Rounding out a trio of home matchups that begins the Notre Dame football schedule, the Irish welcome the Vanderbilt Commodores on September 15. The two teams have only met twice before, doing battle in home-and-home contests in both 1995 and 1996. Both games resulted in Notre Dame victories during the final two years of the Lou Holtz era.
The Commodores have the misfortune of being part of the lower rung of the potent SEC. That explains why their 5-7 record in 2017 can be broken down in this fashion: 4-0 in non-conference matchups and 1-7 within the conference. The slide began with a 59-0 battering from Alabama, with Derek Mason hoping that his fifth year in Nashville doesn’t take a similar dip this season.
Vanderbilt Offense: Going Through the Air
One position that Mason shouldn’t have to worry about is quarterback, where Kyle Shurmur is set to begin his third season behind center. Last year, the son of the New York Giants head coach put up passing totals that hadn’t been seen since the final year of the Jay Cutler era in 2005. He was also more circumspect with his passing by putting to an end a frustrating streak of four seasons with fewer touchdown passes than interceptions.
Last year’s excitement over the return of Ralph Webb at running back didn’t quite live up to expectations. Now that he’s gone, expectations are high for hometown product Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who had an impressive freshman year with Illinois back in 2015 before eventually transferring. The reality is that now much else is in the cupboard for the Commodores in this area.
The main target for Shurmur will be Kalija Lipscomb, who grabbed 37 passes last year on 610 yards and scored eight times. If Mason and his coaches on the offensive side can figure out how to better integrate tight end Jared Pinkney into the offense, they can tap into his potential that thus far has only managed to account for 44 catches over the past two years.
The good news for the Vanderbilt offensive line is that all five 2017 starters are back, though they were more adept protecting Shurmur than opening up holes for the running backs. Evening up that equation may help the Commodores avoid getting shut out when bowl teams are selected.
Vanderbilt Defense: The Need to Improve
Entry into SEC play last year exposed a unit that had been ranked at the top in total and scoring defense during the Commodores’ 3-0 start. That collapse led to a change in defensive coordinators, with Jason Tarver now tackling this thorny problem. The lack of bulk on the line has changed for the better, but the talent level is open to question.
The linebacking corps is led by Charles Wright, who serves as the team’s top pass rushing threat. Last year, he finished with nine sacks, an impressive number for a first-year starter. Building on that and tapping into the talent of John Smith will boost the overall linebacker production.
In the secondary, cornerback Joejuan Williams is the standout in this department. One player here that can hopefully build on his 2017 effort is safety LaDarius Wiley, who led the team in tackles, though its a bad sign when a member of the secondary leads that particular category.
Vanderbilt Special Teams: New All Around
All bets are off when it comes to the Vandy kicking game, with either a walk-on or freshman set to take over. Those two players, respectively are Ryley Guay and Javan Rice, with the hope being that they build on a good start. The punter has experience, just not with Vanderbilt. That would be Parker Thorne, a graduate transfer.
The Last Time Notre Dame Played Vanderbilt
That 1996 matchup opened up that year’s Notre Dame football schedule season on the road, with the Irish escaping with a 14-7 win. Four Notre Dame turnovers on fumbles allowed Vanderbilt to hold a 7-6 lead midway through the fourth quarter before fullback Marc Edwards plunged in for the winning score with 4:59 left. Bob Davie’s defense held the Commodores to just two net yards rushing and five first downs.