Vanderbilt traveled to Dekalb, Illinois for a battle with the Northern Illinois Huskies. Vanderbilt entered the game coming off a tough loss to Wake Forest the week before and had some questions regarding the quarterback position going into week three.
Head coach Clark Lea stated that junior Mike Wright would be the starter going into the bout with NIU but Lea shocked fans and media whenever freshman AJ Swann trotted out with the offense for the first series of the game. Could Swann survive behind a questionable offensive line? Would he have enough time to let the plays develop and make shots down the field? This was the question on most minds before the first snap of the game, but Swann, the offensive line, and the rest of the offense put those worries to rest for the afternoon after the first drive. The defense, on the other hand, presented some newfound questions that have to be answered.
The Future is Now
The freshman quarterback from Georgia trotted out with the offense on the first drive and it took fans by surprise. During the first drive, Swann showed that the moment was not too big for him. Swann led the offense down the field for a twelve-play, eighty-yard drive that took a monstrous 7:54 off the clock where Swann connected with tightens Gavin Schoenwald to strike first.
Swann commanded the offense with poise and precision. Swann finished the day 18-28 for 255 yards and four touchdowns. Swann not just did it with a clean pocket, but also stood tall in the face of pressure. There were multiple throws there Swann was under pressure and stood in the pocket and delivered smart and precise throws. For a freshman quarterback in his first start, one of the most impressive aspects of Swann’s game was how careful he was with the ball. Swann had very few dangerous throws and recorded no interceptions and no fumbles.
The most notable play by the freshman was also the play of the game and most certainly, the play of the season to this point. With 6:44 left in the third, Vanderbilt found themselves down 28-14 to the Huskies and found themselves in a 4th and 4 situation at the NIU 21-yard line. Swann takes the snap and finds himself under pressure, he scrambles, breaks a tackle, and on the run delivers a pass to Ray Davis where Davis makes an incredibly athletic move to secure the touchdown.
Not only was this moment big for Vanderbilt because it was a scoring play, but this was a momentum-shifting play in the course of the game. Vanderbilt found themselves with their back against the wall and it was time to see if fight or flight would kick in. On that play, Vanderbilt’s fight instinct kicked in, with Swann at the helm.
Davis, Sheppard, and Offensive Line Shine
It was a very good day for the Vanderbilt offense in general. They found success not just through the air, but on the ground. Ray Davis had twenty-three carries for 116 yards on the day with one TD on the ground and one through the air. The offensive line had a good game where they were able to get movement up front and create space for the Vanderbilt running backs. An offensive line with Julian Hernandez back aided the running backs and created 173 yards on the ground against the Huskies. Not only did the offensive line have a good game in the run blocking, but they even had a good game in their weakness with pass pro. On 28 dropbacks, the offensive line allowed zero sacks all afternoon. They protected Swann and gave him enough time to scan the field and allow the plays to develop.
Will Sheppard led the way for the Vanderbilt receiving corp and showed great chemistry with Swann. Sheppard had multiple big-time grabs and seemingly could not be stopped all afternoon long. Sheppard recorded ten receptions for 171 yards and two touchdowns. Whether it was in a soft zone or man coverage, it did not matter as Sheppard had his way with the NIU secondary. The Swann-Sheppard connection is something that is going to be very interesting to watch develop so keep your eyes on it.
Jekyll and Hyde Defense
There is no other way to put it, Husky offense has their way with the Vanderbilt defense for two and a half quarters. The Huskies recorded touchdowns on every possession in the first half and coming out of halftime, scored in three plays on their first drive.
The Vanderbilt defense looked confused in the backend and undersized in the trenches. The defensive could not get any pressure against the NIU offensive line and was getting pushed back in the run game. It should be noted that the Vanderbilt defensive line is still not healthy, particularly in the interior of the line but that it is still not an excuse, especially against a team like NIU.
What is most concerning is the fact that Vanderbilt could not get any pressure and the defensive staff was okay with that. Vanderbilt designed very few blitzes to create pressure and havoc against NIU and was content with sending three to four rushers each play. When you have a team that is as depleted as Vanderbilt is on the defensive line, then you must get creative to create pressure on the quarterback.
The secondary continued to get exposed in the first half of the game. Vanderbilt continually lined up five to seven yards off the line of scrimmage and was content with giving conceding the underneath routes if that meant that they could properly defend against the deep ball. Well, Vanderbilt still gave up numerous deep balls while playing off the line. One in particular where Vanderbilt had a busted coverage play and allowed the WR to get past the DB and the safety.
Ultimately, the Vanderbilt defense rose from its slumber halfway through the second half. After the initial score by NIU in the second half, the Vanderbilt defense did not allow the Huskies to record a score for the rest of the game. The defense made adjustments, where they started to play cleaner and tighter in the secondary, and great linebacker play helped bolster the pass rush. The Commodores’ defense put pressure on NIU and forced them to crack as De’Rickey Wright forced what would be nothing short of a game-sealing interception.
Team Two Shows Progress
Team Two is certainly not perfect, but they have shown real, and tangible progress. Previous Vandy teams were known for getting hit and just bowing out, but this team refuses to. Clark Lea and this team have shown that certain things need to be addressed but through four games, there is a real sense of hope that the future for Vanderbilt football might be special.
Week Three MVPs
Offensive MVP: AJ Swann, QB
18-28, 4 TD
Defensive MVP: Anfernee Orji, LB
12 total tackles, 4 solo tackles