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.

Vanderbilt drops fourth straight, loses to No. 23 Missouri 38-21

The Commodores fell short of the Tigers in Ken Seals’ first start since 2021, allowing opposing quarterback Brady Cook to throw for 395 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Barrie Barto
Ken Seals keeps the ball on a read option and walks into the end zone for the score during Vanderbilt’s loss to No. 23 Missouri (Hustler Multimedia/Barrie Barto).

On a sunny Saturday afternoon at FirstBank Stadium, Vanderbilt Football welcomed No. 23 Missouri to West End. The Commodores, who had lost three straight against Wake Forest, UNLV and Kentucky, entered the day hoping to get back in the win column and improve to 3-3. Unfortunately, Missouri’s balanced attack was too much for head coach Clark Lea and co. to handle, as the final score read 38-21 in favor of Missouri. Defensive coordinator Nick Howell had no answer for the Missouri passing attack, as quarterback Brady Cook threw for 395 yards and 4 touchdowns. 

The big news throughout the week was that quarterback Ken Seals might be making his first appearance since 2021, with usual starter AJ Swann dealing with an elbow contusion. Swann had also struggled massively during the team’s three-game skid, throwing six interceptions through that span. Sure enough, just hours before kickoff, it was announced that Seals would get the nod under center.

“AJ [Swann] was available. Just wasn’t able to get reps in practice,” said Lea after the game.

Missouri won the toss and deferred, giving Seals and the Vanderbilt offense an opportunity to make a statement with a strong opening drive. Patrick Smith rushed two times on the Commodores’ first two snaps before Seals found Will Sheppard on a quick slant to convert on third down. After an end-around run from Jayden McGowan set up second and short, a false start penalty on Gunnar Hansen set the Commodores back. After two incomplete passes, Vanderbilt was forced to punt. 

After Jaylen Mahoney blew up a screen pass on second down, Cook found superstar receiver Luther Burden III down the field on third down for a 27-yard gain. Moments after, running back Cody Schrader leveled CJ Taylor with a monstrous truck, leaving Taylor injured on the field. The third-year linebacker walked off on his own power before play resumed. Missouri marched all the way down to the Vanderbilt 6-yard line, but the defense, led by Mahoney (five tackles on the drive), held strong to force the Tigers into a field goal.

After Sedrick Alexander opened up Vanderbilt’s second drive with a hard-fought four-yard run, Seals rolled out and looked deep for freshman wideout Junior Sherrill. While the pass fell incomplete, Sherill was interfered with, giving the Commodores a fresh set of downs. A nice run from McGowan got the offense moving, and Seals found Quincy Skinner Jr. for back-to-back first downs to set the Commodores up at the 10-yard line. Seals executed a read-option to perfection on second-and-goal, walking into the end zone to give Vanderbilt the lead, 7-3. 

Mahoney, continuing to percolate, stymied the ensuing kick return with a massive hit on Nathaniel Peat. Despite Vanderbilt seemingly having all of the momentum, Cook marched Missouri straight down the field, taking advantage of the soft cushion defense Vanderbilt was playing and Burden III and Theo Wease for chunk gains. After a Burden III reception got Missouri down to the 1-yard line, Schrader punched it in for the Tigers’ first touchdown of the game and Missouri went back up by three as the scoreboard flashed 10-7. 

The Commodores struggled to find the success of their previous drive, going three-and-out and punting right back to Cook and the Missouri offense. 

The Tigers’ drive opened with a deep ball that was seemingly broken up by defensive back De’Rickey Wright, but a questionable pass interference call moved the chains anyways. Fifth-year linebacker Kane Patterson set up a huge third-and-long for the Missouri offense after blowing up a double screen play, and the Commodores forced a punt after bending (but not breaking) on the third down pass. 

The punt was nearly perfect, as Riley Williams pinned the Vanderbilt offense inside the five-yard line. The Commodores opened up in disastrous fashion as a delayed handoff was blown up, leaving them with almost no breathing room at the half-yard line. A false start pushed the offense back even further, but Seals found Richie Hoskins for a short gain on second down to grant the team some breathing room. A roughing the passer call tacked 15 yards on to the end of the play and got Vanderbilt away from the threat of a safety. Two failed rushing attempts, another false start and a busted screen play crushed any momentum the Commodores had as they were forced to punt. 

Cook picked right up where he left off on the previous drive, finding Burden III yet again, this time for a 24-yard gain over the middle. After stopping a run from Peat, Patterson struggled to get up and had to be helped off by members of the Commodores’ training staff. Wease continued to dominate, catching his fifth and sixth passes of the game as Missouri made its way inside the ten-yard line. Despite a false start and a blown up quarterback run forcing the Tigers into a third and long, Wease found space on the left sideline and caught a jump ball in the end zone to increase the deficit to 10 points. Vanderbilt received the ball with just 55 seconds remaining in the half. A three-and-out sent the ball back to Missouri, but with just 19 seconds left the Tigers could not get close enough to attempt a field goal. On the final play of the half, Wright forced a fumble on Wease that Darren Agu scooped up, but nothing further amounted as the clock showed zeros and the teams headed back to their locker rooms. 

