The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

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.

Three Matchups to Watch: Vanderbilt vs. UNLV

After a disappointing loss to Wake Forest, Vanderbilt hopes to bounce back and finish the nonconference schedule with a win against UNLV in Las Vegas.
Anseley Philippe
The Vanderbilt defensive line during the game against the Alabama A&M Bulldogs as photographed on Sept. 2, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Anseley Philippe)

After two imperfect wins over Hawaii and Alabama A&M, Vanderbilt could not escape their mistakes during their road opener at Wake Forest. Poorly timed interceptions, pass interference calls and a seeming reversion of their run defense to the struggles of last season’s unit rendered the Commodores losers by 16 to the Demon Deacons. 

However, sitting at 2-1, things are not bleak for this squad. Wake Forest was by far the most challenging game of the Commodores’ non-conference schedule. If Vanderbilt had played a clean game, there was even a chance for the program to remain undefeated.

Luckily for Vanderbilt, it has one more winnable game before beginning an always-formidable SEC schedule when it hosts Kentucky on Sept. 23. While the matchup certainly won’t be an easy one for the Commodores, (none of them have been, and most sportsbooks only have them as 4.5-point favorites headed into the weekend) now is the perfect time to clean up their fixable faults.

In order for the Commodores to be ready to compete when conference play gets rolling, there are a few key matchups that must go their way against the UNLV Rebels this Saturday. Let’s take a look.

A.J. Swann vs. Decision-making

Turnovers plagued the Commodores in their loss to Wake Forest. It was a season-high three turnovers for Vanderbilt, including two interceptions from quarterback A.J. Swann and a fumbled punt from Will Sheppard which led to a scoop and score for the Demon Deacons. It was these costly turnovers which allowed Wake Forest to score 10 easy points and cost Vanderbilt the game. Just three plays into the game, Swann threw a deep ball into double coverage to tight end Logan Kyle, resulting in an easy interception. Swann needs to make sure his decision-making is better for the game against UNLV and make committed, smart throws to his wide receivers, arguably Vanderbilt’s strongest position group.

Swann has struggled to do this so far this season, getting lucky in games against Hawaii and Alabama A&M where opposing defensive backs dropped multiple potential interceptions. Against a stronger team like Wake Forest, Swann was exposed as he threw risky passes into double coverage and failed to go through his reads to find open receivers. UNLV already has had two interceptions this season in its two games played, one against No. 2 Michigan and one against Bryant. The UNLV defense also held Bryant to only 14 points before allowing 35 to national championship contender Michigan.

On paper, Swann seems to be having a good season through three games, throwing for 766 yards and eight touchdowns, but any fans watching the games know that it has been shaky beginning to the season. Swann needs to improve his football IQ and throw smart passes to open receivers. Swann has the arm talent to excel, as showcased by his impressive touchdown passes to Sheppard and freshman London Humphreys against Wake Forest, but he must make smart decisions to avoid giving easy points to a talented UNLV defense.

UNLV’s Go-Go Offense vs. Vanderbilt’s Front Four

UNLV runs a unique offensive system. Much like Wake Forest’s slow mesh, which tricks the defense into deciding whether it is a run or pass play, UNLV presents an unusual offensive style. The Rebels utilize a go-go offense which utilizes a triple-treat option and a quick tempo. Two backs will sit on the same side of the quarterback before the snap and run in various directions, creating confusion for the defense. The two running backs, or even the quarterback, may take the ball and run it downfield. This also opens up the deep pass play for the quarterback who may keep the ball and launch a pass downfield. In UNLV’s matchup with Bryant in Week One, the Rebels ran for 268 yards in large part due to this go-go offense. It wreaks havoc amongst defenses who have weaker defensive lines. 

Doug Brumfield, the UNLV quarterback, has yet to throw a touchdown pass this season. He is very mobile, and the Vanderbilt defensive line will have to get pressure on him as soon as possible to limit his rushing capabilities. Brumfield has an impressive arm, and the go-go offense is going to test both Vanderbilt’s secondary and defensive line. The Commodores need to limit explosive pass plays downfield and not be fooled by this unusual offensive scheme.

With Darren Agu back in the lineup and C.J. Taylor’s dominance up front, this could be a favorable matchup for the Commodores. Vanderbilt’s SEC-caliber physicality on the defensive line should get pressure on the quarterback and stop the run. While this wasn’t shown against Wake Forest, as the Demon Deacons rushed for a shocking 288 yards, Clark Lea is confident his defensive line can improve. 

Vanderbilt’s Running Back Room vs. Getting in a Rhythm

The running back room has been something to constantly monitor early in the season. Patrick Smith has been the starter and led the team in rushing yards against Hawaii and Wake Forest. Against Alabama A&M, however, Sedrick Alexander showed flashes of why many thought he would lead the backfield coming into the season. Alexander posted a gaudy 87 yards and a pair of scores on only 12 carries. However, both Smith and Chase Gillespie averaged 5.0 yards per carry on their attempts in that game as well 一 a number that is more than respectable and certainly deserving of touches.

It seemed that Wake Forest, who allowed Elon’s Jalen Hampton to rush for 89 yards and a touchdown (5.9 yards a carry) in their opener, would be a great matchup for Alexander to keep the ball rolling. Alexander struggled though, only averaging 2.8 yards a carry on 10 attempts. Smith was far more effective, ripping off 77 yards on just 10 attempts himself (although 40 of those yards came on one big run at the beginning of the third quarter).

If Vanderbilt is going to be able to limit its mistakes and pick up a much needed victory, the team will need to take some of the pressure off of Swann. This starts with finding consistency in the running game. The committee’s “ride the hot hand” approach is fine, but once Lea identifies which running back is poised for a big day, he must feed him. Smith, Gillespie and Alexander are all talented, but whoever is handling handoffs from Swann deserves a chance to get in a rhythm.

That rhythm shouldn’t be too hard to find, as these Vanderbilt running backs will be taking on a UNLV defense that has allowed exactly 179 yards on the ground in both of its first two games. Last week, Michigan star Blake Corum gashed the Rebels for 80 yards and 3 touchdowns on just 15 carries. This running back room will look to put up a similar performance come Saturday.

Vanderbilt will look to move to 3-1 when they kick things off with UNLV at Allegiant Stadium, home of the Las Vegas Raiders, on Sept. 16 at 6 p.m. CDT.

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About the Contributors
Jonah Barbin
Jonah Barbin, Sports Podcast Producer
Jonah Barbin (‘25) is majoring in human and organizational development and cinema and media studies. In addition to writing about sports, you can catch him acting, scouring the fantasy football waiver wire, playing golf and fantasizing about what Odell Beckham Jr.’s career would have been if the Giants never traded him. You can reach him at [email protected].
Henry Oelhafen
Henry Oelhafen, Deputy Sports Editor
Henry Oelhafen (‘26) is a student in Peabody College majoring in human and organizational development and minoring in business. Henry grew up as a Vanderbilt sports fan and loves to talk about both professional and amateur golf. In addition to writing, he loves to play golf with friends, hike and try new restaurants. He can be reached at [email protected].
Anseley Philippe
Anseley Philippe, Staff Writer and Photographer
Anseley Philippe ('25) is a potential biomedical engineering and Spanish double-major who aspires to be an immunologist. Outside of The Hustler, he can be found queuing up at 2301, wandering around campus during his evening promenades or trying to keep up with his Spanish. He can be reached at [email protected].
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