Although the Vanderbilt Commodores had just delivered back-to-back 5-7 seasons, receding to an all-too-familiar spot among SEC non-contenders, there was an air optimism surrounding the team’s 2016 campaign.
Junior running back Ralph Webb provided the Commodores a potential 1,500-yard rushing threat. Zach Cunningham had made a case as one of the top middle linebackers in the country after earning first team All-SEC honors as a sophomore last season. The growth of sophomore quarterback Kyle Shurmur gave birth to the idea that, for the first time since 2012, Vanderbilt could produce a respectable passing attack.
Then week one happened, and head coach Derek Mason reminded everyone why his job security is in doubt after only two seasons in Nashville.
The Commodores kicked off the 2016 season by hosting South Carolina in a game that was expected to be the surest conference win on their schedule. Instead, the Gamecocks mounted a double-digit comeback in the second half, downing Vanderbilt on a last-minute 55-yard field goal from Elliott Fry after trailing the first 50 minutes of the game.
Much went wrong for the Commodores on Thursday night, and this loss cannot be traced back to a single on-field mistake or questionable coaching decision — but the turning point certainly can.
Vanderbilt started the game with a three-and-out on offense, but quickly managed to shift the momentum in its favor. A special teams fumble recovery led to a field goal for the Commodores, and following a defensive stand on the ensuing possession, Shurmur led his team on the type of drive that has been virtually nonexistent over the course of the past two seasons. Vanderbilt drove 67 yards in 13 plays to jump out to a 10-0 lead, marking the first time the Commodores had scored a first-half touchdown in an opener since Mason took over in 2014.
At this point, Shurmur had completed 4-of-6 passes. He was hardly setting the world on fire, but he was delivering the performance necessary for his team to cruise to a comfortable victory. Holding a 10-point lead and regaining possession with 11:22 remaining in the first half, Vanderbilt had an opportunity to put this game away before halftime.
Mason sent in junior backup Wade Freeman to get some reps midway through the second quarter.
Speculation of a possible injury to Shurmur immediately began — no coach could possibly think this was the right time for a quarterback change. Sure enough, however, following consecutive three-and-outs with Freeman under center, Shurmur trotted back onto the field.
“I’m not going to second-guess (the quarterback change) because that wasn’t the difference in the ball game,” Mason said after the game. He further dismissed the brief change as “something that really had nothing to do with effect on this game.”
The trajectory of the game, and ultimately the final outcome, say otherwise.
Shurmur failed to replicate his early consistency upon re-entering the game, completing just four passes the rest of the night and dropping his completion percentage below 40. The Commodores did not score again, a decisive development even in the face of South Carolina’s meager offense.
Even more troubling is the fact that Mason acknowledged Shurmur had begun to find his groove during Vanderbilt’s lone touchdown drive, yet still made what appears to be a predetermined decision to get Freeman in the game.
“I thought (Shurmur) had rhythm on the touchdown drive,” Mason said. “But that was a situation where me and (offensive coordinator) Andy (Ludwig) had talked about it.”
There are proper times for scripted coaching decisions, and under most circumstances, a momentary quarterback change during the second quarter of a season opener is not a gregarious mistake, but coaches must be able to adjust to what the game dictates.
In this instance, there was no logical purpose for a coach to swap quarterbacks when presented with a chance to put away a conference foe in the first half.
One wrong decision did not lose this game, but it did shine a spotlight on a forgettable — and costly — moment for a coach who will be fighting for his job for the remainder of 2016.