For the first time this season, we’ll see how Vanderbilt rebounds from a loss after Wake Forest handled the Commodores 45-25 on a rainy afternoon in Nashville. Their next challenge: defending Mid-American Conference Champion Northern Illinois Huskies for a 2:30pm CT showdown Saturday in DeKalb, Illinois. Vandy and NIU have played four times all time with Vandy winning all four – by a grand total of 20 points. Historically this game has always been a dogfight, and I would expect that to be the case once again.
NIU enters this matchup 1-1 on the season, including a 34-27 home win over Eastern Illinois to open the season followed by a 35-38 loss at Tulsa as the Huskies’ rally from a 17 point deficit fell just short. On offense, coach Thomas Hammock’s bread and butter is the run game – a rushing attack that was 4th in the nation last year at 241 yards per game. Their leading rusher, Jay Ducker, transferred to Memphis and their ground game hasn’t been quite as prolific this season averaging 156.5 yards through two games. However, they still boast a pair of talented running backs in Antario Brown (143 yards on 33 carries for the season) and Harrison Waylee (100 yards on 19 carries for the season).
At quarterback, NIU is led by a solid veteran in Rocky Lombardi. The fifth-year senior began his career at Michigan State before taking the reins at NIU in leading them to a conference championship. He won’t wow you with his stats – passing for 2597 yards, 15 touchdowns and 8 interceptions with a 58% completion percentage last season – but he is a capable runner who rushed for 473 yards and 9 touchdowns making him the perfect game-manager to run Hammock’s offense. Lombardi is off to a good start this season with 451 yards, 4 touchdowns and 1 interception, a 60% completion rate, and a rushing touchdown through two games. In front of him, NIU returns a stout offensive line led by three preseason All-Conference players in Nolan Porter, Logan Zshernitz, and Marques Cox.
Unfortunately, the NIU offense was dealt a tough blow before the start of the season when top wideout and preseason All-Conference receiver Trayvon Rudolph suffered a knee injury in practice which would sideline him for the year. Their number one target now is veteran Cole Tucker, who already has 11 catches for 190 yards and a touchdown. Behind him is FIU transfer Shermar Thornton with 8 catches for 112 yards. The Huskies also have a first team preseason All-Conference placekicker in John Richardson, who is 2 for 4 on field goals for the season after hitting 22 of 27 last season.
The good news for NIU is they return a lot of players on defense; the bad news is their defense was awful last season. They allowed 33.7 points per game last season, 112th in the nation, and have been only marginally better through two games giving up an average 32.5 points, good for 104th in the country. In addition to giving up a ton of yards and points, they were also poor at taking the ball away in forcing only 10 turnovers all last season. However, the current squad well ahead of that pace this season with 4 so far – half of those from veteran cornerback Eric Rogers who already has 2 interceptions. Also in the secondary are preseason All-Conference selections Jordan Gandy at cornerback and C.J. Brown at safety. At linebacker, Daveren Rayner is having a breakout season with a team-leading 25 tackles. The Huskies also return Kyle Pugh, maybe their most talented linebacker, after missing last season with injury.
On the Vandy side, one thing Commodore fans will be monitoring closely is the quarterback play. Starter Mike Wright struggled mightily against Wake Forest bringing up the same questions about whether he is really an SEC caliber quarterback who can perform against quality power five competition. Meanwhile, backup AJ Swann’s play was by far the biggest positive from an otherwise dismal game. While many fans see Swann as the future (rightfully so) and are clamoring for Coach Lea to turn him loose, he has continued to back Wright as his #1. Lea made it clear Wright will remain the starting quarterback against NIU and that won’t change in the foreseeable future. It will be interesting to see what role Swann plays for the team as the season rolls on.
Through three games, everything for Vanderbilt has gone according to script. They’ve won the two games they were “supposed” to win, and lost the one game they were heavy underdogs. This is the first contest one could seriously debate which is the better team going into the game. I’ve seen the line moving from 1 to 2.5 points – in both directions. In other words, this is basically a pick-em game. A win for Vanderbilt would be more tangible evidence of progress in the program under Coach Clark Lea, already surpassing the win total of the last two seasons combined. Additional wins in the brutal SEC would be gravy (looking at you South Carolina and Missouri). This is a very winnable game, but it won’t be an easy game. Hopefully, Vandy is up to the challenge…