Commodore Brunch Week 11: A Moment to Remember
Vanderbilt thoroughly outplayed Kentucky on Saturday, breaking an SEC losing streak and providing a blueprint for the future in the process.
November 13, 2022
For all the great things the Commodores did in the run game and defensively, they (and we) still sweated until the final seconds of this one. Did you expect anything else from Vanderbilt?
But it’s because of that very reason that makes this win so special.
I’ve seen this script enough times in my four years at Vanderbilt. Many of you have seen it more than enough times in your more-than-four-years as a Vanderbilt fan.
The Commodores, despite running wild on Kentucky and playing their A game on defense, were going to find a way to blow this. Heading into the fourth quarter up 14-9, the looming sense of dread was inescapable. We’ve seen this before.
Vanderbilt turned it over on downs on their opening drive of the fourth quarter, paving the way for a 7-play, 66 yard drive to give Kentucky a 15-14 lead. Gulp.
But then the Commodores fought back.
A 12-play, 67 yard drive of their own that shaved off almost six minutes of clock and ended in a field goal to push Vanderbilt back out to a 17-15 advantage.
Two plays later, Kentucky’s Chris Rodriguez broke free for a 72-yard touchdown to give Kentucky a 21-17 lead right back. Gulp.
But then the Commodores fought back.
On a program-defining drive for Clark Lea, Vanderbilt didn’t make things any easier on themselves. After picking up an initial first down, Wright and the offense faced 4th and 7 from their own 37-yard line. Wright scanned the field, scrambled around and found nothing, forcing a bad pass into traffic that was intercepted.
One problem: a Kentucky defensive lineman ripped the helmet off of Gunnar Hansen, eliciting a 15-yard personal foul penalty. The Commodores had life.
Again, in true Vanderbilt fashion, the offense made it as difficult as possible for themselves. After losing a yard on the next three plays combined, Vanderbilt faced a 4th and 11. Mike Wright calmly dropped back, stepped up and fired a bomb downfield. Somehow, Quincy Skinner Jr. sprung free and made a terrific adjustment to come back to the ball.
Vanderbilt fans probably watched through their fingers.
— Vanderbilt Football (@VandyFootball) November 12, 2022
The Commodores failed on first and goal, then failed again on second and goal. They wouldn’t wait for fourth-down this time.
Wright dropped back and found a wide-open Will Sheppard, who had left his defender in the dust behind him, in the middle of the endzone. A stunned Kroger Field fell silent. On the Vanderbilt sideline, pandemonium ensued.
And yet, there were still 32 seconds left for something to go inexplicably wrong for Vanderbilt. We’ve seen this too many times.
But then the Commodores fought back.
Instead of laying back and playing prevent defense, Vanderbilt continued to be the aggressor. BJ Anderson forced JuTahn McClain out of bounds after just a seven-yard gain on first down. Darren Agu put a hit on Will Levis on second down. Anfernee Orji sacked him on third down. And then CJ Taylor ended the onslaught with an interception to finish it off.
“I’m proud of all the guys. They earned that. It’s been a long run,” Clark Lea said, fighting back tears after the win. “Excuse my emotion. They earned it.”
Emotion excused, Clark.
And earn it, the Commodores did. This win was anything but flukey. No, this was a determined group taking it to an opponent for four quarters. This was a team that outgained the opponent by 126 yards, out rushed them by 51 yards and held the ball for more than seven more minutes than the opponent did.
On Saturday, Vanderbilt did something they haven’t been able to do for 1,120 days: they finished off an SEC opponent and walked off the field victorious. The Commodores took it to Kentucky all day, claiming a 24-21 victory in Lexington.
Get your champagne out, folks. Today, we’re having mimosas for Brunch.
A Flight of Wright
Consider for a moment how we got here.
In mid-July, Clark Lea named Mike Wright his starting quarterback for the 2022 season after the Georgia native showed flashes of improvement in his sophomore campaign. Wright had a tremendous impact on the Vanderbilt run game in 2021 with his improved mobility over incumbent starter Ken Seals. The Commodore locker room also seemed to rally around Wright’s spirit, turning in some of their best performances of the year with him under center—notably against South Carolina and Ole Miss.
Flash forward to 2022 and Wright’s development seemed to be ahead of schedule. He followed up an incredible four touchdown performance in the team’s Week 0 win over Hawaii with the single best game of his career in Week 1 against Elon (18-29 passing for 245 yards, 84 yards rushing, 6 TDs).
“He’s a play-maker,” Lea said after that contest. “We love that he’s on our side. As he goes, we go on offense. I thought there were times when he was magnificent.”
Wright, though, lasted just two more quarters as the Commodores’ starting signal caller. In a rain-soaked day on West End, the junior struggled against then-no. 23 Wake Forest, coughing the ball up twice and being limited to 8-for-15 passing for 35 yards.
Freshman sensation AJ Swann took over under center mid-way through the third quarter and never looked back.
Or so we thought.
With Swann not on the travel squad following an injury in the South Carolina loss, Joey Lynch and crew turned the keys back over to Wright for Kentucky. Suffice to say, after amassing two touchdowns and 310 all-purpose yards, he did not disappoint.
The recap has to start with Wright, who’s ballsy, courageous performance was emblematic of the collective effort from Vanderbilt on Saturday. Wright—who never sulked after his mid-season benching—stepped up and played his role wonderfully, registering as one of the highest graded quarterbacks in all of college football yesterday.
The junior made the throws when he had to. He took care of the ball and made throws on the run that nobody else on the roster has the capability to make. He extracted superb performances from both Will Sheppard (5 catches, 88 yards, TD) and Quincy Skinner Jr. (3 catches, 55 yards).
