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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.

Kentucky gets revenge, handles Vanderbilt 45-28

Vanderbilt starts its SEC slate with a loss as the team moves to below .500 for the first time this season.
Chloe Pryor
AJ Swann faces the Kentucky pass rush, as photographed on Sept. 23, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Chloe Pryor)

On a November morning last season, Vanderbilt Football walked into Kroger Field in Lexington, Ky. and snapped a 26-game SEC losing streak against the No. 24 Kentucky. The Wildcats repaid the favor this season.

“[I’m] disappointed in the result, disappointed in the way we played,” head coach Clark Lea said after the game. “There’s a better performance for this team.”

After winning the toss and electing to kick, Mark Stoops’ defense shut down the first Vanderbilt drive in four plays. Kentucky couldn’t get much going in its first few plays until Vanderbilt’s Jaylen Mahoney was ejected for targeting. After Devin Leary threw out of a third-and-5, running back JuTahn McClain sped past the defensive line and easily evaded a sluggish secondary for a 36-yard touchdown.

In a season marred by turnovers, AJ Swann made his first big mistake of the day on Vanderbilt’s second drive. A breakdown on the left side of the offensive line allowed two Wildcats to come in for a sack that Swann — unusually this season — attempted to throw out of. That attempt was easily picked off by Maxwell Hairston, who ran it back for a touchdown that put Kentucky up 14-0 just six minutes into the game.

Vanderbilt’s defense had its first big play of the game on the next Kentucky drive as Leary was forced into a bad pass to a double-covered Barrion Brown that was picked off by John Howse IV. Even with the defensive step-up, the Commodores couldn’t capitalize on offense and were forced off the field in three plays.

Former Commodore running back Ray Davis got going on Kentucky’s next drive with a 10-yard rush that set the Wildcats up near midfield. Rolling back and throwing deep left, Leary connected with Brown for a 55-yard pass brought down at the Vanderbilt 2-yard line. Davis then got revenge on his former team with a touchdown to put the Wildcats up 21-0.

“I don’t care who the [opposing]running back is,” Lea said after the game. “We’re trying to stop the run.”

The Commodores didn’t force Kentucky to punt until the second quarter. Even then, the Wildcats got right back on the field due to an anemic Vanderbilt offense that found it difficult to even register a first down. With Kentucky driving past midfield, the Commodores stepped up defensively and forced them into a third-and-7. That’s when Leary — never known as a mobile quarterback — stepped up and ran for a season-long 22 yard. The drive ended with a field goal that put Kentucky up 24-0.

Swann saw Leary’s do-it-yourself playbook and decided to implement it with a 10-yard rush that elicited a late hit penalty. A huge 28-yard reception by Logan Kyle then set the Commodores up with good enough field position to end the drive with a 41-yard field goal and avoid a shutout.

After nearly a half of football, the Vanderbilt defense found its footing and forced Kentucky to a three-and-out that gave the Commodores the ball with just under 2 minutes. After a pass interference put Vanderbilt at the 29-yard line, it looked like Well Sheppard made a miraculous contested touchdown catch; but, a holding penalty on the Vanderbilt offensive line forestalled the first end zone trip of the day for the Commodores. That would come a mere three plays later as freshman Sedrick Alexander ran seven yards for his third score of the season.

Once Kentucky knelt out the rest of the period, Vanderbilt would enter the half with momentum having cut the deficit to 24-10. That momentum held on defense as the Wildcats were forced to a three-and-out on the first drive of the third quarter, but the Commodores still couldn’t get anything going on offense. After Leary had an ill-advised throw picked off by Jeffrey Ogochuwku at the Kentucky 17-yard line, Vanderbilt couldn’t even muster a first down on a drive in which it started in the red zone. That led to another field goal that cut the deficit to 24-13.

After another Kentucky three-and-out, Vanderbilt’s offense got another chance to change its bad reputation. It failed to capitalize. Swann made a terrible read at midfield that led to his second interception of the day. Kentucky ran it back all the way to the Vanderbilt 21-yard line and Davis punched it in a few plays later to put his former team down 31-13.

An 18-point deficit in the middle of the third quarter effectively ended Vanderbilt’s chances of a comeback. The next drive took those chances, tied them to an anchor and dropped that anchor in Percy Priest Lake.

After being forced into a third-and-2 near their own end zone, the Wildcats were bailed out by a facemask penalty. They found themselves behind the eight ball once again as a penalty set up second-and-22. It didn’t matter. Davis dusted the defensive line and wasn’t brought down for 38 yards. Another penalty set up first-and-20 for Kentucky. It didn’t matter. The Wildcats rattled off four straight plays of 10-plus yards and ended with a miraculous Dane Key catch in the end zone that put them up 38-13.

Down 25 with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Vanderbilt was beyond moribund by the start of its next drive. Nevertheless, Swann found Gamarion Carter along the left sideline for a 39-yard reception that put Vanderbilt at the opposing 13-yard line. The line almost stalled out on third-and-six before the Wildcats were assessed a pass interference penalty that set up a fresh set of downs. One play later, Patrick Smith ran in a 2-yard touchdown, and Swann completed a 2-point conversion pass low to Quincy Skinner that narrowed the score to 38-21.

The Commodores had another shot at narrowing the score a few minutes later following a defensive stop. With a couple of completed passes to Alexander and Kamrean Johnson, it even looked like Swann might have found his rhythm in the offense. That’s when he threw the ball just behind his receiver and was picked off by Hairston for the defensive back’s second pick-six of the game.

With Ken Seals in at quarterback for the final drive, Vanderbilt managed to march down the field and score once last time off a 10-yard Johnson reception. That narrowed the final margin to 45-28 — a score that doesn’t do justice to Kentucky’s dominance.

“The story of the game is we need an offense that can take the field on offense and put the ball in the end zone,” Lea said. “I look at our team and say there’s a lot more for us.”

Vanderbilt now declines to 2-3 (0-1) on the season after the SEC opener. The Commodores will be back in action on Sept. 30 as they take on Missouri at 3:00 p.m. CDT at FirstBank Stadium.

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About the Contributors
Jayce Pollard
Jayce Pollard, Non-revenue Sports Specialist
Jayce Pollard (‘25) is a student in the College of Arts and Science majoring in public policy and economics and minoring in data science and Spanish. Outside of writing for The Hustler, you can catch Jayce trying to learn the rules of soccer, hating on the Arkansas Razorbacks and being chronically on Twitter. He can be reached at [email protected]
Chloe Pryor
Chloe Pryor, Staff Writer and Photographer
Chloe Pryor (‘26) is from Fort Smith, Ark., and is double majoring in psychology and communications studies. When not writing for The Hustler, you can fund her reading, drawing or running late for class. You can reach her at [email protected].
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