By Maurice Patton
Special to InsideTennessee
NASHVILLE — Trailing by a touchdown at halftime Saturday night, Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason felt his team had room for improvement against Tennessee.
“Our tackling at the beginning was atrocious,” the defensive-minded Mason said in the aftermath of the Commodores’ shocking 45-34 victory — one in which the hosts put up a season-high 608 offensive yards and simultaneously stymied what had been an ultra-productive Tennessee offense.
“We struggled defensively, giving up ‘chunk’ plays. We couldn’t find any momentum or rhythm.”
Despite Vanderbilt’s early struggles, though, the Volunteers only led 31-24. A key factor in the Commodores’ being so close was the performance of sophomore quarterback Kyle Shurmur, who threw for a career-high 289 yards in the opening half with two touchdowns.
“We had some good schemes and guys making plays,” Shurmur said after the game. “Executing was the biggest thing. We got to put a complete game together.”
Shurmur finished with 416 passing yards, completing 21 of 34 attempts, with Trent Shefield (nine catches, 184 yards) and Caleb Scott (four catches, 117 yards) each finishing with triple-digit receiving yardage totals.
“There were a number of times we were right there in position; we just didn’t play the ball in the air, whether it was a wrong hand, slipping falling down, sometimes trying to get pressure on the quarterback,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. “I think it was a combination of all those things.
“(Shurmur) gained a lot of confidence the last couple of weeks and they’ve done a good job of throwing the football. When they got down a little bit I knew they would start throwing the ball a little bit more … Again, fundamentals and details were lacking.”
Vanderbilt became the third straight team to put up 600-plus offensive yards against the Vols, following Kentucky (635) and Missouri (740). The 608 yards were 107 more than the Commodores’ previous season high of 501, set in their 35-17 win over Tennessee State on Oct. 22.
“You look at the last couple of weeks: They’ve struggled statistically,” Mason said. “We felt good about our matchups. Our guys did a good job of run-after-catch, our offensive line held up. We played above the Xs and Os, and we got consistent production in the second half.
“I think this group has been building to this all along. Kyle, Trent, C.J. (Duncan), Caleb — it’s been about them making each other better. It was on display tonight for everyone to see.”
Vanderbilt outscored the Vols 21-3 in the second half, with junior running back Ralph Webb helping key the late surge. Webb finished with 114 rushing yards and two touchdowns, including a 28-yarder with 4:06 remaining that made it a two-score game.
From there, Tennessee drove deep into Commodore territory but was unable to make fourth-and-four from the Vanderbilt 13-yard line, and the hosts were able to pick up a first down and then run out the clock.
“They just outexecuted us,” Jones said. “We had some big plays in the first half. We were never able to get those plays (in the second half).
“I thought they were able to apply pressure and Josh (Dobbs) had to escape the pocket, but pretty much the same stuff we saw in the first half.”
Vanderbilt converted all six of its red-zone trips and went 8-for-14 on third down.
“We won in the red zone and we won on third down,” Mason said. “When you do that, you can win ballgames.”