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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.

Vanderbilt falls short to Wake Forest, loses 36-20

Costly errors and a poor defensive performance proved to be too much to overcome as the Commodores fell to the Demon Deacons.
Vanderbilt Athletics
Logan Kyle playing against Wake Forest on Sept. 9, 2023 (Vanderbilt Athletics).

In the second leg of a home-and-home series against Wake Forest, Vanderbilt fell again to the Demon Deacons, 36-20. Vanderbilt turned the ball over three times in the game and could not stop a Wake Forest rushing attack that accumulated 288 rushing yards on 6.8 yards per carry. Despite nearly matching the Demon Deacons in yards and time of possession, situational errors for Vanderbilt led to an insurmountable deficit. 

“I believe in our team, but we need to play better football,” head coach Clark Lea said after the game. “We have to play forward and not on our heels. I wish I could say we played really well and left it all out there, but I’m really disappointed with the performance today.”

The Commodores got off on the wrong foot in Winston-Salem and were never able to recover. After receiving the opening kickoff, two short gains put Vanderbilt facing third-and-4 at their 31-yard line. After a deep drop back on third down, Vanderbilt quarterback AJ Swann elected to push the ball down the field, targeting tight end Logan Kyle on a seam route. Swann’s ball arrived late and was easily intercepted by Wake Forest defensive back Malik Mustapha, who returned the ball to Vanderbilt’s 10-yard line. 

The Demon Deacons’ ensuing red zone possession was then halted after just two plays. Following a Mitch Griffis incompletion on second-and-6, lightning in the surrounding area delayed the game for nearly two hours. Upon players returning to the sidelines after the delay, a timely end zone pass breakup by Vanderbilt defensive back Jaylen Mahoney forced Wake Forest into a chip-shot field goal to take an early 3-0 lead.

The teams traded possessions as the first quarter went on, with both sides stringing together a few first downs but ultimately getting stalled as they approached midfield. Despite its defense holding up well, Vanderbilt’s offense again struggled to find consistency, driving six plays for nine yards before punting the ball back to the Demon Deacons as the first quarter came to a close.

Wake Forest’s offense found their rhythm on their first drive of the second quarter, capping off a 9-play, 80-yard drive with a short touchdown reception by wide receiver Jahmal Banks in the corner of the end zone. Vanderbilt’s rush defense was gashed on the possession, with backup running back Demond Claiborne rushing for gains of 17, 11, and 16 yards on the drive. 

The Commodores responded with their first cohesive offensive drive of the game, with Will Sheppard’s fifth receiving touchdown of the season punctuating a 5-play, 75-yard drive. The drive was highlighted by a 50-yard connection between Swann and Jayden McGowan, where Swann eluded defenders in the backfield before stepping up to find his slot receiver, who broke multiple tackles in the open field before being taken down in the red zone. Two plays later, Sheppard made an acrobatic catch in the back of the end zone to cut into Wake Forest’s lead, 10-7. 

The Demon Deacons replied with a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that was catalyzed by critical errors in the secondary. Two pass interference calls on defensive back BJ Anderson, one on third-and-19 and one in the end zone, helped Wake Forest march into Vanderbilt territory. A 1-yard rushing touchdown from running back Tate Carney re-extended the Demon Deacons’ lead to ten points, 17-7. 

Once again, Vanderbilt’s offense had a response. This time, it was in the form of a lightning-quick 1 minute, 42 second drive that ended with Sheppard again celebrating in the end zone. The Commodores were able to move the ball quickly because of a 50-yard jump ball reception from freshman London Humphreys, before a beautiful play design found Sheppard wide open on a slant route to once again cut Wake Forest’s lead to three.

And then, disaster struck for the Commodores. Translating the momentum from another touchdown drive, Vanderbilt’s defense quickly forced a three-and-out. On the ensuing punt, Sheppard caught the ball before being drilled instantly, fumbling and watching Wake Forest special teamer Brendon Harris return the ball 40 yards for a touchdown. An overthrown interception from Swann on Vanderbilt’s final drive nearly made bad turn to worse for the Commodores, but a missed field goal from Wake Forest kept the score at 24-14 heading into the break.

The Demon Deacons methodically marched down the field to start the second half, quickly getting into the red zone. Strong coverage from Vanderbilt’s secondary on third down forced Wake Forest into a short field goal, extending their lead to 27-14.

Vanderbilt’s first drive of the second half led to a prime scoring opportunity, but they were unable to capitalize. After a dashing 40-yard run from running back Patrick Smith, the Commodores were positioned well with first-and-goal at Wake Forest’s 3-yard line. In what was an emerging theme for the afternoon, the Commodores lost in the trench battle on four consecutive plays, eventually turning the ball back over to the Demon Deacons after Sedrick Alexander was stuffed for no gain on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. 

In a surprising turn of events for the Commodores, Wake Forest was also forced into a turnover on the opposing 1-yard line. After Carney broke multiple tackles and rushed down the left sideline for a 74-yard gain, the freshman was stripped of the ball by Vanderbilt linebacker CJ Taylor just inches before breaking the plane for a touchdown on the very next play. 

Despite a strong defensive stand, the Commodores turned the ball over once again to start the fourth quarter after failing to convert on a fourth-and-4. Seven plays later, a 24-yard touchdown pass from Griffis extended Wake Forest’s lead to 33-14. 

Vanderbilt responded well on their next drive, with Swann finding four different receivers as he marched the Commodores down the field for a touchdown on a 7-play, 75-yard drive. The drive was finished with a smooth connection between Swann and Humphreys, as the freshman receiver reeled in a lobbed 30-yard pass over his shoulder at the pylon. The freshman finished the day with 109 yards and a touchdown. 

Wake Forest killed off much of the remaining clock with a 6:44 drive in which they heavily relied on their rushing attack. The Demon Deacons were able to move the ball to the red zone before taking a chip shot field goal to move their lead to 36-20, where it would stay.

With the loss, Vanderbilt moves to 2-1 on the season. The Commodores will return to action against UNLV on Sept. 16 at 6:00 p.m. CDT.

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About the Contributor
Anish Mago
Anish Mago, Former Deputy Sports Editor
Anish Mago ('24) is from West Windsor, N.J., and is studying economics and political science in the College of Arts and Science. He previously served as a staff writer for the Sports section. When not writing for The Hustler, Anish enjoys playing basketball and rooting for all Philly sports. He can be reached at .
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