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NC State thrashes Vanderbilt in Independence Bowl

Justin Ford/USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt’s season came to a disappointing end Monday in a 41-17 loss to North Carolina State in the Independence Bowl. The final score was a bit deceiving, as NC State scored on a pick-six on the game’s final play. Still, NCSU outplayed Vandy and clearly was the better team Monday.

Here are four takeaways from the game.

If it was Ralph Webb’s last game, he went out in style

Yes, Vandy was beaten handily, but Webb rushed for 111 yards and a TD and set the school’s single-season rushing record in the process. Webb, a junior who earlier this season became the school’s leading career rusher, finishes the season with 1,283 yards; the previous mark was 1,193 by Zac Stacy in 2011. Webb also broke Stacy’s career mark. Webb now has two of the top three single-season marks in Vanderbilt history; he rushed for 1,152 yards in 2015, which is third-most in a season. Webb now has 3,342 yards, and if he returns for his senior season, he has a legit chance at becoming just the eighth player in SEC history with 4,000 rushing yards.

Vandy better hope Webb returns

It appeared as if sophomore QB Kyle Shurmur had turned the corner with a strong final month of the season. He had thrown for 200 yards in four consecutive games and was coming off a career-high 416-yard performance in the regular-season finale against Tennessee. In addition, he had completed at least 56 percent of his passes in five consecutive games, with three outings of better than 60 percent. He looked lost Monday, though, going 19-of-46 for 158 yards, zero TDs and three interceptions; he also was sacked five times. NCSU entered with just seven interceptions all season. Shurmur had a handful of passes dropped and his line played poorly. That said, at no time did he appear to be able to lift his game despite what was going on. He threw high, he threw low, he threw late, he threw early. In short, he looked like he did last season and for much of the first half or so of this season. Can Shurmur be counted on? That remains a question.

The secondary struggled – again

The Commodores’ pass defense was a problem for much of the season and was so again against the Wolfpack. NCSU QB Ryan Finley was 19-of-30 for 235 yards and three TDs, all to H-back Jaylen Samuels (six receptions, 104 yards). Samuels averaged 17.3 yards per catch; he averaged 9.4 yards per reception in the regular season. In the final five games this season, Vandy surrendered 10 TD passes and had zero picks. For the season, the Commodores allowed 20 TD passes and had just five interceptions. Coaches must find some playmakers in the back end.

Despite the loss, it was a successful season

Getting to a bowl this season was important for coach Derek Mason, and even though the Commodores finished 6-7, definite strides were made. It seems certain that junior LB Zach Cunningham will turn pro, and he will be missed. But if Webb decides to return, that will provide a boost going into 2017. Shurmur must improve, and so must his receiving corps. But the offensive line was improved this season, and three starters and a handful of key backups will return up front. And even if Cunningham turns pro, Vandy will return eight starting defenders. The foundation appears to have been rebuilt, and more wins now need to follow.

(You can follow Mike Huguenin on Twitter @MikeHuguenin)

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