Three Matchups to Watch: Vanderbilt vs. Northern Illinois

Vanderbilt looks to rebound from a disappointing performance as they take on the Huskies on Saturday afternoon.

Vanderbilt+defeats+Northern+Illinois+24-18+on+September+28%2C+2019.+Photo+by+Mattigan+Kelly

Mattigan Kelly

Vanderbilt defeats Northern Illinois 24-18 on September 28, 2019. Photo by Mattigan Kelly

David Hernandez, Staff Writer

After an eye-catching 2-0 start, the Commodores hit a roadblock against nationally ranked Wake Forest. The powerful running game that acted as a spearhead for the first two wins for Vanderbilt was stalled, amounting to a mere 113 yards on the ground. Quarterback Mike Wright struggled immensely, finishing the game on the bench as head coach Clark Lea pulled him out in favor of freshman AJ Swann. Between sloppy play and disastrous mistakes on both sides of the ball, Vanderbilt fell to the Demon Deacons 45-25

On Sept. 17th, Vanderbilt faces a new challenge in the defending MAC champions Northern Illinois (NIU). Currently sitting at 1-1, the Huskies most recently came off a deflating three-point loss to Tusla, a game in which NIU managed to roar back from being down 17 at half only to lose on a last-minute touchdown. Led by former Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi, Northern Illinois also aims to bounce back from their defeat in Week Two. 

This week, the Hustler analyzes what matchups will be crucial if the Commodores want to walk out of DeKalb 3-1 on the year. 

1. Vanderbilt receiving corps vs. Northern Illinois secondary

Although the rushing attack has been the center of Vanderbilt’s offense, last week showed that offensive coordinator Joey Lynch isn’t afraid to switch it up if needed. Especially with Patrick Smith remaining sidelined and Rocko Griffin returning from an injury, the depth at running back is questionable. Yet, Vanderbilt gets to face a young defensive group who has struggled in both games against lower levels of competition in Eastern Illinois and Tulsa. This Huskies secondary has allowed nearly 300 yards through the air per game, meaning Vanderbilt must capitalize on this weakness with a devastating passing attack if they want to win on Saturday. 

Even though Wright has shown off his electrifying capability as a runner, his threat as a passer shouldn’t be overlooked. Through three games, Wright has completed 60% of his throws, tossing six touchdowns and only one lone interception. 

Additionally, Vanderbilt receivers have shown flashes of their talent. Junior Will Shepherd, who currently is tied for the national lead in receiving touchdowns with five, and first-year Jayden McGowan have been the two primary pass catchers for the Commodores so far. Both have displayed unique skill sets, and there truly is no reason why either man can’t have a big day against Northern Illinois.

2. Vanderbilt pass rush vs. Northern Illinois offensive line

One of the major improvements Vanderbilt has made from the year prior has come on the defensive side of the football. As a unit last year, the defense only combined for nine sacks, a lowly number that this year’s squad should pass based on where they are three games into the season. Even with the early blow of losing pass rusher Miles Capers to a season-ending knee injury, the Commodores have still managed to ramp up some intensity at key moments this season. With the secondary facing some troubles against Elon and Wake Forest, the pass rush being at its best and wreaking havoc in the backfield could alleviate the pressure placed upon the rest of the defense. 

The Northern Illinois offensive line isn’t as dominating as other Power Five opponents, yet they still are a stout group with loads of depth and experience. Returning four out of the five starters has allowed the Huskies to have consistent performances to start, considering this offensive line is mainly the one that only gave up 0.79 sacks per game in 2021. That success has been maintained this year, as zero sacks have been allowed in the 2022 campaign. 

Look for the Vanderbilt pass rush to get after quarterback Lombardi often, setting the tone for what should be an amped up defense.

3. Mike Wright vs. rising questions

There is no doubt that Wright’s performance against Wake Forest was the worst of his career. After a dazzling beginning to the season, the magic ran out last Saturday. Being held to a mere 52 yards total and turning the ball over twice, the junior quarterback was benched by Lea in the third quarter. First-year Swann was let loose on the field, finishing the game efficiently as he led Vanderbilt on two scoring drives, both of which were capped off by touchdown passes from the former four-star recruit. Lea has reasserted that Wright will be the starter going into their matchup with Northern Illinois; however, if another abysmal performance occurs, questions will be asked. 

The season is still young though, and Swann still has much to prove if he is to take over the starting role. Wright has shown he can lead Vanderbilt to wins, but once the competition grows greater with the future slate of SEC contests, the pressure surrounding him will develop depending on how he plays. This weekend will be one of the prime opportunities for Wright to show why Lea chose him for the job back in July.