Commodore Brunch Week Zero: It’s a process

The Vanderbilt Commodores have a lot to clean up after allowing 350 passing yards to Hawaii.
Quarterback AJ Swann evades a Hawaii defender on August 26, 2023 (Hustler Multimedia/Nikita Rohila).
Quarterback AJ Swann evades a Hawaii defender on August 26, 2023 (Hustler Multimedia/Nikita Rohila).
Nikita Rohila

The Vanderbilt Commodores began their 2023 campaign in ideal fashion, forcing Hawaii into a three-and-out on its first possession. The Commodores then blocked a punt, putting the ball on the Hawaii 32-yard line. The offense showed promise on the first drive, scoring a touchdown on a three-play drive, capped off by a 21-yard rushing touchdown by Patrick Smith. This was not the Vanderbilt from last year that was playing catch-up against Hawaii in the first minutes of play. Rather, it was a new Vanderbilt that did not put its foot off the gas. 

Or was it just the same old Vanderbilt that lacks consistent play from start to finish?

As we all learned last night, the first two drives of the game are not always indicative of how the game will finish. Vanderbilt’s energy was lackluster for most of the game and in games against SEC opponents, the margin for error is razor-thin.

One year after Vanderbilt defeated Hawaii 63-10, the Commodores edged past the Rainbow Warriors 35-28. Vanderbilt had a sloppy performance all around, allowing 350 passing yards and rushed for just 39 yards. As bad as the Commodores in the box score, the one statistic that matters (winning) went in Vanderbilt’s favor. A serious blunder was avoided, and the Commodores now need to focus on tightening their act before Alabama A&M comes to town on Saturday.

The Vanderbilt offense in a huddle on August 26, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Nikita Rohila)

“It was a sloppy game, and we were fortunate to come away with a win,” head coach Clark Lea said. “Hawaii made it hard on us tonight. We can certainly do a lot on our end to clean up our performance. If I was disappointed about anything, it was just feeling like our energy waned throughout the game.”

Vanderbilt gave Hawaii several opportunities to steal the game, but the Rainbow Warriors did not capitalize. Let’s start with AJ Swann, who threw for 258 yards and three touchdown passes. Although Swann excelled on the stat sheet, the sophomore threw two interceptions in the hands of Hawaii defenders, but they were luckily dropped. Every SEC defense would have intercepted both of those throws and ran them back to the endzone. 

Onto brunch, a menu we haven’t seen in 8.5 months.

Swiss cheese

Last season, the Commodore defense allowed 290.5 passing yards per game. That statistic factors in offenses led by Bryce Young, Anthony Richardson, Will Levis and Stetson Bennett. In their 2023-24 season opener, the Commodores surrendered 351 passing yards to a Hawaii offense that passed for 250 yards against the Commodores in 2022. 

Coming into the season, Vanderbilt’s biggest question mark was its secondary room. The Commodores lost key pieces over the offseason in Maxwell Worship and Jeremy Lucien, leaving Tyson Russell, BJ Anderson, CJ Taylor, Jaylen Mahoney and De’Rickey Wright as the starting secondary group. 

The secondary may have veteran experience, but they were sliced around like swiss cheese on Saturday night. The Commodores surrendered nine big plays of 15+ yards in the air and allowed Hawaii’s quarterback to go 27-35 on his pass attempts. Thanks to the Vanderbilt secondary, Hawaii was in the game until the bitter end.

As Commodore die-hards understand, no lead is safe with Vanderbilt’s historically underwhelming pass defense. Trailing 21-7 with 13:11 remaining in the second quarter on fourth-and-4, Hawaii elected not to punt and get aggressive. Head coach Timmy Chang’s play call paid off, as Schager found Steven McBride — who outran Anderson by far — wide open for a 45-yard touchdown.

Similarly, in the fourth quarter, the Rainbow Warriors scored touchdowns on consecutive drives, pushing the game to 35-28. Hawaii’s first drive of the quarter went 65 yards on seven plays in just over four minutes. It also featured a 35-yard pitch and catch from Schager to Pofele Ashlock, who found an opening over Mahoney. On the very next play, Russell committed a costly pass interference play, giving Hawaii a first-and-10 look on the Vanderbilt 16-yard line. The Rainbow Warriors scored and pushed the deficit to 14 points five plays later. After the Commodores went three-and-out, Schager found Ashlock for 50 yards and scored on a six-play drive.

