidelines spoke with Vanderbilt’s publication, the “Vanderbilt Hustler” Tuesday to talk about the SEC foe.
Ben Weinreb, the Sports Editor for the Vanderbilt Hustler, spoke about this year’s Commodores.
Sidelines: How important has the defense been, holding all four opponents to their lowest outputs of the season?
Ben Weinreb: The biggest difference for the Commodores this season has definitely been the defense. Head coach Derek Mason took over playcalling in the last game of the season against Tennessee, and the defense has looked much improved since then. Vanderbilt is 17th in red zone defense, 34th in total defense, and 40th in scoring defense this season, up from 70th in total defense and 107th in scoring defense last season. The defense also forced its first turnovers last game, so they’re just now hitting full stride.
Sidelines: Ole Miss last week. How does the result, though a loss, help with the team’s confidence coming into this game?
BW: This is still a very young team led by mostly sophomores, so going into hostile enemy territory and only trailing the No. 3 team in the nation by 4 points for most of the fourth quarter is encouraging. Johnny McCrary didn’t throw an interception for the second straight game, which was encouraging, and Ralph Webb broke off the longest rush of his career. Vanderbilt didn’t come into the season with much expectations, but they’ve shown twice now that they can stay competitive against top-10 competition.
Sidelines: Who’s been the most impressive player thus far offensively and defensively?
BW: Offensively, the answer has to be Trent Sherfield. Coaches and teammates have been talking up the wide receiver for two years now, and he finally broke out this season when leading receiver C.J. Duncan went down with a lower leg injury. He’s currently second in the SEC in receiving yards after breaking the Commodores’ single-season receiving record of 240 yards against Austin Peay and leads the conference with 28 receptions. Defensively, Oren Burks has taken a big step up, picking off Chad Kelly last week in Oxford and leading the team in tackles (22), pass deflections (5), forced fumbles (1), and fumble recoveries (1).
Sidelines: What are the matchups that scare you the most this weekend?
BW: Vanderbilt will be facing yet another high-powered offense led by a strong quarterback in Brent Stockstill. They were able to hold Western Kentucky and Brandon Doughty to just 209 yards, and he’s now second in the nation in passing. Ideally, Vanderbilt would be able to force a turnover in the air, but they didn’t get their first pick until the fourth game of the season. Holding the aerial attack in check could go a long way for Vanderbilt.
Sidelines: Is McCrary a long-term option at QB, how has he progressed?
BW: I’m a big believer in McCrary. When he originally committed to Vanderbilt, he was the top-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the nation, and you can see flashes of it when he plays. He’s cut down on his mistakes as the season has progressed and his legs appear to be a legitimate weapon when, in the off-season, coaches said he was more fast than elusive. Fellow four-star recruit Kyle Shurmur could be effective down the road, but if McCrary keeps progressing – and eliminating dumb mistakes – the Commodores have a four-year starter in their hands.
Sidelines: X-factors and prediction?
BW: The Commodores looked poised in their first road game, and they will certainly have more support in a game played 45 minutes away from home in Murfreesboro. Western Kentucky’s offense was more powerful than the Blue Raiders’ is, and Vanderbilt held them to 14 points. Save for more red zone turnovers – or turnovers in general – the Commodores should be able to put at least 20 points on the board.
Sidelines: Prediction: Vanderbilt 24 MTSU 17