Featured graphic courtesy of Lauren Anikis
Vanderbilt Commodores (6-6) vs. North Carolina State Wolfpack (6-6)
Where: Independence Stadium in Shreveport, Louisiana
When: Monday, Dec. 26 at 5 p.m. EST on ESPN2
How they got here:
Vanderbilt opened the year with a 3-point loss sealed in the final minutes to bowl-bound South Carolina. The Commodores had a rough start, losing four of their first six games, including a 13-6 loss to No. 17 Florida. They rattled off two consecutive wins at Georgia and at home against Tennessee State. No. 14 Auburn hosted the Commodores the next week and Vanderbilt held the lead coming out of halftime, but allowed the Tigers to score 10 unanswered points in the third quarter. Auburn squeaked out a 23-16 win over Vanderbilt at home. Following a loss to Missouri, Vanderbilt seemed to figure it out. The Commodores shut down Ole Miss at home with a huge second-half performance and a solid outing from quarterback Kyle Shurmur, who had been inconsistent for most of the season. Shurmur then turned in a record-setting performance against in-state rival No. 21 Tennessee, throwing for 416 yards and two touchdowns. The Commodores outscored the Volunteers 21-3 in the second half to lock up a bowl berth.
Why they can win:
Having a former defensive coordinator as head coach has its perks. Derek Mason was defensive coordinator at Stanford under Jim Harbaugh, and his prowess as a defensive mind has shown this season. The Commodores are 22nd in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 22.6 points per contest.
Vanderbilt has looked very good on both sides of the ball ever since Kyle Shurmur’s reemergence. When Shurmur is on, it keeps the defense guessing because of the looming threat of running back Ralph Webb in the backfield. This was on full display against Tennessee when the Commodores dropped 45 points on a team that only allows 29.3 points per game. In order to combat NC State’s stifling run defense, Shurmur’s play will be crucial to a Vanderbilt victory.
The Commodores have the second-most efficient red zone offense in the country, scoring on 95.5 percent of their red zone drives. They also boast the nation’s stingiest red zone defense, allowing opponents to score in the red zone just 65.9 percent of the time. NC State only scores on 75.5 percent of their red zone drives. The Wolfpack has displayed major scoring woes this season, as they not only struggle to score in the red zone, they also have trouble scoring in goal-line situations.
Player(s) to watch: RB Ralph Webb, LB Zach Cunningham
These standouts have too much of an impact not to include both of them.
Webb, a redshirt junior, became Vanderbilt’s all-time leading rusher in its last game against Tennessee. He needs just 22 more yards to break the school’s single-season rushing record. The Commodores are 5-1 in games where Webb has scored a touchdown and undefeated when Webb reaches the end zone multiple times in one game. Webb’s explosive speed allows him to break off long runs and set the offense up inside the 20-yard line, where they thrive the most.
Cunningham, a Butkus Award finalist and a unanimous first-team All-American, is the anchor of the Commodores’ defense. He has recorded 10 or more total tackles in seven of Vanderbilt’s 12 games and leads the SEC with 119 tackles. In the win against then No. 19 Tennessee, Cunningham played a big part in limiting the Volunteers to just 3 points in the second half, as he tallied 10 tackles and forced a fumble. The Commodores will need Cunningham to turn in another dominating performance to stifle the Wolfpack’s 1,000-yard rusher Matt Dayes.
North Carolina State Wolfpack
How they got here:
The Wolfpack started the year off with an easy out of conference schedule, picking up just one loss in their first four games. The lone loss was a 33-30 nailbiter to Eastern Carolina. NC State then ran into a difficult part of their schedule. The Wolfpack played No. 2 Clemson and No. 13 Louisville in consecutive weeks. Louisville blew out the Wolfpack, but NC State hung with Clemson the entire game, bringing it to overtime. They went on to lose on a touchdown pass from Heisman runner-up Deshaun Watson. These losses were part of four-game skid in which three ranked opponents were played. After Boston College handed the Wolfpack a loss, NC State blew a 20-10 third-quarter lead at home against No. 11 Florida State to lose 24-20. The Wolfpack closed out the final three weeks of the season with wins against Syracuse and North Carolina to become bowl eligible.
Why they can win:
Despite their difficult schedule against some of the best offenses in the nation, NC State has strong defensive numbers. The Wolfpack lead the ACC with 104.7 rushing yards allowed per game, which ranks sixth in the country. Their defensive line is anchored by defensive end Bradley Chubb, who leads the country in tackles for loss with 21. Chubb has also recorded 9.5 sacks, good for 23rd in the country.
NC State’s difficult schedule also plays into its favor. The Wolfpack defense has held its own against Deshaun Watson and the duo of Deondre Francois and Dalvin Cook. Kyle Shurmur and Ralph Webb are good, but they are not on the level of Florida State’s Francois and Cook. The Wolfpack held Cook to just 65 rushing yards, although Deondre Francois had his way with 330 passing yards. Playing in the SEC gives Vanderbilt the opportunity to see some strong teams, but the SEC East is nowhere near the level of play of the SEC West. With Florida State, Clemson and Louisville, the competition in the ACC Atlantic division more closely resembles the SEC West, and so NC State is used to tougher competition.
Player to watch: RB Matt Dayes
The 5-foot-9, 213-pound tailback is NC State’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2002. He has rushed for 100 or more yards in eight games this season. The Wolfpack will lean on him against Vanderbilt, as they have all season. Of the four games where Dayes rushed for less than 100 yards, NC State lost three of them. NC State is also 2-4 in games this season when Dayes does not rush for a touchdown. For an offense that struggles to finish drives, Dayes’ ability to pick up first downs and extend drives will be crucial.
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