Many were using it as a talking point long before it could actually be seen, the notion of improvement with Vanderbilt football. Now we can see it very clearly and it lies in the results. Vanderbilt defeated Kentucky 21-17 to earn their second SEC victory of the season, their fourth overall. While 4-6, 2-4 in the league is not near the goal, it does show proof of the notion of improvement.
In fact, few teams in the country have improved as much as Vandy has from the beginning of the season up until now. The defense is a premiere unit and the offense has grown by leaps and bounds. The move to freshman Kyle Shurmur at quarterback was clearly the right one and it is bearing fruit, with Coach Derek Mason showing a commitment to him. There are certainly growing pains. A stellar first half was followed by an uneven second. But the offensive line is coming together, and Ralph Webb is a top shelf SEC running back.
But it is the defense that keys it all, with another defensive score on Saturday. SEC Defensive Player of the Week Oren Burks, with a second quarter pick six, had one of two interceptions on the day. Kentucky has their own problems—another team losing their way at quarterback. Time has proven over and over you must commit fully to one. Going back and forth ruins an offense and brings a team down. Vandy had been guilty of that for over a season and a half. Now it is Kentucky switching between longtime starter Patrick Towles and shiny freshman Drew Barker. It was Barker who tossed the ill-fated pass Burks scored on.
It was a bit of a slow start for the Commodores, with Kentucky taking the opening kickoff and driving for a field goal. But it took them 14 plays to go the 39 yards which led to the 38-yard kick. A first possession three-and-out by the Vanderbilt offense, then a second possession rare fumble by Webb put Kentucky at the Commodore 39. Stanley ‘Boom’ Williams then sprinted down the near sideline for 38 to put the ‘Cats in business. Derek Mason called timeout to settle nerves, and the defense took charge.
Williams rushed for no gain on first down, with the tandem of Burks and Stephen Weatherly making the stop. Towles passed incomplete on second down on a play which fooled no one. On third down, Williams was stuffed again by Torey Agee and Landon Stokes. Towles went with a sneak on fourth. Weatherly and Darreon Herring kept him out. It was the key sequence in the game. Kentucky’s fragile confidence was shattered, and Vanderbilt was emboldened.
While Vandy failed to score on their ensuing possession, they flipped the field. When Caleb Azubike forced a Williams fumble, Jay Woods recovered at the UK 4. Shurmur connected with Kyle Anderson on the very next play to put Vandy up 7-3. The defense was the catalyst. In the second quarter, Barker did spark the Wildcats offense at first, driving them to a touchdown—but it was Barker’s second drive where Burks intervened with his touchdown to put Vanderbilt ahead for good at 14-10. Shurmur later connected with Caleb Scott on a 37-yard score, a legal trick play Kentucky protested. Though that was all for the scoring for VU, the defense made it stand up.
Next is Texas A&M at home Saturday night, and then the trip to Knoxville. Vandy still has a miracle’s chance at a bowl, with the defense being the reason why.