27th December 2016
N.C State vs Vanderbilt
One of the most attractive bowl fixtures over the Christmas period sees two transcendent schools meet in what will be a defensive slugfest that will attract the football purists among us.
The Wolfpack impressed throughout this campaign, powered behind an outstanding defense, notably a front seven that gave up very little for Dave Doeren’s resurgent program. N.C State’s impressive progress came oh-so close to glory, falling at the final hurdle in what looked for the world to be a monumental upset of national championship contender and #2 ranked Clemson on the road in Death Valley. Leading for the majority of the contest, coming up just two points short, having to endure the pain of missing what was a chip shot field goal in the game’s dying seconds. However, notice had already been served in the week five strangulation of what was at that point still a dangerous Notre Dame team, suffocating the life out of the Irish offense while easily containing and harrying draft prospect DeShone Kizer out of the pocket. While the Wolfpack offense has not lived up to the benchmark set by its #28 ranked defence, it has done just enough to get the job done this season and will need to play at its best against a talented and expertly coached Vanderbilt defensive unit. However, they take the field on the back of another signature victory, with a 28-21 success on the road in Chapel Hill, last time out to upset their fierce rivals.
In his third season as the Commodores head coach, Derek Mason has finally experienced highly encouraging results for the considerable challenge he undertook in turning around the fortunes of a flagging football program in Nashville. Notably, Mason’s defensive nous has borne fruit, a talented unit that has been the transformative springboard, improving from 4-6 a year ago to 6-6 respectability this and on a fist occasion first in six years, achieving bowl eligibility that provides great enthusiasm for the years ahead. ‘Vandy’ come into this on the back of four wins out of the last six contests, notably upsetting #17 ranked, in-state rival Tennessee last time out sparking scenes of joy on the field at Vanderbilt Stadium and some stylish dance moves from the head coach himself – a fine reward for the considerable bumps in the road he, his coaching team and the fanbase has endured turning around this ship. Bowl eligibility is no mean feat in college football’s unforgiving SEC. For the Commodores the arrow finally points up.
Wolfpack senior #21 RB Matthew Dayes has impressed me on a consistent basis this season
( scouting report here ) as a do-it-all ‘back, who despite his diminutive size plays the game with an impressive physicality, gaining a staggering 47% of his yards after contact. A true 3-down prospect who somehow continues to remain under the radar, possesses the vision to hit the hole with force at the right time, aided by excellent leverage and vision, not to mention his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and as a receiver in the intermediate passing game. I have been similarly impressed by the vastly underrated #9 DE Brandon Chubb this season, with his ability to explode off the line of scrimmage, stay low and with excellent hands to keep offensives tackles away from his body and turn the corner quickly. Chubb is another ‘sleeper’ who if there is any justice in the process will start gaining traction in draft circles this spring. Also keep an eye on talented #29 CB Jack Tocho, who has demonstrated his ability to stick to the hips of wide receivers and maintain tight coverage on the outside. Although I have no indication at the time of writing as to the draft intentions of #98 DT B.J Hill or #35 DE Kentavius Street, both underclassmen, keep an eye on them both, alongside Chubb, each key components in an outstanding defensive unit.
It goes without saying that ultra-talented #41 LB Zach Cunningham headlines the future NFL talent on show in this fixture. A tireless competitor, blessed with great vision, read and react skills, not to mention the outstanding athleticism that allows him to get to the football in an instant to make endless, game-winning signature plays. The junior has been exceptional this season as one of the finest talents in all of college football, whose upside is without renown to become a true great on Sundays. However, do not discount the work done in front of him by the likes of #60 DT Adam Butler, whose play is characterised by his impressive footballing intelligence and disruptive play at key times for the Commodores upfront, notably when faced with Florida’s impressive offensive line (2 sacks, 2 tackles for a loss).
We Say: Vanderbilt. In what is a tough call, I favour the Commodores to emerge the victor here, thanks to an offence that has come to life in recent weeks, a unit I like more than an often toothless Wolfpack attack. N.C State’s defence has the edge over the comparatively talented Vandy unit, but whose offense has not always complemented their rearguard.
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