Commodore Brunch Week Three: What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas

The Vanderbilt Commodores surrendered a 17-point lead and had four turnovers in their 40-37 loss to UNLV.
Justin Ball caught a 3-yard touchdown pass from AJ Swann in Vanderbilts 40-37 loss to UNLV on Sept. 16, 2023. 
 (Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics)
Justin Ball caught a 3-yard touchdown pass from AJ Swann in Vanderbilt’s 40-37 loss to UNLV on Sept. 16, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics)
Vanderbilt Athletics

“A champion is simply someone who did not give up when he wanted to,” two-time Super Bowl champion and Hall of Fame head coach Tom Landry said.  

On Saturday, Vanderbilt experienced one of its most painful losses in recent memory, losing a 17-point lead, turning the ball over four times, missing a 33-yard chip shot and ultimately falling to a UNLV team led by backup quarterback Jayden Maiava. 

The path to a bowl appearance will be an uphill climb for the Commodores that will require at least four Herculean upsets.

The Commodores lost a game they would win 9 times out of 10 simply because they kept shooting themselves in the foot. Now is the easiest time to quit on Vanderbilt. The team will not have the luxury of being over .500 heading into SEC play like it did in 2022. Although there have been two bumps in the journey, its path is still unwritten. Head coach Clark Lea and his team will look to turn the corner and pull off an upset over Kentucky.

AJ Swann runs for a gain of 13 yards in Vanderbilt’s game against UNLV on Sept. 16, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics)

“Disappointed doesn’t begin to describe what we feel right now,” Lea said after Vanderbilt’s 40-37 loss to UNLV on Saturday night. “Our season is about fighting for postseason play and that’s all still on the table for us. What we have to do is take the lessons of today and apply them forward.”

The first half of Vanderbilt’s gut-wrenching loss to UNLV included the best quarter and the worst quarter for the 2023 Commodores thus far. The first quarter was excellent as Vanderbilt scored 17 points thanks to a pick-six from cornerback Martel Hight, a 30-yard field goal from Jacob Borcilla and a 56-yard touchdown pass from AJ Swann to London Humphreys. The Commodores allowed just six yards of total offense to UNLV in the first quarter and Rebels’ starting quarterback Doug Brumfield was out for the game with an injury.

My Commodore Brunch was written. Nick Howell’s defense looked like an SEC powerhouse and Swann looked to be the signal-caller for which the Commodore faithful had hoped. On Aug. 14, I was a guest on the Paul Finebaum Show and predicted Vanderbilt to go 3-1 in its nonconference slate. I thought Vanderbilt would speed past Hawaii and Alabama A&M and lose to Wake Forest. I was confident the Commodores would get back in the win column against UNLV and ride into SEC play with strong momentum. I was mistaken.

While my prediction looked safe at the end of the first quarter of the UNLV game, Vanderbilt let me down once again. The Commodores underperformed, allowing UNLV to score 40 points and pull off an upset victory. Vanderbilt’s early 17-point cushion was squandered as Vanderbilt’s coaching errors and self-inflicted turnovers were the culprits of the great collapse on Saturday night. 

Let’s dive into this week’s messy menu.  

Sloppy Joes

The Commodores did not learn from their turnovers against Wake Forest. In fact, they replicated their mistakes. One week after surrendering three turnovers to a respectable Wake Forest defense, the Commodores turned the ball over four times against UNLV. In the past two weeks combined, the Commodores have allowed 11.5 points off turnovers. They also fumbled three times, and Swann threw an interception at the end of the first half. 

Vanderbilt’s first turnover could not have come at a more inopportune moment. The Commodores led UNLV 17-7 and went three-and-out with just over 11 minutes remaining in the second quarter. Long snapper Wesley Schelling snapped the ball from the Vanderbilt 19-yard line into the chest of tight end Justin Ball, missing the hands of punter Matthew Hayball. The uncharacteristic inaccuracy from Schelling — a member of the 2023 Preseason Coaches All-SEC team — gave UNLV the ball at the Vanderbilt 14-yard line, and the Rebels scored a field goal off of the short field position. 

The head-scratching punt debacle was only the beginning of Vanderbilt’s long night of blunders.

