SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) — There were times this season that Vanderbilt and North Carolina State looked like bad teams.
But November arrived and both programs improved, leading to some upset wins and bowl eligibility. Now the Commodores and the Wolfpack meet in the Independence Bowl today.
Vanderbilt (6-6) appeared headed for a lost season in the Southeastern Conference until back-to-back upsets over Mississippi and Tennessee clinched bowl eligibility. The Commodores are in the postseason for the first time since 2013.
“That’s part of the journey, getting young men to go from where they are to where they want to be,” Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason said. “So, for us, it was about the steady process of doing the right things. It clicked.”
The Commodores’ biggest improvement during the season’s final few weeks was on offense. They scored a combined 83 points in the victories over Mississippi and Tennessee, consistently hitting on big plays.
“We stuck to the process. We grew,” quarterback Kyle Shurmur said. “It was great to put a complete game together toward the end. Those big plays, those flashes, became more consistent. That was the biggest thing.”
North Carolina State (6-6) can relate to Vanderbilt’s story. The Wolfpack started with a 4-1 record, but close losses to Clemson, Boston College and Florida State derailed any hopes of a big season.
It looked like N.C. State might not make the postseason after a loss to Miami on Nov. 19, but the Wolfpack bounced back with a surprising 28-21 win over North Carolina. N.C. State is led by a dominant defensive line that includes junior Bradley Chubb, who leads the nation with 21 tackles for a loss this season.
“There are always highs and lows, ups and downs, but you do remember how you finish, and these guys have finished together,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said.
Here are some things to watch in Monday’s Independence Bowl:
READY FOR THE RAIN: There’s a lot of rain in the forecast, but Vanderbilt and N.C. State said they don’t expect to be bothered by the weather. N.C. State, in particular, has had to deal with worse: The Wolfpack beat Notre Dame 10-3 this season while playing during Hurricane Matthew in a game that featured torrential rainfall throughout.
WEBB STEADY FOR VANDERBILT: Vanderbilt junior Ralph Webb already has set the school record for career rushing yards with 3,231. The 5-foot-10 202-pounder has been remarkably durable, starting all 36 games over his three-year career. Webb has 1,172 yards rushing this year and needs just 22 more to break the school’s single-season record.
BIG-TIME CUNNINGHAM: Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham has been among the nation’s most productive defensive players and earned first-team Associated Press All-America honors after making 119 tackles, including 16½ for a loss. The junior already has 289 career tackles, including 39½ for a loss, and seven forced fumbles.
DAYES A FORCE FOR WOLFPACK: N.C. State senior running back Matt Dayes has 1,119 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns this season, becoming the first Wolfpack player since 2002 to run for at least 1,000 yards in a season. He also has caught 31 passes for 258 yards.
POSTSEASON EXPERIENCE: NC State will be making a postseason appearance for the 30th time, including its 12th bowl game since 2000. The school has a 15-13-1 record in the postseason. Vanderbilt’s bowl history isn’t as extensive — this is the Commodores’ eighth appearance in a bowl game. They have a 4-2-1 record in the previous seven games.