NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Time is starting to run out on the Vanderbilt Commodores’ chances of becoming bowl eligible for a second straight season.
Back home for the first time in nearly a month, the Commodores (3-5) are desperate to snap a five-game skid Saturday when they host Western Kentucky. This is the last non-conference game for Vanderbilt before wrapping up its regular season schedule hosting Kentucky and Missouri before a trip to in-state rival Tennessee.
So Vanderbilt needs to win three of four or the Commodores risk staying home during bowl season for the third time in coach Derek Mason’s four years.
”I’m not worried about being bowl eligible,” Mason said. ”I’m worried about getting a win. For me, I have to focus on the here and now.”
Vanderbilt has won its first three non-conference games this season, including a 14-7 upset of then-No. 18 Kansas State. That was in September before the current skid started with a 59-0 loss to top-ranked Alabama .
Western Kentucky (5-3) is on the verge of becoming bowl eligible for an eighth straight season, which would help the two-time Conference USA champs pick up under first-year coach Mike Sanford where Jeff Brohm left off before heading to Purdue. Wide receiver Quin Jernighan said all the Hilltoppers want to earn another bowl berth.
”That’s what we’re fighting for now,” Jernighan said.
Here are some other things to know about Vanderbilt and the Hilltoppers:
HEY I KNOW YOU: Mason and Sanford not only worked as assistant coaches at Stanford between 2011 and 2013, they were neighbors in Palo Alto with their daughters playing together. Mason says he always knew Sanford would be a head coach one day.
DON’T LEAVE EARLY: Vanderbilt has dominated the short series with Western Kentucky winning four of the first five. That doesn’t mean the games have been easy. The Commodores needed to stop a 2-point conversion try by Western Kentucky in overtime for a 31-30 win last year, while the Hilltoppers pulled out a 14-12 win in Nashville in 2015 . The other three games all were played in the 1930s. Sanford calls this a big opportunity against the region’s Southeastern Conference program. ”Obviously, a lot of guys who did play last year in this game have a bad taste in their mouths,” Sanford said.
WATCH SHURMUR: Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur had one of his best games as a sophomore against Western Kentucky, and he’s only gotten better since then. Shurmur matched his career-high throwing four touchdown passes and for a season-high 333 yards in last week’s 34-27 loss at South Carolina , and he has a career-best 18 TDs this season putting him second in the SEC. He’s been intercepted only three times.
DEFENSIVE TEST: Sanford switched Western Kentucky to a 4-2-5 defense this season, and the Hilltoppers have allowed 175 points on defense. It’s their best defensive performance through eight games since 2007. They also rank 20th in the nation forcing opponents to go three-and-out an average of 4.63 times a game.
BANGED-UP BACKFIELD: Both Vanderbilt senior Ralph Webb, the sixth-best active running back with 3,781 career yards rushing, and backup Khari Blasingame were hurt in the loss at South Carolina. Mason said he expects them to play against Western Kentucky. Webb is averaging 3.8 yards per carry and has 439 yards with five TDs this season.
RUN D: The biggest issue for Vanderbilt through this five-game skid has been the Commodores’ inability to stop anyone from running the ball. The Commodores now rank 12th in the SEC and 121st nationally giving up 238.8 yards rushing per game. Mason said he saw improvement last week despite giving up 212 yards rushing.
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