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Vanderbilt 38, Northern Illinois 28: I think we have a quarterback

Clark Lea has figured out the offense before the defense, and I think that’s a good sign.

Wake Forest v Vanderbilt Photo by Carly Mackler/Getty Images

Box Score

Five Factors Vanderbilt Northern Illinois
Five Factors Vanderbilt Northern Illinois
Plays 64 57
Total Yards 433 354
Yards Per Play 6.77 6.21
Rushing Attempts 36 30
Rushing Yards 178 152
Rushing YPP 4.94 5.07
Passing Attempts 28 27
Passing Yards 255 202
Passing YPP 9.11 7.48
Rushing Success Rate 50.00% 40.00%
Passing Success Rate 60.71% 40.74%
Success Rate 54.69% 40.35%
Avg. Field Position 36.5 26
PP40 6.33 5.60
Turnovers 1 1

Don’t lie, you thought it was over when Jayden McGowan coughed it up with Vanderbilt down 28-14, didn’t you?

I admit to being stunned that Northern Illinois’s passing numbers came out looking like that. The Huskies’ first 13 pass plays were all completions, nine of them were successful plays, and they were averaging 13.6 yards per drop back. Credit the defense for clamping down after that; NIU’s last fourteen drop backs generated a grand total of 25 yards, with just two of them being successful plays, or only one more than interceptions. I still think the pass defense is a capital-P Problem, but at least they managed to eventually make NIU’s backup quarterback look bad.

Other than that, well, there was relatively little to complain about Saturday. Vanderbilt gave up a silly 51-yard rushing touchdown while NIU was trying to just get into field goal position toward the end of the first half; aside from that, the Huskies averaged just 3.4 yards per carry. And the Commodores’ offense did not have a single negative play on the day. That’s at least the second time that’s happened this season, with the Hawaii game also not including a single negative play for the offense. (I am guessing that will not be the case next week.)

Overall, this was a good day for the offense, but particularly in light of the fact that the offense was starting a true freshman, A.J. Swann, who took over as the starting quarterback in a bit of a surprise move (though not to Patrick, who told us in the writers’ email chain that this was rumored to be happening at the pregame tailgate.) It was a good second half for the defense, though the defense gave up four touchdowns on its first four drives before clamping down. The offense might have needed some time to get going, but eventually, talent prevailed.

That puts Vanderbilt at 3-1, and while three wins isn’t a big deal for most programs, well, it’s the first time that’s happened for Vanderbilt in three years. And, here are the times that Vanderbilt has had three or more wins in its first four games of the season going back to George MacIntyre’s first year (1979): 2017 (finished 5-7), 2011 (finished 6-7), 2008 (finished 7-6 after staring 5-0), 2007 (finished 5-7), 2005 (finished 5-6 after starting 4-0), 1999 (finished 5-6), 1984 (finished 5-6 after starting 4-0.) So, we’ve got a record we’ve reached just seven times in the previous 43 years. That seems like a positive sign.

What’s also a positive sign, in my opinion: Clark Lea seems to have figured out the offense before the defense. The defense has problems, sure; a lot of those at the moment seem to be related to injuries (particularly on the defensive line, which even after getting Devin Lee back is still missing two guys who would definitely be starting for this team), but a lot of the problems, particularly in the defensive backfield, relate to Derek Mason not recruiting enough speed and a lot of those guys still kicking around the program. The offense after switching to the guy Clark Lea recruited to play quarterback seems to be doing just fine.

(And now, I want to tell everyone to take absolutely nothing away from the next three games, but especially the games against Alabama and Georgia. Don’t freak out when those go badly.)

Individual Stats

Passing stats

Passing Comp Att Comp % Yds TD INT Sacks Yds Lost Net Yds Success Rate YPP
Passing Comp Att Comp % Yds TD INT Sacks Yds Lost Net Yds Success Rate YPP
A.J. Swann 18 28 64.29% 255 4 0 0 0 255 60.71% 9.1

Receiving stats

Receiving Targets Catches Yds TD Catch Rate Yds/Target Yds/Catch Success Rate
Receiving Targets Catches Yds TD Catch Rate Yds/Target Yds/Catch Success Rate
Will Sheppard 15 10 171 2 66.67% 11.4 17.1 66.67%
Jayden McGowan 5 4 43 0 80.00% 8.6 10.8 80.00%
Ray Davis 4 3 38 1 75.00% 9.5 12.7 50.00%
Gavin Schoenwald 1 1 3 1 100.00% 3.0 3.0 100.00%
Devin Boddie 1 0 0 0 0.00% 0.0 #DIV/0! 0.00%
Ben Bresnahan 1 0 0 0 0.00% 0.0 #DIV/0! 0.00%
Chase Gillespie 1 0 0 0 0.00% 0.0 #DIV/0! 0.00%

It’s hard to imagine a better debut for A.J. Swann, though I’ll reserve judgment on him until he faces a defense that didn’t spend all week preparing to face Mike Wright (and that isn’t Alabama or Georgia.) Meanwhile, Will Sheppard suddenly looks like a beast of a wide receiver now that he has a quarterback who can reliably get him the ball. Funny how that works.

Rushing stats

Rushing Att Yds YPA TD Success Success Rate
Rushing Att Yds YPA TD Success Success Rate
Ray Davis 23 116 5.04 1 12 52.17%
Chase Gillespie 10 48 4.8 0 4 40.00%
A.J. Swann 3 14 4.67 0 2 66.67%

A good, workmanlike day for Ray Davis as well, who didn’t have any big plays in the running game but did do the job of moving the chains and keeping Vanderbilt’s drives ahead of schedule, which is what they need him to do now that they appear to have a functional passing game.


There were a few highlights, notably from true freshman B.J. Diakite, who had 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack. Anfernee Orji led the team with 12 total tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss, and also caused the wounded duck that led to De’Rickey Wright’s game-sealing interception. Jeremy Lucien finally got into the starting lineup and broke up two passes.

Participation Report

On the offensive side, Julian Hernandez returned from injury and promptly reclaimed his starting job at center, though Delfin Xavier Castillo was a late scratch on the offensive line. On defense, Darren Agu got his second consecutive start, and as mentioned above, Jeremy Lucien displaced BJ Anderson as one of the starting cornerbacks.

As far as true freshman, here’s who has played so far this season with the number of games denoted. B.J. Diakite (4), Darren Agu (4), Jeffrey Ugochukwu (3. played Saturday), Langston Patterson (4), Steven Sannieniola (4), Ja’Dais Richard (4), A.J. Swann (3, played Saturday), Jayden McGowan (4), Chase Gillespie (4), Grayson Morgan (1, DNP Saturday), Bradley Mann (2, played Saturday), Yilanan Outtara (2, played Saturday.) It’s unclear how many of the guys who have played in all four games will end up getting shut down the rest of the way to preserve a redshirt; at the very least, McGowan and Agu are currently starters and obviously are going to continue playing, while Diakite is having an impact already on the defensive line. Chase Gillespie has been forced into action due to various, ahem, depth issues at running back (Maurice Edwards getting the boot, Rocko Griffin being hurt, Patrick Smith being suspended), though with Smith reportedly returning next week I wouldn’t be shocked if this is the last we see of Gillespie in 2022. As for the others, Vanderbilt probably could shut down Langston Patterson, Steven Sannieniola, and Ja’Dais Richard if it wants to, though it’s not clear if they do.

What’s Next

Bama. 6:30 Saturday night on the SEC Network. Prepare yourselves.