Vanderbilt faces Fighting Irish at 1:30 p.m. CT Saturday
By: Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE – Derek Mason is no stranger to facing Notre Dame.
During a four-year stint as an assistant coach at Stanford (2010-13), Mason coached with the Cardinal twice in historic Notre Dame Stadium. In 2010, Stanford throttled the Fighting Irish 37-14 in South Bend, and two seasons later the Cardinal lost a 20-13 heartbreaker in overtime to a seventh-ranked Notre Dame squad.
No matter one’s journey through the annals of college football history, the path eventually weaves its way through South Bend. Now Mason, whose Vanderbilt squad faces the Irish on Saturday (1:30 p.m. CT NBC) at Notre Dame Stadium, understands why a coach must acclimate his team to the mystique of Notre Dame.
“I coached there twice,” Mason said. “Seeing the stadium for the first time, it was good that we got there early.”
This time around, Mason is a head coach in charge of a Vanderbilt team prepping for its first road game of the season at No. 8 Notre Dame. The Commodores are 2-0 for the second straight season and playing with momentum on offense and defense. But Mason is leaning on his past experience in preparing for the Dores’ first true road.
“For us, it’s going to take our best ball,” Mason said.
Vanderbilt faces a Notre Dame team that shares a 2-0 record by virtue of wins over rival Michigan and Ball State. But the Irish have played imperfect football; they needed a second-half surge against the Cardinals to escape last Saturday with a 24-16 win. Ball State outgained Notre Dame in total offense, 414-349, won time of possession and forced quarterback Brandon Wimbush into three interceptions.
The Commodores, however, aren’t satisfied with their own 2-0 start. Decisive wins over Middle Tennessee and Nevada were plagued by slow starts in which Vanderbilt struggled to get going on offense. Mason said his team knows it must find its groove early against Notre Dame, a team talented enough to take advantage of mistakes.
“We’re humble in the simple fact that we don’t make anything of where we are,” Mason said. “… Notre Dame is going to expose our weaknesses. The bottom line is, can we overcome that adversity to play well?”
Part of overcoming that adversity is treating Notre Dame like any opponent. On Friday, Vanderbilt plans to depart Nashville and arrive early in South Bend to do a walkthrough at Notre Dame Stadium. Mason wants his players to get the jitters out on Friday, a necessary step in transitioning to business as usual on Saturday.
But the Commodores are already sticking to the process.
“They’re a pretty good team,” running back Khari Blasingame said. “They play physical, good-looking guys on defense. [But] it’s just another game for us. We’re going to prepare hard and do what we need to do.”
What would beating Notre Dame mean for Vanderbilt?
“We’d be going 1-0 this week,” Blasingame said. “We’re not putting anybody over anybody. For us, it’s just another game. We get to go test our mettle.”
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.