Coach wants fast start by Vandy, end skid in season openers
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Coach Derek Mason knows his 0-3 mark in Vanderbilt's first game of the season better than anybody.
His debut as a head coach ended in a 37-7 rout at the hands of Temple in 2014. Then Western Kentucky pulled out a win in the 2015 opener by a score of 14-12 before South Carolina escaped 13-10 last season. Mason said Tuesday his lack of success kicking off the season is like a chip on his shoulder that stares at him every day, and it's something he hasn't let his Commodores forget.
Mason knows exactly what he wants Saturday night when Vanderbilt opens the season at Middle Tennessee.
''We haven't won a season opener since I've been here,'' Mason said. ''It's on our minds. That's why we're working hard every day. I'm grinding these guys, I'm grinding them to the bone. There's no, `OK, we're going to line up and this is going to be a game and we're going to let the chips fall where they may.' No. We're going to bring the fight to them, and hopefully MTSU is ready to play because we will be.''
Vanderbilt's lack of success kicking off seasons isn't limited to Mason's tenure. The Commodores haven't won the first game since 2011 with a victory over Elon, the lone victory in the past seven seasons.
For a team competing in the Southeastern Conference, every chance at a win matters. Vanderbilt went 3-9 in Mason's inaugural season and followed up by going 4-8 in 2015. Losing to South Carolina was part of a 2-4 start last season, and the Commodores wound up playing in the Independence Bowl after going 4-2 down the stretch.
Middle Tennessee went 8-5 last season , has been to five straight bowl games and won three straight against Vanderbilt between 2001 and 2005.
Mason has nine starters back on offense and seven on defense led by senior running back Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt's all-time leading rusher with 3,342 yards. Webb ran for a career-high 211 yards last season as the Commodores beat Middle Tennessee 47-24 despite a nearly two-hour weather delay.
The Vanderbilt coach said he's also learned to focus and work a little harder.
''Let's start a little faster and let's get a victory,'' Mason said.
Vanderbilt, and Mason, has won two straight against Middle Tennessee, not that the coach is taking anything for granted.
Quarterback Kyle Shurmur said Mason made sure fall camp was very competitive, pushing the Commodores to work harder and be better .
''We talk about going 1-0 every week in order to set ourselves up for success later in the year, we're really going to have to start fast,'' Shurmur said. ''Coach talks about building a lead in the grand scheme of things. Going 1-0 in the first week is just that. Our full focus is on this game this week.''
Linebacker Oren Burks said the first game is big as the focus all offseason and is a huge moment for the Commodores.
''We haven't won a season opener,'' Burks said. ''We have to change that. That's going to happen this year.''
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