Blue and Gold Illustrated

Sept. 17, 2018

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 38 of 55 SEPT. 17, 2018 39 The mere fact that no return game on their home field is scheduled for a Power Five program tells you something. After Franklin left for Penn State, Vanderbilt hired 2012-13 Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason, whose success at a highly revered academic operation was expected to translate well to his new school. The bar set by Franklin was immense, but now in his fifth season Mason's pro- gram has faltered back to the mean after ledgers of 3-9, 4-8, 6-7 and 5-7 his first four campaigns. This year Vanderbilt was projected to finish last in the seven-team SEC East. Exacerbating it even more is that Mason was quoted in the Street & Smith's 2018 preview, "This group, for the first time, is made up only of guys I have recruited. This team is totally me." It often can be considered a red flag when any coach — particularly one likely on the hot seat — starts discussing the value of "his recruits" over what had been there previ- ously. It is generally a final vestige of desperation. ROLE REVERSAL Because of Mason's fine track re- cord on defense, it seems odd that in his fifth season in Nashville the Com- modores strength tilts much more to offense. Four starters return on a defense — including fifth-year senior outside linebacker Charles Wright, who re- corded a team-best nine sacks last fall — that in 2017 allowed 43.3 points per game during a 1-7 season in the SEC. Mason is relinquishing defensive play-calling duties to new coordi- nator Jason Tarver, who held that post at Stanford in 2011, the Oakland Raiders from 2012-14 and was senior defensive assistant for the San Fran- cisco 49ers from 2015-17. The entire starting offensive line returns for quarterback Kyle Shur- mur, whose 26 touchdown passes last season broke the school record that had been set way back in 1982. With a veteran line and quarter- back, the offense could keep the Commodores competitive, but the defense is laden with issues, despite Mason's background. Last year the Commodores came out of the non-conference gate with a 3-0 start, easily whipping Middle Tennessee (28-6) and Alabama A&M (42-0) while also posting a quality win at home versus Kansas State (14-7) … and then SEC reality set in. Conference play commenced with a 59-0 home loss to Alabama, and the defense also would get shattered in defeats against Georgia (45-14), Ole Miss (57-35), and so-so Kentucky (44-21) and Missouri (45-17), with the latter two also at home. The Commodores opened 0-7 in the SEC (they would finish 4-0 outside the conference with a victory versus Western Kentucky) before closing the year with a 42-24 victory at Tennes- see, which finished 0-8 itself. On occasion under Mason, the Vanderbilt defense has performed su- perbly against quality foes or coach- ing, most notably the 14-7 home win over Kansas State last year. In 2016, it lost only 13-6 to No. 23 Florida and 23-16 to No. 11 Auburn. The Commodores also battled well in a 9-7 loss to No. 11 Florida and 27-16 to then No. 3 Ole Miss in 2015. It will need a similar effort on that side of the ball at Notre Dame to have a chance to spring the upset. ✦ GAME PREVIEW: VANDERBILT Predictions Corey Bodden: Notre Dame 38, Vanderbilt 17 I could see it being a close game in the first half, but over the long run of four quarters I expect the Irish to pull away and win by multiple touchdowns. Bryan Driskell: Notre Dame 34 Vanderbilt 17 Vanderbilt has a veteran offense that could have early success moving the ball, but the Irish offense should be able to control the line and outscore the Commodores. David McKinney: Notre Dame 48, Vanderbilt 17 Every now and then, Vanderbilt makes some noise with a near-miss upset, but this won't be one of those times. This is essentially the second of three tune-ups for Stanford. Lou Somogyi: Notre Dame 35, Vanderbilt 19 Defensive coordinator Clark Lea takes on his alma mater, and will continue to do them proud. There is enough talent on the roster to be competitive for at least one half in this game. Fifth-year senior outside linebacker Charles Wright notched a team-high nine sacks last fall, but the Commodores surrendered 43.3 points per game while going 1-7 in league play. PHOTO COURTESY VANDERBILT ATHLETICS

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