Commodore Brunch Week Two: Woken up

On Saturday, Vanderbilt had three turnovers and allowed 288 rushing yards in its 36-20 loss to Wake Forest.
Will Sheppard catching a touchdown against Wake Forest on Sept. 9, 2023 (Courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics).
Will Sheppard catching a touchdown against Wake Forest on Sept. 9, 2023 (Courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics).
Vanderbilt Athletics

Road trips always have their ups and downs.

I drove east seven hours this weekend with Deputy Sports Editor Anish Mago to cover Vanderbilt’s highly-anticipated matchup with Wake Forest. When we arrived in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Friday evening, we dreamt about breaking the story of Vanderbilt starting 3-0 for the first time since 2017. On Saturday afternoon, we woke up.

The Commodores didn’t start their season 3-0. Instead, Vanderbilt took a humbling 36-20 defeat to the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. Wake Forest proved too much to handle for the Commodores once again, sweeping Vanderbilt in their home-and-home series.

AJ Swann and Will Sheppard running onto the field before the start of the game on Sept. 9, 2023 (Courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics). (Vanderbilt Athletics)

“I wish I could say we played really hard and played hard and left it all out there,” head coach Clark Lea said, “There’s a lot for us to improve on, and we’re disappointed — the players are too — but in the end, if you want to win against good teams, you need to play better. Obviously, that starts with me. We have to clean up our performance, and, if we can do that, we have a good team.”

On last week’s Live From West End, I said that Vanderbilt would need to get off to a hot start against Wake Forest to have any chance of winning the game. The Commodores did the exact opposite and shot themselves in the foot right from the get-go.

Three plays into Vanderbilt’s first drive of the game, AJ Swann and the offense had the ball on their 31-yard line with a third-and-4 opportunity. Swann underthrew a ball targeted at Logan Kyle, who ran a deep route down the right side. The ball was easily intercepted by Wake Forest’s Malik Mustapha, who ran the ball back 50 yards to the Vanderbilt 10-yard line. Mitch Griffis and the Wake Forest offense looked to take advantage of prime field position and score a touchdown. After two failed attempts, Wake Forest had the ball on the Vanderbilt 6-yard line on third-and-goal. Before Griffis snapped the ball, an announcement was made on the PA system that lightning was within eight miles of the stadium. The teams were instructed to head to their respective locker rooms, delaying the game nearly two hours.

Following the delay, safety Jaylen Mahoney made a crucial stop and the Vanderbilt defense allowed only three points on the drive. The delay killed Wake Forest’s early momentum, but they got back in rhythm in the second quarter. 

Vanderbilt never held the lead in the game, and Wake Forest took advantage of its +3 turnover differential, scoring 10 points off of Vanderbilt’s self-inflicted errors. On to this week’s menu.

Carelessness

Lea may have underscored the importance of ball security in preparation for the game, but the Vanderbilt student-athletes did not abide by his message. Vanderbilt’s turnovers and costly errors proved to be the difference-maker in the battle.

“If we’re going to want to win this weekend, we’ve got to protect the ball,” Lea said before the game. “Making good decisions with the ball at the quarterback position [will be important, and] turnovers will be a key point of emphasis, and we’re going to have to play complimentary football. This is a good team we’re playing against.”

After Vanderbilt’s first drive resulted in an errant interception by Swann, the offense punted on its second and third drives. Swann then looked to come into his own, scoring on consecutive drives with a pair of touchdown passes to senior wide receiver Will Sheppard. After Swann’s second touchdown of the day, the Commodores trailed Wake Forest 17-14, and the Vanderbilt defense was poised to give the ball back to the offense. The defense did exactly that, forcing a three-and-out.

With just under two minutes left in the first half, it seemed like the Vanderbilt offense was going to ride on the momentum and take advantage of an opportunity to tie the game at 17 apiece or even gain its first lead of the day. The Vanderbilt offense never had the opportunity to do so because of a game-shifting error by Sheppard. 

