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Vanderbilt Welcomes Golden Opportunity

By Matt Smith
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If this season is to be different than last for the Commodores, both Saturday’s performance and the team’s reaction to the performance, good or bad, must also be different.

After a 2017 season that saw Vanderbilt win just one conference game, the Commodores’ impressive start to the 2018 season has turned very few heads. Why has Derek Mason’s team’s 2-0 start, with wins over Middle Tennessee and Nevada by a combined 58 points, not garnered more attention?

The reason for the skepticism likely goes back a year, when Vanderbilt got off to a 3-0 start, allowing just 13 total points. CBS came to town the following week to air the Commodores’ clash with Alabama, and excitement was high around Nashville for the first time in Mason’s tenure.

A 59-0 Crimson Tide victory later, and that excitement was gone. The Commodores dropped their next six SEC games as well before finishing on a high note with a win at Tennessee.

This season, Vanderbilt hopes it is better prepared for a stern September test. The Commodores make just their second trip to South Bend on Saturday afternoon (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC), to face No. 8 Notre Dame. They won’t face quite the same talent gap they did a year ago against Alabama, but upsetting the Fighting Irish is nevertheless a very tall task.

“Anytime you play a top-10 team, they’re what you see in the SEC,” Mason said Tuesday. “The caliber of skill players, what you see up front is a physical unit on both sides of the ball. They beat themselves. They play well on special teams. They’re well-coached.”

Despite closing in on 30 years since its last national title, Notre Dame still holds a unique place in the lore of college football. Mason, who coached two games in Notre Dame Stadium as an assistant at Stanford, hopes to quickly address to mystique of playing in the land of the golden dome and Touchdown Jesus, and then move on to business at hand.

“Get it out of the way and play ball on Saturday,” Mason said. “It’s a great place to play. College football at its best. A lot of history and intrigue in this ballgame.”

The teams have met just twice in their history, with the Irish sweeping a home-and-home series in 1995 and 1996. There will not be a return game in Nashville after Saturday’s meeting, and no future games between the two teams are scheduled.

As for the game itself, Notre Dame will be facing a quarterback who has played in the SEC for the second time already this season. Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson, now at Michigan, finished 20-of-30 for 227 yards and an interception in the Wolverines’ 24-17 loss to the Irish two weeks ago. Vanderbilt’s Kyle Shurmur will make his 33rd consecutive start on Saturday afternoon. He is turnover-free through two games, completing 67 percent of his passes and throwing four touchdowns.

Notre Dame’s defense is allowing just 3.95 yards per play, good for No. 13 nationally. Shurmur will have to rely on a veteran offensive line to handle a stout Notre Dame pass rush and on tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn. The Illinois transfer is averaging 6.5 yards per carry through two games, scoring a pair of touchdowns last Saturday against Nevada.

Defensively, it was at this time a year ago when the spiral downward began, as the Commodores went from looking like one of the best defenses in the country to allowing the most points per game in SEC play in conference history. Last week’s long-awaited emergence of senior linebacker Josh Smith was a major plus, as the middle Tennessee native recorded 10 tackles, including three behind the line of scrimmage, against Nevada.

Notre Dame protected quarterback Brandon Wimbush in last week’s ugly victory over Ball State, but expect the dual-threat standout to use his legs much more this week. Mason’s Stanford defenses were known for containing mobile quarterbacks such as Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, but he hasn’t had quite the same magic at Vanderbilt. Forcing Wimbush, an inconsistent passer, to throw against the Irish’s should be a recipe for success.

With all Notre Dame home games airing on NBC, Vanderbilt will be playing just its fourth regular-season game this decade on a broadcast network. The previous three were last year’s home defeat to No. 1 Alabama, an upset win over No. 15 Georgia in Nashville in 2013, and a home loss to the Bulldogs in 2015. The extra eyeballs on Saturday may add to the pressure, but also to the opportunity available.

If this season is to be different than last for the Commodores, both Saturday’s performance and the team’s reaction to the performance, good or bad, must also be different. Even a respectable showing in defeat would give this team the confidence it needs against a schedule that looks far less daunting than it did a week ago after South Carolina and Florida both suffered double-digit losses. They never recovered from the Alabama game a year ago, and even if things don’t go as expected this week, it can’t let another disappointing performance linger.

Vanderbilt couldn’t ask for a better opportunity and a bigger stage.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.