Flop in the Bayou: Vandy crushed in Independence Bowl

Vanderbilt on offense in 3rd quarter of Independence Bowl. (photo: Amanda Ledbetter)

Vanderbilt on offense in 3rd quarter of Independence Bowl. (photo: Amanda Ledbetter)

SHREVEPORT, La.–It was a case of everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Vanderbilt Commodores as they closed out the 2016 season with a disappointing 41-17 loss to the North Carolina State Wolfpack in the Camping World Independence Bowl.

It was a struggle from the get-go on a gray Monday afternoon the day after Christmas. From the start of the game, every pass Kyle Shurmur threw was just a little off. Every decision was just a little slow. Every protection was just a little late. Every defensive call was just a little wrong. Every tackle was just a little weak. Every coaching adjustment was just a little misjudged. All of these little things quickly added up to a big loss for Vanderbilt. It was definitely just one of those days.

Off his magnificent closing two games, Shurmur’s 19-for-46 performance in this game was shocking to say the least. He rarely had time to throw, but he rarely stood strong in the pocket either. It was a disastrous regression by Shurmur who must regroup in the offseason. The truth is in the middle for sure, not as great as against Ole Miss and Tennessee, but not as awful as in this game. Ralph Webb did all he could going for 111 on 21 carries, but it was not nearly enough.

Vandy managed barely more than half what they earned against UT, only 314 total yards. N.C. State stopped themselves early either through poor execution or poor play calling, and Vandy did lead 3-0 after one. But then the roof caved in. Tommy Openshaw missed a 28-yard FG attempt in the second quarter that would have gotten them within 7-6, and the avalanche ensued. Sandwiched around halftime the ‘Pack ran off 28 straight, and the ‘Dores were finished.

As with their season, Vanderbilt did not quit, battling back with two second half touchdown runs from Webb and Khari Blasingame to give the good crowd of Black-and-Gold faithful who made the trip some hope, as it was a 28-17 game with 10:37 still to play. But that hope died after another 16 seconds, and a 102-yard untouched sprint to the end zone by State’s Nyheim Hines on the ensuing kickoff. The rest of the game was a mere formality, a punctuation mark given by State’s Niles Clark with a final play pick-six for the closing margin.

Still it has to be considered a successful season for Vanderbilt. An opening night disappointment on a fluke field goal by South Carolina turned into a rousing three-phase blowout of Middle Tennessee the following week. A pitiful effort at Georgia Tech turned into a stirring late comeback and victory at Western Kentucky. October rolled around with consecutive one-score defeats to Florida and Kentucky leading to lessons in an upset win at Georgia and an exciting win over TSU. November delivered a heartbreaking loss at Auburn and a mistake filled defeat at Missouri, but closed as few in Vanderbilt history ever had.

Vanderbilt football in 2016 was about resilience, about youth, about growth—and it signals a bright future. As shattering a loss as this Independence Bowl was, it does not steal the shine off this season. No one could have imagined wins over Georgia, Ole Miss and Tennessee at Media Days’ time. A bowl game signals a success, as only seven teams before this one had ever achieved that. The 2017 season should be even better. It starts September 2 in Murfreesboro against Middle Tennessee. Another bowl should be on the horizon.