Sheppard, who returns punts for the Commodores, muffed a punt, and former Commodore Brendon Harris scooped up the ball and ran 31 yards to score a touchdown for the Demon Deacons. The play was gut-wrenching for the Commodores and revitalized the Wake Forest supporters. The Demon Deacons kept the pressure on Vanderbilt, forcing Swann to throw an interception in double coverage on the next drive. Luckily for the Commodores, Wake Forest went scoreless on this play — Swann’s second interception of the day — and entered halftime with a ten-point lead.

Beyond Swann’s careless interceptions and Sheppard’s game-changing muffed punt, center Julian Hernandez also committed costly errors. His most discouraging mistake came on the last play of the third quarter. Vanderbilt — trailing by 13 points — had the ball on third-and-1 on the Wake Forest 47-yard line. The fifth-year center inaccurately snapped the ball into the hands of running back Patrick Smith, who lost three yards on the play. The Commodores were then in a fourth-and-4 situation and were unable to gain a first down. Wake Forest scored on the next drive, putting the nail in the coffin at the beginning of the fourth quarter.

“It’s just small lapses of technique,” right tackle Bradley Ashmore said. “We all have full confidence and faith in Julian [Hernandez] that those [things] won’t happen again. It hasn’t happened before…He’ll learn from it and get back better next week.”

Rushing bursts

I pressed the panic button on Saturday.

Vanderbilt allowed 288 rushing yards to Wake Forest on Sept. 9, 2023 (Courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics). (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Vanderbilt’s defense allowed Wake Forest to have 288 rushing yards and 6 yards per carry, despite the Demon Deacons playing without starting running back Justice Elliston. Elliston’s injury did not deter Wake Forest from using ground-and-pound as its recipe for success. Demond Claiborne ran for 165 yards on 26 carries, and third-string running back Tate Carney ran for 117 yards on 13 carries. Carney’s long run was a 74-yard dash that included evading multiple Vanderbilt defenders.

The Commodores used many three-man rushes, hoping to alleviate the “big play.” In 2022, the Commodores allowed wide receiver A.T. Perry to have 142 yards and Lea’s goal this year was to limit Wake Forest’s air attack. Yet, Vanderbilt forced Wake Forest to win on the ground, and the Demon Deacons had no issue running the ball. The Demon Deacons took advantage of a Commodore defense that had players out of position at several points.

“On the whole, I thought the design to get them to run was solid,” Lea said. “The execution of the design was inconsistent; 288 rushing yards is not designed.”

Tea and crumpets

Freshman receiver London Humphreys proved on Saturday that he can be a consistent weapon for the Commodores. Humphreys, a Nashville native, has the speed and swift play-making abilities of an English soccer player. 

Entering the Wake Forest game, the freshman had only two collegiate receptions. On Saturday, he made the most of his opportunities when his name was called, logging four receptions, one touchdown and 109 yards. 

In May, he set the Nashville-regional record in the 200-meter dash with a time of 21.73 seconds, beating Miami Dolphins cornerback Jalen Ramsey’s record. His world-class speed and ability to get open was highlighted on Saturday when he caught a 48-yard reception and a 30-yard touchdown catch.

Freshman receiver London Humphreys had 109 yards and two touchdowns against Wake Forest on Sept. 9, 2023. (Courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics) (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Although Vanderbilt’s wide receiver room is stacked with veteran student-athletes, Humphrey’s unmatched speed puts him in a unique place on the depth chart. Moving forward, Joey Lynch will look to give Humphreys chances to get the ball in open space and use his top-notch speed.

Vanderbilt’s next game will come against UNLV at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nev., on Saturday, Sept. 16. Lea’s team will look to enter SEC play with a winning record. The Rebels are 1-1 on the season and lost to the University of Michigan by 28 points on Saturday.

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About the Contributor
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].
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