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Vanderbilt survives Northern Illinois, 24-18

Is it possible to feel worse about a game that we won?

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

After starting the season 0-3 against a brutal opening stretch, the Vanderbilt Commodores came into Saturday’s game against the Northern Illinois Huskies desperate for a win. The win finally came, but it wasn’t easy, and Vanderbilt didn’t look good doing it.

The Commodores did get off to a fast start, though. Vanderbilt took the opening kickoff and on the first play of the game, Riley Neal found Cam Johnson in the flat for a 23-yard gain. Two plays later, Ke’Shawn Vaughn found the end zone on a swing pass, only to have it called back due to a holding penalty. Never mind that, though: after the play came back, true freshman Keyon Brooks took a handoff 61 yards for the first touchdown of his Vanderbilt career.

After the defense forced a quick punt and Justice Shelton-Mosley took it down to the NIU 31, Vanderbilt scored five plays later on a 1-yard Ke’Shawn Vaughn touchdown run to make the score 14-0. Vanderbilt’s offense had run nine plays and scored 14 points.

The bad news? Vanderbilt’s next four drives would end in punts, two of them after just three plays. The good news: Northern Illinois’ offense wasn’t doing anything, either. The teams went into halftime with Vanderbilt still leading 14-0. A promising start for the Vanderbilt offense had bogged down for the entire second quarter; on the other hand, the Huskies’ offense had run 33 plays and gained 140 yards, for an average of 4.2 yards per play.

Northern Illinois got the ball to start the second half and opened things up with a deep pass to Spencer Tears down to the Vanderbilt 30, but the Commodores were able to force a 39-yard field goal, cutting the lead to 14-3 with 12:51 left in the 3rd quarter. And in what had become a pattern to end the first half, Ke’Shawn Vaughn picked up a single first down on the ground before Vanderbilt’s next drive stalled — thanks in part to a 15-yard personal foul on 2nd-and-4, continuing a pattern that had started in the Purdue game.

On the ensuing drive, Northern Illinois converted a 3rd and 15 with a 23-yard pass to Tears, then after a pass interference penalty on Vanderbilt, the Huskies scored two plays later on a 38-yard touchdown pass from Ross Bowers to Mitchell Brinkman that featured one of the worst attempts at a tackle I have ever seen by a college football defender. Suddenly, it was 14-10, and Vanderbilt’s offensive funk since the opening two series was a huge problem.

The good news? Following that touchdown, Vanderbilt’s offense immediately sprang to life — in spite of a fumble that three NIU defenders couldn’t corral — and Riley Neal connected with Kalija Lipscomb for a 38-yard touchdown off a flea flicker, pushing Vanderbilt’s lead back up to 21-10.

Waking up as well was the Vanderbilt defense, which forced a three-and-out on the next series for the Huskies. It looked like the Commodores’ ensuing drive was going to get bogged down around midfield when Riley Neal took a sack and then, on 2nd and 19, Ke’Shawn Vaughn got hit in the backfield — but that play was flagged for targeting on Northern Illinois’ Jordan Cole, giving the drive new life. Bailed out by the penalty, Vaughn took a 24-yard run down to the NIU 14. But on 3rd and 6, Riley Neal overthrew Jared Pinkney in the end zone, forcing the first field goal attempt in the career of redshirt freshman Javan Rice, which he made from 28 yards to extend the Commodore lead to 24-10.

But on the ensuing drive, Vanderbilt gave NIU QB Ross Bowers all day to throw on 3rd and 15, and he completed a pass down to the Vanderbilt 34. The next play, Bowers completed another big pass to Spencer Tears, and Marcus Jones punched it in for a 1-yard touchdown run, cutting the Commodore lead to 24-16. Surprisingly, NIU went for two and converted it, making the score 24-18 Vanderbilt with 11:44 left in the game. And then Northern Illinois forced a punt after six plays — none of which involved Ke’Shawn Vaughn — and Vanderbilt was officially in danger for the first time as the Huskies got the ball back trailing by six with 8:29 left in the game.

But after the Huskies gained a couple of first downs, Vanderbilt caught a break when Bowers mishandled a snap and then attempted to throw a lateral, which was dropped and resulted in a 16-yard loss. Vanderbilt forced a punt and getting the ball back with 3:10 left and the Huskies having just one timeout left, it looked like Vanderbilt might survive.

This time, Ke’Shawn Vaughn got the ball and promptly ran it for 18 yards, giving the Commodores some breathing room. On the next play, Vaughn got stuffed behind the line and the Huskies called their final timeout with 2:18 left. Two plays later, Vaughn got a first down on an option pitch and that was it; Vanderbilt kneeled out the clock to preserve the 24-18 win.