The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

Commodores stunned 23-3 by ETSU in Clark Lea’s debut

The Clark Lea era began in a grueling, 23-3 Vanderbilt loss on Saturday behind a lackluster effort on both sides of the ball.
Vanderbilt Athletics
Ken Seals calls a play in Vanderbilt’s early season loss to ETSU. (Vanderbilt Athletics).

In one of the most confusing and unexpected performances in Vanderbilt sports history, the Commodores dropped their season opener and Clark Lea’s head coaching debut to East Tennessee State on Saturday by a final score of 23-3. Despite entering the contest as 21-point favorites, Lea’s group was dominated at both lines of scrimmage by their FCS opponent and struggled to move the ball all night long en route to the loss. The loss marked the first time an SEC school has lost to an FCS opponent since South Carolina lost to The Citadel in 2015 and extends Vanderbilt’s losing streak to 11 games over three seasons.

“This is a learning moment as a program, an indicator of where we are and where we need to start building from. And obviously, like I said, we have a locker room full of players that are very disappointed,” Lea said after the game.

Vanderbilt’s night was epitomized by an inexplicable fourth-quarter fumble by quarterback Ken Seals that allowed a simple scoop and score for ETSU. The touchdown ballooned the Buccaneer lead to 20-3—more than enough to finish off the unenthused Commodores. But on the ensuing possession, ETSU housed a Seals pick—his first of two on the night—that came inside the ETSU 10-yard line. The touchdown was negated due to penalty, but set the Buccaneers up for their last scoring effort of the game: a 34-yard field goal to finalize the upset.

Lea elected to platoon Seals and Mike Wright all night long and it yielded little success. Neither was able to find any sort of rhythm, totaling just 236 yards on 43 attempts. The Commodores failed to score a single touchdown all night and registered two red-zone turnovers.

“The plan was always to use both. We wanted to get Mike in sometime early in the second quarter just to give him a chance to run the offense,” Lea said. “We’ll look at the film and figure out where the breakdowns were, what created the confusion for the quarterback and find where the improvements are and make them. It’s discouraging. I know that both those guys are extremely prideful, and they’re disappointed. But I’m proud to coach them and I’m excited to get back to work with them.”

ETSU didn’t do anything spectacular on the offensive side of the ball, but they took advantage of key situations and rode star running back Quay Holmes all night long. The redshirt junior totaled 142 yards on the night and was consistently the catalyst behind the Buccaneers’ upset.

After four straight punts between the teams to open the game, the Commodores notched their lone first-half points in a rather unexpected way—a deep, 53-yard field goal from fifth-year senior Joey Bulovas. After a 31-yard connection between Ken Seals and Chris Pierce Jr., Vanderbilt entered ETSU territory before a sack and penalty pushed them back towards midfield. But it didn’t matter for Bulovas as he nailed Vanderbilt’s longest field goal since 2018 in his Commodore debut.

Despite naming Seals the starter, Lea made it clear that Mike Wright would also get an opportunity to play meaningful snaps. Wright got that opportunity late in the first quarter and flashed his speed with a handful of quality runs. Early in the second quarter, however, he was blind-side sacked and eventually went back to the locker room, giving way to Seals.

ETSU broke the touchdown ice with a 5-yard completion to Malik Murray in the middle of the second quarter. The touchdown capped an impressive 9-play, 80-yard drive in which the Commodores were unable to generate any pass rush and allowed a 3rd-and-14 conversion to Buccaneers’ running back Quay Holmes.

The Commodore secondary continued to look a step slow late in the first half, allowing grabs of 43 and 36 yards that set up ETSU scoring efforts. A Ridell 36-yard bomb to Will Huzzie set up a field goal that gave the Buccaneers a 10-3 lead before the halftime break.

Lea’s bunch entered the locker room at halftime after not registering a single tackle for loss or sack and tallying five of their eight total penalties.

ETSU continued dominating both lines of scrimmage in the second half. A 10-play, 68-yard drive—63 of which were found on the ground by Holmes—grew the Buccaneers lead to 13-3 early in the third before penalties crept back in on the Commodores. Wright, who returned to play despite injuring his shoulder in the first half, led the Commodores down the field on their first third-quarter drive and threw a touchdown pass to Pierce that was quickly mitigated by an ineligible receiver downfield. That drive ended in an ugly turnover on downs—Vanderbilt’s fourth straight unsuccessful drive.

The final frame brought no more success for Vanderbilt—more penalties and ETSU’s second touchdown of the game that was the nail in the coffin for Vanderbilt. Will Sheppard led the way offensively, reeling in nine catches for 84 yards, but it was not close to enough in the beatdown.

“They capitalized on our mistakes, we made too many of them, they shortened the game, they took possessions away from our offense, we turned the ball over, and we weren’t able to finish drives with touchdowns,” Lea said. “And it becomes that simple.”

The Clark Lea era will continue next week with his squad’s first road test: a trip to Fort Collins, Colorado, for a tilt against Colorado State. The Rams dropped their first game of the season to South Dakota State on Saturday and will host the Commodores at 9 p.m. CDT next weekend.

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About the Contributor
Justin Hershey, Former Sports Editor
Justin Hershey ('22) was Sports Editor for The Vanderbilt Hustler. He has been on staff since freshman year, previously serving as a Staff Writer, Deputy Sports Editor and Lead Sports Analyst. He majored in human and organizational development with minors in business and economics. In addition to writing, he hosts The Hustler Sports 30 Podcast, enjoys playing golf and is waiting for his hometown Philadelphia 76ers to complete The Process. For tips and comments, feel free to reach out to: [email protected]    
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