On our podcast this week, I actually predicted that Vanderbilt would fall in this matchup against Wake Forest, 52-31. In the end, the Commodores faltered to the Demon Deacons, 45-25—one score better than my prediction.
This, though, was not how I expected this game to go. This, for the most part, was a sloppy, out-of-character effort from Vanderbilt in a steady downpour at FirstBank Stadium. It was a major regression from two of the key cogs who have made Vanderbilt’s wheels spin so far in 2022: Mike Wright and Joey Lynch.
It’s fair to say that both players had easily their worst games of the season on Saturday against Wake Forest. Wright finished his turnover-riddled afternoon 8-for-15 for 35 yards passing and added just 17 yards on the ground. He threw a pick-six and fumbled at the Vanderbilt 35-yard line, setting up another score for the Demon Deacons.
Lynch, for his part, dialed up an offensive attack to the tune of 294 total yards. The Commodores amassed just 10 first downs. They averaged 4.3 yards per play excluding the fourth quarter, by which point the contest was well decided. More so, the Vanderbilt offensive attack strategy lacked a cohesive plan of attack, especially early in the contest. After thrashing both Hawaii and Elon on the ground, the Commodores elected to pass the ball more times (10) than they ran the ball (9) in the first quarter.
With that aside, this was not a completely fruitless game effort for Vanderbilt. Particularly on defense, the Commodores exceeded my personal expectations, slowing the Wake Forest “slow mesh” to just 38 points and 451 yards of offense.
“I thought we showed early that defensively we were going to be able to go toe-to-toe,” head coach Clark Lea said after the contest. “On the whole, I felt like those guys battled. I thought the energy and spirit [were] there early.”
The weekly Commodore Brunch menu has gotten progressively less tasty as the season has gone on, and this week’s selection continues that trend. That doesn’t make it any less filling though—there’s certainly much to take away from Vanderbilt’s first loss of the 2022 season. On to the menu.
Recipe for disaster
Against Hawaii, Vanderbilt played complementary football, running the ball all over the Rainbow Warriors and supplementing it with good, hard-nosed defense. Against Elon, the Commodores continued that play through the first two-and-a-half quarters but wavered toward the end of the contest.
Lea mentioned the importance of getting back to a complementary style in his weekly Tuesday press conference, particularly against an opponent like Wake Forest.
“We want to play to our identity, and our identity has been kind of, first of all, establishing a run game. I think that can help you in this situation. We have to maintain possession of the ball, game control. If you look at defending an offense that scores 41 points per game, you’re looking at the longer that offense is on the sideline, the fewer opportunities they have to score. Again, game-control drives are important,” Lea said. “To sustain drives and finish with touchdowns, that’s going to be the goal. The more effectively we do that, the more competitive this game is going to be and the more exciting it’s going to be late.”
Vanderbilt played the opposite of complementary football on Saturday. In fact, the Commodores actively shot themselves in the foot, making Wake Forest’s already favorable task all the easier.
Instead of taking advantage of a slow start from Sam Hartman and the Demon Deacons, the Commodores managed just 3 points on their first two drives. The Vanderbilt defense, for its part, held Wake Forest off the scoreboard and swung momentum towards the Commodore side after an early goal-line stand.
That’s when things started to unravel.
With the chance to extend the drive and gain a two-score advantage on Wake Forest, Wright evaded defenders and rolled right away from trouble on 3rd and 7. In a theme that became all too common on Saturday, he then tried to hit a home run when he should have settled for a single. Despite being pulled down by a defender, Wright lofted a duck down the field into double coverage that was picked off and returned for a touchdown. 7-3 Wake Forest.
Vanderbilt followed that play up with a three-and-out before punting. The Vanderbilt defense allowed a 68-yard touchdown from Hartman to AT Perry on the very next play. 14-3 Wake Forest.
After the ensuing kickoff, Wright fumbled on the Vanderbilt 35-yard line on first down. Four plays later, another Hartman pass found the end zone. 21-3 Wake Forest.
And just like that, the game was essentially over just one play into the second quarter. Vanderbilt never crawled back to within single digits—not that they were expected to do so. A big part of stopping the Demon Deacon slow mesh, as Lea said, was not letting Wake Forest get out ahead to a large lead early and run away with the contest. Mission not accomplished.
Besides the obvious culprit (see: backbreaking turnovers giving an already potent offense free points), ineffective play calling and a lack of available personnel doomed Vanderbilt on Saturday.
In what was offensive coordinator Joey Lynch’s worst-called game of the season, Vanderbilt seemingly got away from their “zone-read, triple-option, hybrid attack” as I like to call it (we’re still workshopping the name). Freshman sensation Jayden McGowan rushed the ball exactly once on Saturday and backup running back Chase Gillespie touched it just eight times.
Part of that problem seemed to stem from Lynch’s impatience in countering the Wake slow mesh with a run-heavy approach. But another big culprit was the lack of availability in the Commodore running back room. Vanderbilt lacked the horses on Saturday for Lynch to fully commit to a ground-and-pound attack as Rocko Griffin sat out for the second straight game and Patrick Smith continued serving his looming suspension. With the dismissal of freshman tailback Maurice Edwards, the Commodores again were reduced to just two scholarship running backs in this game.
