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

Vanderbilt overpowered by No. 23 Wake Forest, lose 45-25

Despite a promising start, early mistakes proved to be too much to overcome as the Commodores fell to Wake Forest.
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Arianna Santiago
Vanderbilt’s offense struggled all afternoon against a stout Wake Forest unit. (Arianna Santiago/Hustler Multimedia)

On a rainy Saturday afternoon in Nashville, Vanderbilt fell 45-25 to the No. 23 Wake Forest Demon Deacons. It was a game in which Vanderbilt could not get much going offensively, committing three turnovers and having nearly as many punts (8) as first downs (10).

After two electrifying performances against Hawaii and Elon to start the season, quarterback Mike Wright completed just 8 of 15 passes for 35 yards and committed two turnovers. 

“We knew we couldn’t give that offense extra possessions. Giving up 21 points off of turnovers is not going to be a formula to win,” head coach Clark Lea said after the game. “It’s unfortunate that we went into a game knowing what it was going to take to beat a good opponent at home but didn’t have the discipline to carry through with our strategy.”

The afternoon started positively for the Commodores, with a 28-yard burst up the middle from Ray Davis marking the game’s first play from scrimmage. Despite being slowed at midfield and forced to punt, the Commodores’ defense held Wake Forest to a quick three-and-out and earn possession back. Vanderbilt’s offense capitalized on their second opportunity after being put in the red zone by a Wright pass that found Davis down the sideline for a 24-yard gain. Following three forced incompletions, the Commodores settled for a 35-yard field goal from Joseph Bulovas to earn them an early lead. 

After a rusty start for the Wake Forest offense, the Demon Deacons were able to march down the field on the Commodores following a strong kick return that gave them possession at midfield. Following a questionable unnecessary roughness call on Hartman, Wake Forest found themselves with a fresh set of downs within the Commodores’ 7-yard line. After a 2nd down rushing attempt put Wake Forest on the one-yard line, Vanderbilt’s defensive line was miraculously able to hold off Wake’s rushing attack on both third and fourth down to force a turnover on downs. 

The euphoria inside FirstBank Stadium didn’t last long. After a strong start to their drive, Vanderbilt’s offense was forced into a 3rd and long attempt within their own red zone. Scrambling out to his right and under heavy pressure, Wright floated an ill-advised pass down the right sideline intended for Will Sheppard. After a few juggles in the Wake Forest secondary, the ball was eventually intercepted by Coby Davis, who turned and ran 31 yards to the endzone, giving Wake Forest a 7-3 lead. 

For Vanderbilt, bad soon went to worse. The Commodores’ offense was not able to find any gaps in a relentless Wake Forest front seven and were forced to punt back after three failed rushing attempts. On the first play of Wake Forest’s drive, Hartman executed Wake Forest’s slow mesh to perfection and lofted a beautiful pass down the seam to wideout A.T. Perry, who scored with a 68-yard touchdown to extend Wake Forest’s lead to 14-3.

Vanderbilt’s ensuing possession resulted in disaster once again. After deciding to keep the ball on an RPO (run-pass option), Wright was drilled from behind by Wake Forest’s JaCorey Johns and fumbled, giving the Demon Deacons the ball back within the Commodores’ 35-yard line. With just three plays, Hartman marched Wake Forest down the field, finishing the drive off with a short 2-yard touchdown pass as the second quarter began. After looking shaky on his first drive back, Hartman was leading Wake Forest’s offense with determination. 

Following another sloppy three-and-out from the Commodores’ offense, Vanderbilt was given the ball back with great field position after the ensuing punt was fumbled by Wake Forest’s punt returner. Following four consecutive rushing plays, the Commodores found the endzone on a Davis attempt from just two yards out, cutting Wake Forest’s lead to 21-10. 