— CFBNumbers (@CFBNumbers) November 13, 2022
Wright also ignited a run game that’s been teetering on a breakout all season. That Commodore ground attack went wild on Saturday, rushing for 264 yards on Kentucky—the most Vanderbilt has finished with in an SEC game in eleven years. I’ll repeat in case you didn’t get that: Vanderbilt rushed for 264 yards on Kentucky, the most yards they’ve rushed for in an SEC game in eleven years.
Both Wright (126 yards) and Ray Davis (129 yards) topped the century mark, the first time the Commodores have done that since 2016 and that was against Tennessee State. Davis was masterful on Saturday, his second straight game over 100 yards of rushing.
All this, while down three starting offensive linemen and a key reserve in Gage Pitchford. AJ Blazek’s unit up front (Gunnar Hansen, Jake Ketschek, Julian Hernandez, Jacob Brammer, Junior Uzebu) was straight up nasty on Saturday. In pass protection, they allowed just one sack.
After losing left tackle Tyler Steen to Alabama in the transfer portal, Blazek’s group has been a remarkable surprise this season. It’s about time he got extended for that work.
The Key Ingredients
Perhaps the most important and impressive aspect of Vanderbilt’s victory over Kentucky was the way in which they did it. The Commodores ran for 264 yards, held the ball for over half the game (33:15 time of possession), played stingy defense and sound special teams. Their physicality eventually withered down the Wildcats into submission. Sound familiar?
It should. That’s exactly how Mark Stoops has built his Kentucky program—a blueprint ideation for how to win more with less in the SEC. Win the run game. Win time of possession. Force field goals. It’s a formula I’ve been yearning for in this space for months. On Saturday, Vanderbilt played it to a tee.
Last week, I wrote about how Vanderbilt brought the ground game to South Carolina, but lacked any sense of pound. Vanderbilt did not lack pound on Saturday.
In what was the best performance of the season from Nick Howell’s unit, Vanderbilt’s defense was feisty, fast and downright ferocious against Kentucky. Unlike any other game this season, the Commodores attacked downhill with a vengeance, racking up four sacks and six tackles for loss. They held supposed first-round NFL draft pick Will Levis (please no, Bears) to 109 yards on 11-of-23 passing. A mix-up of blitz cadences and a spirited effort from the defensive line messed with Levis all day, as the Commodore pressure forced Kentucky’s offense out of sorts. How’s that for a change?
Along the way, Vanderbilt unearthed a blossoming star. CJ Taylor, a 2020 Mr. Football winner in Tennessee, has emerged as a budding playmaker at the “anchor” position—a prototype for what Lea and general manager Barton Simmons are looking for at the hybrid linebacker/safety spot.
Taylor has been on the radar this season already after a scoop-and-score touchdown against Hawaii and a no.1 play on Sportscenter’s “Top 10” against Missouri.
This, though, was his most complete performance of the year, a glimpse into the leader he can become for this unit next year. The sophomore led the team in tackles (6), had a sack, 1.5 tackles for loss (TFL), an interception and a pass breakup in the endzone on a would-be touchdown. That’s an absolutely cornerstone piece for your defense moving forward if you’re Nick Howell.
On the whole, the defense had four sacks, six TFLs, six pass breakups and an interception on the last play of the game. It was a mix of veterans like Maxwell Worship, Jaylen Mahoney and Anfernee Orji along with new pups like Taylor, Darren Agu and Devin Lee. That should be thrilling for a program as focused on development as Lea is.
Yes, there’s room for improvement. Vanderbilt can’t let Chris Rodriguez run untouched for 75 yards deep in the fourth quarter to let Kentucky retake the lead. But this was a group that condensed the field in the red zone, was aggressive at the line of scrimmage and played to win. A week after getting torched by South Carolina, that is remarkable improvement.
“I felt like we’ve made incremental progress through the season,” Lea said afterwards. “We were able to get them off schedule and get them to third down. So early, we were forcing field goals, which is a win for the defense and a win for the team. To be able to block one of those field goals too is a testament to the character and the toughness of that group. I thought the defense really performed well and, again, set a tone for us today.”
It’s impossible to overstate the gravity of a victory like the one that Vanderbilt had over Kentucky on Saturday. To lift the weight of a 26-game losing SEC game streak off the shoulders of this football program is a massive sigh of relief. To do it against a top-25 team on the road in a game in which you thoroughly outplayed the opponent is a resounding indication of what Clark Lea is building.
This was the necessary first building block in getting there and no matter where Lea eventually takes this program, it will not be a game that is soon forgotten.
“These moments we will always remember,” Lea said afterwards. “No one will ever be able to take this from us.”
Big picture, despite all the turbulence of this season, Team 2 has met expectations. They took care of business in the non-conference, winning all three games and dominating Hawaii in Week 0. They’ve been competitive in a number of SEC games (Ole Miss, Missouri and, now, Kentucky). They still have a chance to make a bowl game.
They still have a chance to make a bowl game.
It may not have happened in the way we thought it would or against the opponent we would have expected Vanderbilt to beat, but the ramifications of notching an SEC win are the same nonetheless.
This is a sense of direction for Lea’s program. This is a sign to recruits that Lea is building something better than what he found. This is an announcement to the rest of the conference that Vanderbilt might not be the same punching bag they’ve been for the past four years.
Vanderbilt will face two tough opponents to finish the 2022 season: Florida and the mustard throwers from Knoxville. They’ll undoubtedly be underdogs in both games.
Now though, the Commodores will be playing with nothing to lose and with the weight of a 26-game losing streak off their backs.
But if the game against Kentucky, and the fourth quarter against Kentucky, and the two fourth-down conversions on the final drive against Kentucky showed us anything, these Commodores don’t mind being underdogs.