Photo by Ziyi Liu/Vanderbilt Hustler
Middle Tennessee and Vanderbilt square off Saturday night in Nashville in the first true road test for the Blue Raiders this season. Both are coming off different results to start 2016, with the Blue Raiders opening the season strong at home while the Commodores fell to South Carolina late in their contest last week.
The Vanderbilt Hustler is the student newspaper for the university, and Sports Editor Robbie Weinstein spoke with Sidelines about Middle’s opponent this weekend. You can find Sports Editor Connor Ulrey’s answers to the Hustler’s questions here.
Sidelines: A tough loss to South Carolina to open the season in a game where the Commodores led for most of the game. What’s the teams’ mindset heading into this week?
Weinstein: Vandy has given the typical “PR” responses you would expect after any crushing loss, as the ‘Dores say they’ve moved on to this weekend’s game and still have confidence in themselves. I can’t speak to what, if anything, is going on in the locker room, but I expect that they’ll probably be fine mentally and in terms of confidence if they can get off to a good start. If the team starts slowly on Saturday, it’s anyone’s guess as to how the players will respond.
Sidelines: Only 73 yards passing last week for Vandy. How’s the quarterback situation playing out currently? Is Shurmur their man and how are the Dores looking to improve upon that this weekend?
Weinstein: It’s complicated: The coaching staff says Shurmur is the starting quarterback and backup Wade Freebeck will move forward with a situational role, specifically as a more mobile option. Freebeck isn’t known as a dual-threat quarterback himself, so on the surface, the move doesn’t make much sense. Although head coach Derek Mason named Shurmur the starter months ago, Freebeck pushed him into preseason camp; it makes sense that Freebeck’s strong form in practices is contributing to the split in playing time, as practices have been closed to the media since early-ish August. There’s no public evidence that Freebeck is better than Shurmur, so presumably the coaching staff liked what it saw from the backup during closed practices.
Sidelines: Like you said, there are lots of returners on defense for Vanderbilt, but also some returners on offense. Who from last year’s game still looks to make an impact for you guys?
Weinstein: Ralph Webb is the obvious choice here, as he’ll still get his 20-plus carries. I’d be surprised if starting wide receiver Trent Sherfield repeats his 6-catch, 63-yard performance from last year’s game, but he’ll probably provide some production. Sherfield is off to a slow start, however, as South Carolina’s secondary held him to zero catches last week.
Sidelines: A field goal and a touchdown in the first three drives against South Carolina but then seven straight punts, a missed field goal and the turnover on downs late. What has coach Mason said about the inability to move the ball after getting the lead and how do you think they plan to correct that this week?
Weinstein: As I’d expect from just about any college football coach out there, Mason said very little of substance about the lack of offensive production from last week. After the loss, he did attribute it to a lack of execution rather than poor play-calling, but there was a lot of coach-speak. VU hasn’t given many indications as to what adjustments it might make, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the coaches mostly roll with the same plan of attack with confidence that it will work against a (possibly) weaker defense.
Sidelines: Score prediction for Saturday’s game?
Weinstein: I guess I’ll take Vanderbilt, 20-14. This is mostly going off of last year’s result and the change of venue, as it’s hard for me to take anything from MTSU’s first win.
Kickoff between Middle Tennessee and Vanderbilt is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Vanderbilt Stadium.