Derek Mason's most recent game as Vanderbilt's football coach resembled his very first contest in guiding the Commodores, and that's not cause for celebration in Nashville.
Mason was Stanford's defensive coordinator when he was hired in January 2014 to replace James Franklin, who had performed the unthinkable by leading the Commodores to consecutive 9-4 records before bolting to Penn State. Hopes of a third straight winning season were dashed in three hours, however, as Mason's debut was a complete debacle that yielded a 37-7 home loss to Temple.
The Commodores eventually found their footing in nonconference games under Mason, winning nine of 10 at one point with the only setback being a 22-17 loss at No. 8 Notre Dame last season, but then came last Saturday's 34-10 collapse to a visiting UNLV team that entered with a lone win over Southern Utah.
"We're looking at everything in our program to try and make sure that we do the things that we need to do to make sure our young men can function and play football," Mason said Tuesday during his weekly news conference. "That's what they want. That's what they need, and that's what we want.
"It all needs to match up."
Vanderbilt took its opening possession against UNLV 76 yards in eight plays, grabbing a 7-0 lead on Ke'Shawn Vaughn's 4-yard touchdown run, but the last 10 possessions for the Commodores produced three points.
Only Alabama's Nick Saban, Auburn's Gus Malzahn and Kentucky's Mark Stoops have coached at their respective Southeastern Conference schools longer than Mason, who is 25-43 overall and 1-5 midway through his sixth season. Mason is just 9-34 in SEC games, but he owns three consecutive double-digit victories over rival Tennessee, something no other Vanderbilt coach has attained since the league's formation in 1933.
Mason also has taken the Commodores to the Independence and Texas bowls, joining Franklin as the only Vandy coaches to make multiple postseason trips. Vanderbilt athletic director Malcolm Turner announced in February that Mason would be receiving a contract extension, but that has been followed by the worst start since his 2014 team also began 1-5 before winding up 3-9.
"You could see as this last game went on that there was some frustration settling in, but the team didn't quit," Mason said. "Quitting is a harsh word when you're talking about a sport. Quitting is laying down, and I've never seen this team quit or lay down. That's not a conversation I'm going to have with anybody when it comes to this football team.
"Now, when you talk about a lack of execution or not functioning or not hitting on all cylinders, that's a conversation worth having."
The Commodores host No. 22 Missouri this Saturday before traveling to South Carolina and to No. 9 Florida, so 1-8 is a possibility by this time next month.
"I think you look at it from a bigger perspective," Commodores senior receiver Justice Shelton-Mosley said. "You only have a few college games left relative to your whole life, so every game is a unique opportunity to come out and play."
Vanderbilt had reasonable hopes for a third bowl game in four years at the start of this season due to the senior trio return of Vaughn, receiver Kalija Lipscomb and tight end Jared Pinkney. The chief concerns were replacing three starters on the offensive line and finding a successor to quarterback Kyle Shurmur, who capped a stellar career last season by throwing for 3,130 yards with 24 touchdowns and six interceptions.
Trying to fill Shurmur's void this season have been Ball State graduate transfer Riley Neal and Commodores redshirt junior Deuce Wallace, who have combined to throw four touchdown passes and four interceptions.
"Right now, we don't have a quarterback who can make a critical play in a critical situation for us," said Mason, who has not named a starter at the position for the Mizzou game.
A defense that allowed 438.9 yards per game to rank 13th in the SEC last season has worsened this year, as Vanderbilt is surrendering a whopping 482.7 yards a contest. That not only ranks last in the league but 124th out of 130 FBS teams.
Mason took over Vandy's defensive play-calling responsibilities earlier in his tenure with some success but doesn't have plans to do so now. Under contract through the 2021 season before Turner's announcement earlier this year, he knows this season has been unacceptable.
After all, three straight wins over Tennessee and two bowl trips are proof Mason can do better.
"Our players know me," he said. "They definitely expect me to be a model and stand on my own two feet. They expect me to defend this family, and that's exactly what I'm going to do.
"We'll get through this storm. I'm the captain of this ship. Let's ride."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.