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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.

Behind Enemy Bylines: Northern Illinois

The Hustler went Behind Enemy Bylines, interviewing Skyler Kissellus, the Sports Editor for the Northern Star, the student newspaper at Northern Illinois, to preview Vanderbilt’s upcoming matchup with the Huskies.
Vanderbilt Athletics
Vanderbilt prepares for their Week 3 matchup against Northern Illinois. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

The Commodores are coming off of their first loss of the year, falling to No. 23 Wake Forest 45-25 at FirstBank. Vanderbilt was neck and neck with the Demon Deacons early, holding a 3-0 lead late into the first quarter. 

That lead became an afterthought quickly when Wake poured on 21 points on 9 total plays from scrimmage late in the first quarter into the early second. Early season darling Mike Wright was hard to watch, going 8-for-15 for 35 yards with a pick six and a fumble, and backup quarterback AJ Swann came in and went 8-for-11 for 146 yards and 2 scores, bringing up questions about a possible quarterback controversy.

Next week, Vanderbilt will take a trip north to face reigning MAC champions Northern Illinois. Vandy is 4-0 all time against the Huskies, the most recent matchup being a 24-18 victory in 2019. All matchups between the two teams have been decided by 10 points or less, and three out of the four have been decided by just a score. NIU is led by former Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi.

Prior to kickoff, The Hustler went Behind Enemy Bylines and interviewed Skyler Kisellus, the Sports Editor for the NIU Northern Star, to preview Vanderbilt’s matchup with Northern Illinois.

Vanderbilt Hustler: Northern Illinois is a team that was picked by many in the national media to win the MAC this year, but dropped a big non-conference game to Tulsa. How do you think this team will try to fight back?

Skyler Kisellus: I believe this team can try to fight back by going back to their core values. The way this team plays can really shift based on game script. We have a three-headed dog at running back—a trio of sophomores named Mason Blakemore, Antario Brown and Harrison Waylee. In the week one game against Eastern Illinois, they combined for 150 yards and 3 touchdowns in the first half. In the second game it kind of shifted because the Tulsa defense proved they could stifle the run game. With this Vanderbilt team coming up, I believe the fight back is going to be reactionary to how that team starts off, so if Vanderbilt can keep Lombardi contained early, we’ll probably turn to the run game pretty heavily. This is an offense that more or less rides the hot hand, and though Harrison might be listed as the starter, if Antario or Mason starts performing, there’s no doubt they’ll be fed, especially if the passing game is stifled.

VH: Speaking of those two games earlier this year, they were more or less polar opposites in game script, making a second half comeback but falling short against Tulsa and blowing a second half lead but holding on against Eastern Illinois. What do you think it’ll take to keep a consistent level of play through all 60 minutes?

SK: A consistent 60 minutes of play is going to be a lot about the defense, because the offense has shown it can make plays when it needs to. Last season, we kind of adopted the moniker of the “Cardiac Canines” because seven of our games were decided by one score or less, so 60 minutes hasn’t been a strength year in and year out. Then, already this year, we almost saw a comeback by Eastern Illinois and almost came back in the fourth quarter against Tulsa. The key is making sure that we can get the offense going and making sure that the defense is not just letting teams have their way with us. There was some good in the second half [last week], but there were some times when they just could not make a stop. So, I think defensive consistency is going to be the core of it.

VH: Sticking with defense, I know cornerback Eric Rogers won MAC defensive player of the week (DPOTW) for his two interception performance in week one. Are there any other notable players to watch out for on that defensive front?

SK: For sure. We have Jordan Gandy; he is on the opposite side from Rogers. I believe Rogers was actually cornerback  two on our initial depth chart. I don’t know if he has ascended since, but Gandy does well on his side of the field. And then C.J. Brown, he’s our All-MAC second team safety. He had a missed tackle in our last game that was kind of concerning, where the receiver just brushed him off, but Brown is definitely very good in coverage. Also Izayah Green-May; he transferred in from Wisconsin. He’s in our starting lineup, and then you’ve got James Ester at the nose tackle spot, he’s been solid.

VH: How do you think Lombardi has fit into this offense and what kind of dimensions do you think he brings from Michigan State?

SK: I think he’s a great dual-threat option for our team. At Michigan State, he was more of a pocket passer—he wasn’t really running around too much. Now, he comes to NIU and plays under Thomas Hammock, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame next month for his time as a running back here. Now, Lombardi comes into this offense, and Hammock’s got him running some more. So, Lombardi is definitely able to use his legs to keep defenses on their toes which is especially valuable given the three-headed rushing attack behind him and the lack of receiving talent after wideout Travon Rudolph’s season-ending injury right before week one. If it’s a team that defends the run well, we can lean on Lombardi and the passing game. If it’s a team with a stout secondary, we can turn to Lombardi’s legs and that multifaceted running game.

VH: So he enables the Huskie offense to be sort of like a chameleon type of offense?

SK: Yes, I would say the chameleon type of thing. They kind of adapt to the type of game they are in, and a lot of that is thanks to Lombardi.

VH: What are the keys to the game for the Huskies this week? 

SK: Really, it’s going to be getting off to a fast start because Vanderbilt is a team that dropped 60 on Hawaii and then only lost by 20 to a ranked opponent in Wake Forest, so the biggest thing is getting the momentum early like we did against Eastern [Illinois]. The key to beating the Commodores this weekend is going to be getting fast starts, getting our offense trends established and having our defense keyed in early, so as to not let Vanderbilt get on their own run early. If we fall behind to an SEC opponent early, we are probably going to need another edition of the “Cardiac Canines.”

VH: What is your prediction for the game on Saturday?

SK: As much as I love the Huskies, only winning by seven points against an FCS squad and then with the missed opportunities against Tulsa, those types of mistakes will be hard to overcome going into SEC play. My prediction is 38-24, and I think Vanderbilt is going to edge us.

VH: Thanks Skyler, and good luck this weekend!

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About the Contributor
Noah Roslin, Former Staff Writer
Noah Roslin ('26) is planning to double major in human and organizational development and economics in Peabody College. When not writing for The Hustler, you can usually find Noah at the hockey rink, at the tennis courts or at home looking for new Soundcloud remixes.
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