Vanderbilt surrendered another costly turnover two plays into the ensuing possession. On second-and-5 with the ball at their 47-yard line, the Commodores butchered an attempt at an end-around. Swann dropped back and faked a handoff to Patrick Smith and attempted to pitch the ball to Junior Sherrill. It was batted down by UNLV’s Elijah Shelton and scooped up by Jerrae Williams at the Vanderbilt 41-yard line. Williams jumped over Justin Ball and juked Will Sheppard, ultimately running the ball back for the touchdown. Offensive coordinator Joey Lynch aimed to trick the UNLV defense, but the Rebels read the play before it was even fully developed.

After an exchange of scoreless possessions between the two teams, Vanderbilt had a prime opportunity to go into the halftime break with a lead. With a first-and-10 opportunity on the Vanderbilt 48-yard line, Swann underthrew Logan Kyle, and Johnathan Baldwin intercepted Swann. UNLV scored three points off the interception. On the play, Swann injured his right elbow.

The first half of Vanderbilt’s gut-wrenching loss to UNLV included the best quarter and the worst quarter for the 2023 Commodores thus far.

Swann missed the first offensive drive of the third quarter due to a right elbow injury. While he was on the bench, backup quarterback Ken Seals drove the ball to the UNLV 49-yard line. His pocket then collapsed due to missed blocks from Julian Hernandez and Xavier Castillo. He moved up in the pocket and tried evading the UNLV defensive lineman but was strip-sack fumbled.

“It’s hard when you have back-to-back games where we’re careless with the football,” Lea said. “We’re stuck with a tough result and tough circumstances, and we need to set our jaws and battle out of it.”

Lack of communication

The final two minutes of the Vanderbilt-UNLV frenzy came down to a lack of communication from Vanderbilt’s coaching staff and players.

Swann marched the Vanderbilt offense 75 yards with less than 2:30 left in the game and tied the game at 37-37. On the next drive, Nicholas Rinaldi made the play of his collegiate career, catching a game-changing interception off Maiava.

Nicholas Rinaldi caught an interception in the fourth quarter of Vanderbilt’s game against UNLV on Sept. 16, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics)

Tied at 37-37 with the ball at the UNLV 25-yard line, Vanderbilt elected to run the ball three times and waste all of the Rebels’ timeouts. Lea did not think to have Patrick Smith run to the center of the field on third down to give Borcilla a straighter angle to split the uprights. Kicking from the right hash, Borcilla missed a 33-yard field goal.

UNLV had the ball with 44 seconds remaining and no timeouts. Maiava threw an incompletion on first down, and UNLV ran the ball four yards on second down. The Commodores elected to call a timeout on third-and-6, which ultimately bit them. Maiava found Rickey White — who outran Hight in man coverage on the left side of the field — for 48 yards. UNLV concluded the game with a 36-yard game-winning field goal.    

“We were set to let the clock run out,” Lea said. “We had a timeout called from the field, and it’s an unfortunate situation. It’s a learning moment for our team, and it was not the strategy. We were going to just take the game to overtime.” 

Kentucky fried chicken

In 2022, Vanderbilt won its first SEC game since 2019 with an assertive victory over the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington, Kentucky. Although Will Levis is no longer the signal-caller for the Wildcats, Devin Leary will be a tough challenge for the Vanderbilt defense. Lea will need to dial up packages similar to the game in 2022 that keep the Kentucky offense on its feet. Most importantly, Vanderbilt needs to win the turnover battle. Swann will also need to continue to give the ball to Sheppard and London Humphreys.

Lea’s goal of making a bowl game for the first time in five seasons remains, but Vanderbilt will need to win at least four SEC games. The last time the Commodores won that many SEC games was in 2013, when James Franklin led No. 24 Vanderbilt to a 9-4 (4-4) record. For the Commodores to win half of their conference games, they will need to limit their self-inflicted wounds and have an extremely high attention to detail. 

The path to a bowl appearance will be an uphill climb for the Commodores that will require at least four Herculean upsets. As SEC play is right around the corner, Vanderbilt will need to get its act together, pronto.

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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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Michael Lawton
8 months ago

Well written. The article does a great job at articulating the many breakdowns. I am a new fan, just my 3rd year. This is was an awful loss. We all know football is a team sport and this loss cannot be pinned on any one player or coach. We have not played well in any of the first four games. It begs the questions, where is the leadership, where is the passion, who is going to take a big enough risk to make a difference?