Postseason berth in tow, Vanderbilt relishes win vs. Tennessee

NASHVILLE – Customarily, Vanderbilt holds separate postgame press conferences for its players on offense and defense. It’s an efficient and diplomatic way to give each side its due credit after a game.
But following the Commodores’ 38-13 win over Tennessee on Saturday, Vanderbilt’s players called an audible: running back Khari Blasingame, linebackers Jordan Griffin and Josh Smith, quarterback Kyle Shurmur and safety LaDarius Wiley – all seniors – piled onto the podium all at once. Vanderbilt had become bowl eligible by beating Tennessee, which meant the Dores extended their season a few more weeks.
To Vanderbilt’s seniors, that meant just as much as a marquee win over an archrival.
“It’s amazing,” Griffin said. “This whole week, I preached about having another opportunity to play with your brothers.”
The Commodores (6-6) kept their season alive with a commanding performance against Tennessee (5-7). The home team jumped out to a 17-0 first-half lead, and though the Vols tacked on a score on the first play of the third quarter to cut their deficit to 17-7, Vanderbilt answered with three fourth-quarter touchdowns. The Dores poured on 467 yards of offense and dominated time of possession, 43:03.
Shurmur, meanwhile, closed his final game at Vanderbilt Stadium in epic fashion. He completed 31-of-35 passes for a program-record 88.6 completion percentage, a season-high 367 yards and three touchdowns. Shurmur finished his Vanderbilt career 3-1 against Tennessee and became the first Vanderbilt quarterback to beat the Vols three times since the 1920s.
Meanwhile, the Commodores recorded their third win in a row over the Volunteers, a first since a three-game stretch from 1923-26. Vanderbilt has now won five of its last seven against its in-state rival. And for the second time in three seasons, a win over Tennessee means a bowl game for Vanderbilt.
Commodores head coach Derek Mason – just the second coach ever to send Vanderbilt to two bowls in a three-season span – praised his seniors for stepping up on a big stage.
“I’ve got a bunch of dudes who have fought and battled here at Vanderbilt University,” Mason said. “When people said they couldn’t do it, they’ve done it. When people said we were going to finish last, not so fast.”
Vanderbilt’s bowl hopes hung in limbo just two weeks ago. Much like in 2016, it needed wins over Ole Miss and Tennessee at home to secure a bowl berth. Last week, the Commodores needed overtime to survive a dramatic 36-29 win over the Rebels. Against Tennessee, they finished the regular season with authority.
“We’re a closer team,” senior safety LaDarius Wiley said. “I enjoy being around these guys. These guys are my brothers… This year was tough, but we learned how to finish at the end of the year. That’s what you saw this year.”
A bowl win is good news for Vanderbilt. An extended season, with 15 extra bowl practices, is imperative for Mason. But getting it done against rival Tennessee adds an extra element for the Commodores. Mason said he passes an orange UT mailbox as he drives through his neighborhood each morning. “I’ve wanted to hit it several times,” Mason joked. “But I keep my composure, I stay in the middle and I just keep driving.”
But after three straight wins over Tennessee, Mason said it’s not hyperbole to declare that the Commodores’ time is now.
“Nashville’s our city,” Mason said. “I’ve said that time and time again. I’ve been laughed at. People didn’t necessarily get on board. Now, man, I think people have gotten on board.”
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.