Overall, the lack of offensive punch did nothing to help a defensive effort that actually held up adequately against the Demon Deacons. Anfernee Orji (11 tackles) and Maxwell Worship (8 tackles) continued to shine for a defense that possesses more feistiness than that of years past and did their part on Saturday, despite what the final score may have read.
Lea, per usual, summed it up well after the contest.
“We knew that we couldn’t give the offense extra possessions. Giving up 21 points off turnovers is not going to be a formula against a good team, especially a good offense. Particularly the first one was a pick-off for a touchdown. I felt like early in the game we started fast on defense. I thought we were playing competitively in all three phases. But the interception for a touchdown was just a momentum killer,” Lea said. “I think we gotta look at the ball security and decisions with the ball, and that’s not just a player issue. That’s a coaching issue as well. But it’s unfortunate that we go into a game with clarity on what it’s going to take to beat a good opponent at home, and I thought the guys had the spirit and energy for it, but we lacked the discipline to carry through with our strategies. It caught up to us.”
1. an unpredictable or unforeseen event, typically one with extreme consequences.
With Vanderbilt down 35-10 as the third quarter ticked down, Lea did something that no head coach wants to do in September: He inserted his backup quarterback into the game. Freshman AJ Swann relieved Wright after the Commodore offense opened the second half with four straight punts followed by a Ray Davis fumble.
Swann proceeded to lead Vanderbilt on two scoring drives in his quarter and a half of action, finishing the game 8-11 for 146 yards and two touchdowns through the air.
The decision to bench Wright mid-game—coupled with the immediate success that Swann saw upon entering the game—unfurled a full-on quarterback debate for the Commodores, whether Lea wants to admit it or not.
Talk about extreme consequences.
“Mike’s our starting quarterback,” Lea said afterward. “He knows he’s gotta earn it every day. He’s a gifted player and he’s a playmaker and he has done so much good for us so far this season. The decision to get AJ out there was about what the team needed. We’ll always make that decision based [on] what we think positions us best to win.”
I’ll believe Lea. For now.
But when Vanderbilt inevitably goes down big on the road at Alabama in two weeks, where does the head man turn? How about when things get ugly in Athens the week after that?
The way this debate has happened this early in the season begs the question of whether Lea should continue to start Wright, the older and more experienced veteran (albeit the one he did not recruit), or press fast forward on the Vanderbilt rebuild and get his quarterback of the future, AJ Swann, meaningful game reps in 2022.
I’ll bring back what the man said himself: “The decision to get AJ out there was about what the team needed. We’ll always make that decision based [on] what we think positions us best to win.”
I’ve been as big of a Mike Wright supporter as there is over the past three years. I still believe if Vanderbilt tailors an offensive to his strengths it can be genuinely successful, even in the SEC. But that opinion doesn’t bypass the legitimacy of the Swann argument in 2022. After all, Lea has to think about, as he says, what puts his team in the best position to win both now and in the future. With Swann now firmly in the mix, figuring out that dynamic between the two will be the storyline of the 2022 season as it unfolds.
It’s certainly not time to pull the plug on Wright just yet, but, in my opinion, Saturday’s decision to play Swann gives you an idea of where Lea leans on that debate. For him and his Vanderbilt program, the future might just be now.
Next week, Vanderbilt will head to DeKalb, Illinois, to take on the Northern Illinois Huskies. Going on the road to play a MAC opponent as one of the Commodore’s four non-conference games is completely inexplicable and unnecessarily difficult for Lea and his program. My only guess as to why a home-and-home was scheduled with the Huskies was perhaps because former head coach Derek Mason wanted his team to visit Hawaii and Chicago in the same season.
As a native of the Windy City, I have grim news for Mason: DeKalb is nowhere close to Chicago. I’m pretty sure that the Commodores will fly into the Rockford Airport instead of Ohare or Midway, which is significantly closer to the Northern Illinois campus.
Nonetheless, Vanderbilt will be tasked with their second true road game of the non-conference season (another inexplicable fact!) when they face the Huskies. Luckily for the Commodores, Northern Illinois is just 1-1 on the season with their lone victory a 34-27 win over FCS Eastern Illinois (shoutout Tony Romo and Jimmy Garropolo, sorry I’m totally ranting on my Illinois knowledge). It’s a matchup that should be winnable.
For the Commodores, and especially Wright and Lynch, this game will be about getting back to basics and rekindling identity. For Lea, it’s a chance to see his program respond to adversity and bounce back from a disappointing loss, something that mostly eluded Team 1 last year.
“We do have a long way to go, but it’s about taking the good things that happened on the field, and there are going to be some positives that we can highlight and build on, and then learning,” Lea remarked afterward. “We don’t like the result, but we are going to focus on the things that today showed us. From that, we’re going to evolve forward. We’ve got a great chance to do that on the road again next week. We quickly shift focus and come out with a better and more consistent approach, hopefully, to lead to a better, more consistent performance.”
That mindset in and of itself will make this game valuable despite my angst at the trip as it is. Building upon adversity is what can separate Team 2 from Team 1 more so than simply the plethora of additional talent that Lea’s second team has. Getting healthy, solving the offensive issues and the potential quarterback dilemma, as well as “evolving forward” will be paramount in determining if this team can start 3-1. To DeKalb, we go.