Commodore Brunch Week Four: Sinking Swann

AJ Swann threw three interceptions in Vanderbilt’s 45-28 loss to Kentucky on Saturday.
Former Commodore Ray Davis ran for 78 yards and two touchdowns against Vanderbilt on Sept. 23, 2023 (Courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics).
Former Commodore Ray Davis ran for 78 yards and two touchdowns against Vanderbilt on Sept. 23, 2023 (Courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics).
Vanderbilt Athletics

“Revenge was a dish best served cold,” Anne Stuart once said.

On Saturday, the Kentucky Wildcats got revenge on the Commodores for their 24-21 victory in Lexington, Ky., last year. That game was a program-defining win that marked Clark Lea’s first-ever SEC win as head coach of the Commodores. This year was a whole different story, though, as Vanderbilt played catch-up right from the beginning.

Kentucky took advantage of its second-quarter, 24-0 cushion and sleepwalked its way to a 45-28 win over the mistake-riddled Commodores. Although Kentucky lost star quarterback Will Levis to the NFL Draft after the 2022 season, the Wildcats had no problem controlling the tempo of the game under the tutelage of starting quarterback Devin Leary.

AJ Swann threw three interceptions in Vanderbilt’s 45-28 loss to Kentucky on Sept. 23, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Chloe Pryor)

Leary and the Kentucky offense struggled at times though, as Vanderbilt’s Nick Howell-led defense continuously kept the Black and Gold in the game. Leary went 15-of-29 with a singular touchdown and a pair of interceptions. The Vanderbilt offense, on the other hand, was disappointing. AJ Swann threw three interceptions and the Commodores had less than 100 yards on the ground.

Ball security remains to be an issue for the Commodores as the Wildcats scored 21 points off turnovers on Saturday. A week after committing four turnovers, Lea’s group was unable to get out of the turnover frenzy. 

On Saturday, Swann’s performance and lack of care of the football is what ultimately plagued the Commodores. On to a protein-heavy brunch menu.

Ugly duckling

Nearly a month ago, I wrote a feature on AJ Swann and hoped to prove to the Vanderbilt community that Swann could be the guy to help command the Commodores to their first bowl appearance since 2018. Swann told The Hustler before the season that he wanted to improve on seeing coverages pre-snap. Against Kentucky, the sophomore was a complete disappointment.

No matter how sore Swann may have been, his interceptions and inaccuracy are inexcusable for a team that hopes to compete in the SEC.

— Andrew Wilf

“In my mind, AJ Swann is a really talented player that’s learning through some really hard lessons,” Lea said. “I have trust and faith that he’ll continue to progress. There are flashes of really good play too, but consistency is what we’re looking for.”

Swann was the antithesis of consistent on Saturday, completing just 40% of his passes to complement his three interceptions. The Georgia native had a 4.7 quarterback rating (QBR) on Saturday, pushing his average QBR to 34.3 (No. 117 in FBS). Swann started at quarterback until Vanderbilt’s last drive when he reaggravated his elbow, which he injured last week. Lea said his injury will be monitored by the Vanderbilt medical staff moving forward. 

Swann may have been a bit banged up on Saturday, but no matter how sore he may have been, his interceptions and inaccurate throws are inexcusable for a team that hopes to compete in the SEC.

“I just never thought I saw him playing with confidence today,” Lea said. “We’ve got to monitor AJ’s health and availability as we move forward, but we certainly need more from that position.”

Swann’s first error came early in the game with just over eight minutes remaining in the first quarter. On second-and-20, Swann was in the shotgun and was quickly pressured, but the sophomore eluded a Kentucky defensive end and targeted Sedrick Alexander in the flat. However, the ball was read by Maxwell Hairston, who intercepted Swann and ran the ball back for a pick-six.

Swann’s ball security issues reemerged two quarters later. After starting the game down 24-0, Vanderbilt picked up its act and scored 13 unanswered points. The Commodores had a prime opportunity to push the game to a one-possession affair midway through the third quarter. With the ball on the Kentucky 48-yard line on third-and-6, Swann forced a ball into double coverage while trying to hit Jayden McGowan in the middle of the field. Kentucky’s D’Eryk Jackson took advantage of the errant throw and returned an interception to the Vanderbilt 21-yard line. The Wildcats scored a touchdown and evaporated all of the momentum at FirstBank Stadium. 

The coffin was nailed.

With just over five minutes left in the game and down 17 points, Vanderbilt had the ball and was hoping to make a comeback. In the third play of the drive, Swann badly overthrew Kamrean Johnson. Swann’s overthrow landed in the hands of Hairston, who notched his second pick-six of the day. The Kentucky defender tied the SEC single-game record with two pick-sixes. 

All season, Lea has harped on the importance of Swann getting more reps and opportunities. How many more games will Vanderbilt take of Swann’s inconsistency? Only time will tell. Backup quarterback Ken Seals is quite familiar with Joey Lynch’s offense and is heating up Swann’s seat week by week.

Although the Commodores would ideally never see Hayball trot onto the field, the punter provided tremendous stability to an offense that was unable to score points until 2:51 remaining in the second quarter.

— Andrew Wilf

Swann’s errant play has given Vanderbilt’s special teams unit more opportunities. 

Kangaroo-ball

When was the last time a Commodore Brunch devoted a subsection to Vanderbilt’s punter? Maybe never.

This week warranted a tribute to Vanderbilt punter Matthew Hayball. The Australia native has been a bright spot for the special teams unit this season. He averages an SEC-best 51.94 yards per punt and hit a career-long 71-yard punt in Vanderbilt’s season opener, good for the fourth-longest punt in the FBS this season. The collegiate veteran was placed on the Ray Guy Award Watchlist before the season and has proved that he is one of the best punters in college football. 

Against Kentucky, Hayball had 7 punts that averaged 50.3 yards per punt and had six punts inside the Kentucky 20-yard line. Although the Commodores would ideally never see Hayball trot onto the field, the punter provided tremendous stability to an offense that was unable to score points until 2:51 remaining in the second quarter.

Next man up

Vanderbilt’s pass defense was torched last week against UNLV, allowing backup quarterback Jayden Maiava to throw for 261 yards and a touchdown. This week, Vanderbilt was without safeties De’Rickey Wright and Savion Riley due to injuries. Safety Jaylen Mahoney also exited the game after a targeting penalty in Kentucky’s second offensive play of the game. With both starting safeties out for the game, freshman John Howse IV stepped up and caught an interception early in the game.

“It’s just next man up,” Howse IV said. “You just have to be ready at all times and just do your job.”

Vanderbilt may have allowed 45 points, but 21 of those points came from Swann’s interceptions. The run defense also struggled; Kentucky ran for 160 yards. Former Commodore Ray Davis had a strong performance, rushing for 78 yards and a pair of touchdowns touchdowns on 17 carries.

“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.”

As Vanderbilt prepares for its sixth game of the season, it will need to embrace the “next man up” mantra to help win conference matchups. The Commodores will look to end their losing skid on Saturday when they play the Missouri Tigers at FirstBank Stadium.

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About the Contributors
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].
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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