Vanderbilt built off of this momentum, forcing a punt midway through the second quarter after a holding call on Wake Forest’s offense crippled their drive. Vanderbilt’s ensuing possession ended once again with a punt but featured a questionable no-call on a late hit against Wright, animating the crowd well into Wake Forest’s next possession. After a big hit on Hartman ended Wake Forest’s drive, skirmishes broke out between both teams on the Vanderbilt sideline as the crowd got behind the Commodores and tempers flared. The first half came to a close unceremoniously, with both teams trading multiple punts as they fought the slippery conditions on the field. 

Vanderbilt’s defense started strongly in the second half but was forced to stay on the field after a 49-yard connection between Hartman and Perry on third-and-long. Once in Vanderbilt’s half of the field, the Demon Deacons methodically cut through Vanderbilt’s defense. After earning a first down within Vanderbilt’s 10-yard line, Hartman found wideout Taylor Morin on a crossing route for a nine-yard touchdown, extending Wake Forest’s lead to 28-10 just three minutes into the second half. 

Mistakes continued to haunt Vanderbilt’s offense as the third quarter wore on. After punts by both teams, the Commodores found themselves with the ball and a fresh set of downs within their 20-yard line. Following a big loss on 1st down, Wright and Davis miscommunicated on a handoff, resulting in another fumble and turnover for the Commodores. Taking over with great field position, Hartman threw another touchdown just two plays later on a well-designed screenplay to tight end Cameron Hithe. 

With Vanderbilt’s offense struggling heavily and Wake Forest’s lead at 35-10 as the third quarter wound down, Vanderbilt turned to backup QB AJ Swann at quarterback for the Commodores’ next possession. On Swann’s first pass attempt, he connected with fellow freshman Jayden McGowan for a 50-yard gain as the shifty wideout took a screen pass down the sideline. Following an 18-yard connection with Sheppard, Swann found him once again with a beautifully-thrown ball in the corner of the endzone for Vanderbilt’s second touchdown. Swann ran in to convert the 2-point conversion shortly after to cut Wake Forest’s lead to 35-18. 

Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, this play was followed by more of the same from Wake Forest’s offense. The Commodores’ defense struggled to slow down the Demon Deacons’ attack. Following consecutive chunk plays by Hartman, Wake Forest running back Quinton Cooley showcased great vision on a 24-yard touchdown up the middle which increased Wake Forest’s lead to 42-18. Following the touchdown, Swann’s second possession did not go nearly as well as his first, with Vanderbilt’s offense being forced to the sideline after a quick three-and-out. With a healthy lead intact, Wake Forest’s offensive approach changed as they tried to run down the clock. Still, the Demon Deacons were able to move the ball down the field with ease and found themselves nearing the goal line once again. After a Commodores pass breakup on third down, Wake Forest opted to make it a four-score game with a short field goal, earning a 45-18 lead. 

With time winding down in the fourth quarter, Swann managed to string together a pair of chunk plays to push Vanderbilt into the red zone. After a Cooper Lutz rush placed the offense at the 7-yard line, Swann found tight end Gavin Schoenwald along the right sideline for a touchdown to cut Wake Forest’s lead to 45-25, where it would stay. 

“The program will bounce back because we have a belief in what we’re building,” Lea said. “Today was an indicator of where we are. We have to take the learning and grow from this, and keep moving forward.”

Following the loss, Vanderbilt moves to 2-1 on the season. They will travel to face Northern Illinois next Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CDT.

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About the Contributors
Anish Mago, Deputy Sports Editor
Anish Mago ('24) is from West Windsor, N.J., and is studying economics and political science in the College of Arts and Science. He previously served as a staff writer for the Sports section. When not writing for The Hustler, Anish enjoys playing basketball and rooting for all Philly sports. He can be reached at .
Arianna Santiago, Senior Staff Photographer
Arianna Santiago ('24) is from Bremerton, Wash., and studying electrical and computer engineering in the School of Engineering. When not shooting for The Hustler or for freelance work, Arianna can be found leading campus tours, organizing events for University Catholic, attempting to study and procrastinating her lab reports. You can reach her at [email protected].
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