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.

Three Matchups to Watch: Vanderbilt vs. Kentucky

Following a tumultuous week on West End on and off the field, the Commodores will look to respond in what could be the most important stretch of the Clark Lea era to date.
Mattigan Kelly
Patrick Smith runs against a Kentucky defender, as captured on Nov. 13, 2021. (Hustler Multimedia/Mattigan Kelly)

It’s been a chaotic week for Vanderbilt football on and off the field. After waiting to take action in response to defensive backs coach Dan Jackson’s Facebook endorsement of Ye and his recent slew of antisemitic comments, the Commodores were mangled on their own turf by South Carolina, a game many considered to be the most winnable SEC bout that Vanderbilt faced all season. The Commodores allowed nearly 500 yards and a jaw-dropping 7.8 yards per play to Spencer Rattler and a Gamecock offense that has been putrid for much of the season. With the defeat, Vanderbilt’s SEC losing streak climbs to 26 games.

To make matters worse, freshman quarterback AJ Swann exited with just over one minute remaining in the first half of the play with an injury, marking the second time in as many games that backup QB Mike Wright has had to come in and finish the job for the Commodores. Vanderbilt’s poorly-timed turnovers, sloppy secondary play and acute inability to get out of their own way rendered this game a blowout by halftime.

With all that being said, this upcoming week could be a huge indicator for the direction that this program is going. If Lea really meant what he said at SEC Media Day about his intention to make this program the best in the nation, there is perhaps not a more critical week in the season where changes need to be made both on and off the field to reflect this intention. On Monday night, Candice Lee announced that Jackson would be stepping away whilst his comments were being further investigated. It will be up to Lea & Co. to make the right decisions in all respects in the coming week if they hope to continue to build this program.

On the football side of things, Vanderbilt will have an opportunity to capture their first win since Sep. 17 and first SEC win in over three years when they travel to Lexington to take on Kentucky. 

The Wildcats started the season on a roll, winning their first four games behind the leadership of presumed NFL first-round pick Will Levis. Things have cooled down since then, though, as Levis has struggled with injury and Kentucky has sputtered to the effect of a 2-3 record in October. In their most recent game, the Wildcats barely snuck past Missouri, winning 21-17. Kentucky looked uninspiring last Saturday. The team’s recent performances have certainly showcased some of the fundamental weaknesses of this team. If the Commodores can execute on these deficiencies, they could secure a desperately-needed win. 

Here’s what needs to happen for Vanderbilt this week to shift the narrative of this program. 

The ‘Big Blue Wall’ vs. the Commodore front four

Okay, this name may be just a tad ironic this year. Kentucky’s offensive line has been nothing short of putrid this season, offering Levis paper-thin protection on seemingly every down. Try this one on for size: Kentucky ranks 128th out of 131 in sacks allowed, at a whooping 36 in just 9 games. Those 36 sacks have amounted to the Wildcats losing a total of 244 offensive yards. Swiss-cheese offensive line play is certainly not a recipe to winning football games.

Kentucky lost two stalwarts on their line in the offseason in Luke Fortner and Darian Kinnard, who were drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars and Kansas City Chiefs, respectively. Zach Yesner was brought in from the San Francisco 49ers by Mark Stoops to maintain Kentucky’s ‘Big Blue Wall’ reputation and has disappointed so far. Without time to sit in the pocket and let plays develop, Levis cannot properly utilize his elite arm talent. Standout freshmen Barion Brown and Dane Key simply do not have enough time to use their route running ability and pure speed to their ability.

It’s up to the Commodores to apply the pressure from the jump. Vanderbilt ranks near the bottom of the FBS in teams sacks (T-114th), but is much more successful in terms of team tackles for loss (T-67th). The Commodores will have to get creative and dial up some pressure to execute on Kentucky’s reeling line. If Vanderbilt gives Levis anywhere near the time they afforded Spencer Rattler, it will surely be another long day for this Commodores defense, who has now allowed 38 or more points in 4 of their last 5 games.

Ray Davis vs. finding consistency

After a few lackluster performances in a row, Vanderbilt running back Ray Davis ran wild last Saturday, putting up 167 yards on a ridiculous 8.4 yards per carry. When Davis has gotten rolling on the ground, Vanderbilt has contended in games. It’s as simple as that. Unfortunately, Vanderbilt had too many unforced errors, turnovers, missed tackles and coverage busts against the Gamecocks to be able to stick with the run game and truly allow Davis to dominate South Carolina in the trenches. 

For a team that has been killed by turnovers this year, Davis has served as a welcome departure from this concerning trend, only losing one fumble on Sept. 10 against Wake Forest. If the Commodores can take care of the football, keeping them out of an early hole, they can afford to keep the ball on the ground and can essentially let Davis cook. 

Kentucky has not allowed a 100-yard rusher since they were defeated by the Gamecocks over a month ago. This season, the Wildcats rank 29th in the FBS in rushing defense. They are surrendering an average of 120.7 yards per game. While these numbers are by no means inspiring, the Wildcats will serve as one of the tougher defensive tests for the Commodores’ ground game. If Vanderbilt can run early and run often, Davis & Co. may be able to grab a lead out of the gate, control the pace of the game and get this team a much-needed upset victory in Lexington.

Vanderbilt vs. controversy

The Jackson situation marks the first significant and public off-field controversy that Lea has been faced with handling. Jackson’s comments—made on social media for everyone to see—are part of a spike of antisemitism nationwide. Vanderbilt football and the university have garnered national attention in the last week in the worst way possible. 

While Jackson stepping away from the team and the Equal Opportunity and Access Office opening an investigation into his comments are positive steps toward addressing the issue, there is no getting around the inexplicable fact that he was allowed to coach against South Carolina. Jackson’s presence on the sideline Saturday undoubtedly served as an unnecessary distraction for the program.

Vanderbilt’s response to Jackson’s defense of Ye has been slow, fumbling, awkward and inadequate. Statements from Lea, Lee and Chancellor Daniel Diermeier condemning antisemitism are not enough to resolve the situation if Vanderbilt hopes to maintain the high institutional reputation and morality that it prides itself on. Alongside the immense challenge that Kentucky will pose to the Commodores this weekend, this program will be tasked with concurrently making decisions that will determine what kind of team and institution it truly is.

Amid an identity-defining time for the squad, Vanderbilt will kick things off with Kentucky at 11 a.m. CST at Kroger Field on Saturday, Nov. 12.

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About the Contributors
Jonah Barbin
Jonah Barbin, Sports Podcast Producer
Jonah Barbin (‘25) is majoring in human and organizational development and cinema and media studies. In addition to writing about sports, you can catch him acting, scouring the fantasy football waiver wire, playing golf and fantasizing about what Odell Beckham Jr.’s career would have been if the Giants never traded him. You can reach him at [email protected].
Mattigan Kelly
Mattigan Kelly, Former Deputy Multimedia Director
Mattigan Kelly ('22) was Deputy Multimedia Director for The Vanderbilt Hustler. She has been on the staff since her freshman year. Mattigan majored in chemical engineering in the School for Engineering. In addition to shooting for The Hustler, she was the Development Coordinator for Camp Kesem at Vanderbilt, works in a research lab on campus and plays Club Tennis.
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