In a surprise move, Clark Lea went with true freshman A.J. Swann as his starting quarterback for Saturday’s game at Northern Illinois.
That turned out to be a winning move.
Swann led Vanderbilt to a touchdown on its first drive of the game, a pretty, 12-play, 80-yard drive that drained 7:02 off the clock and finished with a three-yard touchdown pass to tight end Gavin Schoenwald. His second drive: 13 plays, 75 yards, 5:44 off the clock and a three-yard touchdown run by Ray Davis to cash in another scoring chance.
The problem: Northern Illinois met both of Vanderbilt’s first two touchdown drives with touchdowns of its own, even after losing starting quarterback Rocky Lombardi to an apparent injury; and when Vanderbilt finally broke serve with a three-and-out late in the first half, the Huskies took advantage with a quick touchdown near the end of the first half, giving them a 21-14 lead going into the locker room. And then, on Northern Illinois’s first drive of the second half, the Vanderbilt defense turned a 3rd and 5 into a 70-yard touchdown on a short pass to make it 28-14. A bad fumble by Jayden McGowan on an apparent third-down conversion (which was returned all the way down to the Vanderbilt 10, only to get called back due to holding), with the defense unable to get a stop all day — and it certainly looked like the Commodores’ day was done.
And then, the defense finally forced a punt. And then, the game took a turn. Will Sheppard set Vanderbilt up with great field position with a big return, and on 4th and 4 at the NIU 21, Swann did this:
That cut the lead in half; then, on the ensuing drive, Northern Illinois head coach Thomas Hammock elected to try to convert a 4th and 1 at his own 34, only for Harrison Waylee to get stuffed in the backfield. Swann immediately cashed in the great field position with a 31-yard touchdown strike to Sheppard:
The defense would force another three and out on the ensuing drive, and after converting a 4th and 8 in NIU territory with a 24-yard pass to Sheppard, Swann would find Sheppard again for his fourth touchdown pass of the day to give Vanderbilt a 35-28 lead.
Joseph Bulovas would tack on a 35-yard field goal with 12:21 left, and Vanderbilt’s defense — after being completely unable to get off the field in the first half — held up down the stretch, with De’Rickey Wright catching a game-sealing interception on a wounded duck of a pass after Anfernee Orji blew up Northern Illinois quarterback Ethan Hampton. Vanderbilt would run out the final four minutes to get out of DeKalb with a 38-28 victory, exceeding its win total from the entire 2021 season.
Swann finished the game 18-of-28 passing for 255 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions. Ten of those passes went to Will Sheppard, who had a career day with 171 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Ray Davis had a workmanlike day on the ground with 23 carries for 116 yards and a touchdown. Vanderbilt, now 3-1 on the season, will head to Alabama next Saturday.