Vanderbilt’s secondary could not have played much worse; however, safety De’Rickey Wright brought a bright spot to a gloomy night. Wright had two interceptions, including a toe-tap interception in the second quarter and a game-saving dagger with 1:43 left in the game with Hawaii down by a touchdown.  

“De’Rickey is a playmaker and he’s a long, rangy [and] athletic guy that’s really grown after he has spent another year in the system,” Lea said. “Both picks were huge. The one in the end zone took points off the board for them and obviously, the one to seal the end of the game meant everything for us.”

The perimeter advantage

Entering the season, Vanderbilt’s wide receiver room was anticipated to be its biggest strength with NFL draft prospect Will Sheppard leading the group behind Quincy Skinner Jr. and speedster Jayden McGowan. Against Hawaii, this strength shined. Sheppard, a member of the Biletnikoff Award Watch List, started right where he left off in 2022 and caught six passes for 68 yards and two touchdowns. Thanks to a strong performance on Saturday night, the senior now places ninth all-time in receiving touchdowns for the Commodores. Fellow upperclassman Skinner Jr. also had a great start to the game, fighting for the first first-down conversion of the Vanderbilt season. He ended the night without another catch as he nursed his hamstring in the second half.

Will Sheppard scored two touchdowns on August 26, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Nikita Rohila)

McGowan, a slot receiver and gadget weapon, proved his versatility once again. The sophomore had six receptions for 72 yards. Beyond a strong performance offensively, McGowan ignited FirstBank Stadium with a 97-yard kick return touchdown in the first quarter. His run topped out at 21.6 mph and was 6.6 seconds long. That speed would have ranked ninth of all the regular season speeds in the NFL in 2022.

McGowan’s kick return touchdown was tied for the fourth-longest in Vanderbilt history and was Vanderbilt’s first kick return touchdown since Sept. 20, 2014. His agility offensively and on special teams will keep the Commodores’ competition on their feet.

Commodore faithful

On Saturday, the effects of Vanderbilt’s FirstBank Stadium construction were felt, with the stadium’s north and south end zone seating options eliminated — cutting the capacity of the stadium from 40,350 to 28,500 seats. The stadium featured a temporary scoreboard, lifted up by cranes, which swayed from the wind from the rainstorm. Despite all these adjustments and renovations, the Vanderbilt faithful showed their support for the Commodores in a rainy game that was delayed by over 90 minutes due to inclement weather.

“I want to start by thanking the fans that were patient with us through the delays,” Lea said. “I think it’s a sign of things to come, and, as a program, we need to make sure that we’re bringing the energy that they’re bringing too.”

A construction-riddled FirstBank stadium in 2023 will help pave the way for an unmatched atmosphere and environment in years to come. For now, the goal of making a bowl game remains the main priority for Lea and the team. To reach that height, the Commodores will need to do everything in their power to clean up and learn from the costly mistakes of the Hawaii game. 

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About the Contributors
Andrew Wilf
Andrew Wilf, Former Sports Editor
Andrew Wilf (’24) is Sports Editor for The Vanderbilt Hustler. He is from Livingston, N.J., and is majoring in history and minoring in business. He joined the sports staff his freshman year, previously serving as a Staff Writer, Assistant Sports Editor and Deputy Sports Editor. Beyond writing for The Hustler, he is also the host of Anchor Analysis, Commodore Clash and Live From West End. In his free time, Andrew enjoys watching the NFL and playing golf. He can be reached at [email protected].
Nikita Rohila
Nikita Rohila, Senior Staff Photographer
Nikita Rohila ('25) is from a small town in Arkansas and is majoring in psychology and medicine, health and society in the College of Arts and Science. She previously served as Deputy Social Media Director. During her free time, she enjoys roaming around the city and getting cinematic-style shots for her photography account! You can reach her at [email protected].
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