Three Matchups to Watch: Vanderbilt vs. Kentucky

After a disappointing loss to Missouri, the Commodores will continue their search for an SEC win this Saturday against Kentucky.


Emery Little

Vanderbilt linebacker Michael Owusu celebrates a play against Missouri on Oct. 30, 2021. (Hustler Multimedia/Emery Little)

Luke Rollfinke, Staff Writer

Fresh off a much-needed bye week, the Vanderbilt Commodores (2-6, 0-4) are set to take on the Kentucky Wildcats (6-3, 4-3) on Saturday, Nov. 13, in their final home game of the season.

Kentucky will enter the game looking to break a three-game losing streak that began with a loss to Georgia on Oct. 16. Prior to that game, the Wildcats were No. 11 in the AP poll. Kentucky now finds themselves out of the top 25 after losing to Mississippi State and the University of Tennessee.

Clark Lea and the Commodores will look to take advantage of the Wildcats’ recent struggles and earn their first SEC victory of the season. To do so, Vanderbilt will likely need the following three matchups to fall in their favor.

Running Back Chris Rodriguez Jr. vs. Vanderbilt’s Front Seven

Two weeks ago, one of the Hustler’s key matchups was Vanderbilt’s Front Seven vs. Missouri running back Tyler Badie. Badie went on to post 294 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns, making the difference for Mizzou in a heartbreaking loss for the Commodores. This week the pressure will be on the Vanderbilt front seven once again. The Commodores will need to forget their struggles of the past and shut down one of the SEC’s top running backs.

Rodriguez is currently second in the SEC in rushing yards, compiling 918 yards and five touchdowns through nine games. His 5.8 yards per carry is down from last year, but still good enough to place him among the top 10 running backs in the SEC. For a defense that is allowing nearly 185 rushing yards per game, Rodriguez could pose a serious problem. 

Fortunately for Vanderbilt, the one area in which Rodriguez has struggled in is creating big plays. Despite the success Badie had against the Commodores two weeks ago, Vanderbilt was able to stay in the game until his 73-yard silencing-run late in the fourth quarter. If the front seven can find a way to contain Rodriguez–– whose longest rush on the season is just 31 yards––they may be able to minimize his impact on the game.

J.J. Weaver vs. Vanderbilt Offensive Line

Considering that Kentucky is allowing the fourth-fewest rush yards per game in the SEC, Vanderbilt will need to find success in the passing game Saturday night. To do so, Clark Lea will need to limit the star of Kentucky’s defense, sophomore linebacker J.J. Weaver. Weaver is coming off of his best game of the season in which he recorded 2.5 sacks. As a result, he jumped up to fourth on the SEC sack leaderboard, tallying seven on the season. 

The Vanderbilt offensive line will have their hands full trying to keep Weaver away from quarterback Mike Wright. After a solid start to the season, the Commodores pass protection has allowed three sacks in three of their last four games. The offensive line will need to fare better this week if Vanderbilt is going to be able to put up points against Kentucky’s powerful defense. 

Vanderbilt Defense vs. Fourth Quarter Collapses

The Commodores have had two golden opportunities to pick up an SEC win in the past month but fourth-quarter collapses have cost them both. After taking a 20-14 lead with 1:36 left in the game against South Carolina, the Vanderbilt defense allowed the Gamecocks to march down the field and score a game-winning touchdown with ease. Two weeks later, the Commodores pulled within two points of Missouri late in the fourth quarter, needing one defensive stop to give the offense a chance to win the game. But the defense folded once again, allowing the Tigers to score a touchdown in just two plays.

In a game where Vanderbilt is a heavy underdog, the Commodores cannot afford a poor performance down the stretch. Despite their three losses on the season, Kentucky has yet to be outscored in the fourth quarter of a game. The Commodores will need to make sure that is not the case come Sunday morning.

Vanderbilt and Kentucky will kick off this Saturday at 6 p.m. CST from Vanderbilt Stadium.