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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.

Film Room: Vanderbilt takes on Hawaii in Week Zero

Film Room is back to break down the Commodores’ rematch with the Rainbow Warriors.
Vanderbilt Athletics
Mike Wright and Quincy Skinner celebrate after a 63-10 victory over Hawaii (Vanderbilt Athletics).

After a tantalizingly long summer, the Vanderbilt Commodores finally return to action this Saturday. Head coach Clark Lea made the most of his first two offseasons in Nashville, instilling a brand of disciplined football that allowed the Commodores to double their win totals in 2021 and 2022. This year, expectations are rising for “Team 3,” the latest iteration of Vanderbilt’s newly-styled program. Although last season’s progress was commendable, the expectation for this year is postseason activity. The road to a bowl game begins this weekend against Hawaii. 

If this Week Zero matchup looks familiar, that’s because Vanderbilt also began its 2022 season playing Hawaii. The Commodores blew the doors off the Rainbow Warriors in that contest, which featured a Heisman-esque performance from quarterback Mike Wright and ended with a final score of 63-10. While Hawaii got on the board first and held Vanderbilt scoreless on their first possession, the Commodores surged ahead with a 35-point 3rd quarter and dominated the ground game with 404 rushing yards. 

Vanderbilt rode the momentum of that Week Zero victory to the program’s first 2-0 start since 2018. Ultimately, the Commodores finished their season with a record of 5-7, displaying the ability to close out big games with victories against Kentucky and Florida. The Rainbow Warriors, on the other hand, were unable to rebound from their devastating Week Zero defeat. Hawaii finished its season with three wins and lost 10 players to the transfer portal.

As was the case last year, winning the battle on the turf will prove instrumental for Vanderbilt in this year’s matchup. Unfortunately, the Commodores are without their two leading rushers from last season, in-conference transfers Ray Davis and Mike Wright. Davis posted just the 10th 1,000-yard rushing season in Vanderbilt history before transferring to Kentucky, and his presence as a bell-cow, every-down back will be sorely missed by the Commodores this year. Likewise, Wright’s departure to Mississippi St. removes a rushing dimension from the quarterback position.

With their top two options out the door, the Commodores need new faces to take the reins of the rushing offense. Several potential game changers have emerged throughout the offseason. According to the Week One depth chart, junior Patrick “Cheeks” Smith will be the first-string running back heading into Saturday’s game. He’ll be joined by sophomore Chase Gillespie and true freshman Sedrick Alexander, both of whom performed exceptionally well in Vanderbilt’s Spring Game

In 2022, a diversified rushing attack coupled with a ball-hungry approach on defense allowed Vanderbilt to dominate against Hawaii. Let’s see if the Commodores can repeat that formula to achieve a similar outcome in 2023. 

Running over the Rainbow

Vanderbilt’s 2022 debut in Honolulu was a perfect snapshot of Mike Wright’s breathtaking rushing ability out of the pocket. The junior quarterback ran for 163 yards and 2 touchdowns on a preposterous 12.5 yards per carry. With a historic performance from the starting quarterback, it’s easy to forget that Vanderbilt’s running backs also dominated on the ground in the win. Ray Davis began his 1000-yard campaign with a decisive 87 yards and 1 touchdown on only 9 carries.  Likewise, Rocko Griffin made the most out of his 5 touchdowns with 63 rushing yards and another touchdown on the ground. Even walk-on Cooper Lutz got in on the fun, taking his only carry for a 7-yard rushing touchdown. 

Vanderbilt will not be able to rely on the aforementioned players in their rematch with Hawaii. Instead, the ground game will turn to a committee of fresh faces eager to win a first-string workload. Given Vanderbilt’s success running the ball against Hawaii last season, there should be plenty of opportunities to earn carries this week. Keep an eye out for wide receiver Jayden McGowan to see some action on the ground. The sophomore receiver made a name for himself in 2022 with his dual-threat ability as a pass-catcher and rusher. McGowan turned 3 carries into 29 yards for the Commodores against Hawaii in 2022, and should factor heavily into the gameplan in this year’s contest. 

Lockdown Defense

Vanderbilt’s stifling defense played an equally instrumental role in facilitating the team’s blowout win against Hawaii last year. Things got off to a shaky start after the Commodores allowed a 37-yard rushing touchdown on Hawaii’s opening drive. Whatever chewing-out Lea provided on the sideline worked, as Hawaii’s offense was utterly helpless from that point forward. Vanderbilt’s defense stepped up at every level, playing with a balance of aggression and discipline that allowed them to dominate the pace of the game. 

Anfernee Orji, now playing professionally with the New Orleans Saints, was a man possessed against Hawaii. Orji routinely got to the backfield to pressure the quarterback or blow up run plays. He also generated the Commodores’ first turnover of the game, scooping a fumble and taking it to the house to give Vanderbilt the lead in the first quarter. While Orji will not be playing alongside the Vanderbilt defense on Saturday, the Commodores still have plenty of playmakers who can disrupt the Hawaii offense. They will need guys like C.J. Taylor (who also had a fumble-6 against Hawaii) and Ethan Barr to be aggressive and attack ball carriers to create stops. Vanderbilt’s defensive line is a bit of a question mark without Darren Agu, so the Commodores may need to rely on their linebackers and secondary to generate pressure on the quarterback as well. 

New-look running back room 

Vanderbilt will rely on their new-look running back room to get the ground game going against Hawaii. Based on the depth chart, junior Smith will be getting the first crack at the starting job. Smith underwhelmed in his sophomore season due to injuries and a suspension but showed great promise in his freshman campaign. He will be competing with sophomore Gillespie and freshman Alexander, who both bring dazzling speed and tackle-breaking ability to the position. While he is the youngest and least experienced of the three, don’t be surprised to see Alexander heavily involved in the game plan against Hawaii. The true freshman brings great physicality and vision to the position and has looked far more seasoned than his age suggests.

The University of Hawaii community is preoccupied with much more significant issues than a Week Zero football game right now. A series of wildfires devastated the city of Maui throughout August, killing over 115 people and causing billions of dollars of damages. While it remains to be seen if the Rainbow Warriors can sideline their emotions and beat the Commodores, the Vanderbilt community is proud to be supporting Hawaii in their path to recovery. Vanderbilt Athletics announced that a portion of the proceeds from ticket sales will go to the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Maui Strong Fund.

Vanderbilt will host Hawaii at FirstBank Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 26, at 6:30 p.m. CDT.

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About the Contributor
Brandon Karp
Brandon Karp, Senior Staff Writer
Brandon Karp ('25) is from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and is studying human and organizational development and political science in Peabody College. You can reach him at [email protected].
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