The story going into the game – as discussed on Live from West End earlier in the week — was whether Vanderbilt’s defense could slow down the Missouri passing offense. Cook, who completed 20-of-24 for 217 yards and a touchdown in the first half, made it clear that the answer to that question, at least early on, was no. Wease and Burden III boasted statlines of 8 catches for 94 yards and a score and 5 catches 72 yards, respectively. The Commodores, as they had done with Ray Davis the week prior, did a nice job slowing down Schraeder (just 19 rushing yards in the first half). 

On offense, the Commodores could get virtually nothing going. They entered halftime with just 98 total yards and one successful drive. Other than the 76-yard touchdown drive that offensive coordinator Joey Lynch put together in the middle of the first quarter, the Commodores had gained just 22 yards. Seals played a clean half, going 9-of-13 – albeit for just 60 yards – with a score on the ground. Perhaps one of the bigger stories was that Vanderbilt’s top two receivers in Sheppard and McGowan had just one combined catch for eight yards. 

“We’ve got to look at where we missed in that stretch where we couldn’t maintain possession. Because that’s going to allow the defense to not play as many snaps,” Lea said after the game.

After the break, Vanderbilt kicked off to Missouri, who showed that the first half was no fluke right off the bat as Cook hit Burden III for a 26-yard gain. After another first down pass from Cook and a few short runs, Missouri found itself facing a third and short inside the red zone. Cook dropped back to pass, went through his progressions and found Burden III on a 18-yard fade route in the back right of the end zone for an easy touchdown as Missouri went up 24-7. 

With its fourth straight loss looming, Vanderbilt would need some magic from Seals and the rest of its offense. A blown-up play action and another run-for-loss out of the shotgun set the Commodores up with a third-and-long, which saw Seals throw a pass into the dirt. The drive marked Vanderbilt’s third three-and-out of the game. 

Missouri’s next drive saw its ground game come to life a little bit, as Peat ripped off a few successful runs. Still, the Commodores held Missouri off on third down, forcing just the second punt of the game from the Tigers. 

With just 7:54 left in the third quarter, the Commodores  needed some sort of spark on offense. Alexander provided that spark with a 17-yard catch on third down to move the chains for Vanderbilt. A few plays later, Vanderbilt faced a critical fourth-and-short, forced to go for it in no-man’s land, down 17. After it seemed like Seals might take a sack, he rolled out right and found Alexander yet again – this time for a 21-yard gain – to put the Commodores on the cusp of the red zone. 

Then, Vanderbilt did what its done all season when momentum turned in its favor: Shot itself in the foot. 

Seals made a questionable read on the pass, missing a wide-open Sheppard over the middle and airmailing a pass over the head of tight end Justin Ball and into the hands of Kris Abrams-Draine. The play was Vanderbilt’s first big mistake of the game, and could not have come at a more inopportune time.

Missouri proceeded to drive down the field, passing midfield and encroaching on Vanderbilt’s territory before defensive lineman Bradley Mann made a huge tackle to set up a fourth down. The Tigers, operating at the 41-yard line, opted to go for it, but a blitz from Vanderbilt and a low snap doomed the play from the start. 

Vanderbilt’s offense produced it most successful play of the game as Seals found Sheppard for a 29-yard gain as the superstar receiver fought through pass interference to make the catch. The Commodores topped their previous play as Seals found Sheppard over the middle for a 31-yard touchdown to cut the deficit back down to 10. 

The door, albeit barely so, was open.

Missouri seemingly closed that door on the next possession, with chunk plays from Wease and Peat getting the Tigers into Commodores territory. A drop on what would have likely been a walk in touchdown and a holding call briefly halted momentum, and Vanderbilt pounced on the opportunity. Russell blew up a short pass to Burden III to se up a second and long. On the next play, Marquis Johnson got behind the defense for a wide open 44-yard touchdown to effectively end all hope of a comeback bid from the Commodores. 

Vanderbilt managed to get a hand in the door before it shut entirely, as the offense continued to click on the next drive. Sheppard took a drag route 27 yards and put the Commodores into Missouri territory. Seals hurried the offense up to the line of scrimmage, ran a play action to perfection and found Sherrill for a 45-yard touchdown to close the gap again, as Missouri led 31-21 with just under 10 minutes remaining. 

If the Commodores wanted any chance at a comeback, they would need to lock up on defense. After a Cook run went for no yards and a pass over the middle left the Tigers in third and short, Vanderbilt knew it had to make a play. Just when it seemed as though the entire Vanderbilt defense had been fooled on a read option, Marlen Sewell wrapped Cook up by the legs and held him short. With 7:03 remaining, the Commodores had a chance to bring the game within one score. 

Seals started with a pass to Alexander in the flat that went for a first down, and followed it up with another short gain to Alexander. Seals’ third down pass went off of the fingertips of Ball, facing the Commodores with a daunting fourth down from their own 32. In a true now-or-never moment for Vanderbilt, the offensive line got demolished by Missouri’s front and Seals took a sack.

“They obviously have a good rush,” Lea said about the team’s sack struggles. “We have to be disciplined in our approach.”

Burden III added salt to the wound with a 17-yard touchdown catch to bring the lead back to 17 points, and all of a sudden, the door was completely shut. Vanderbilt had no answer for the Cook-Burden III duo, as the pair connected 11 times for 140 yards and 2 touchdowns. 

Vanderbilt went 3-and-out on the following drive as Missouri received the punt and ran the clock out. The Commodores’ offense showed flashes of hope as Seals threw for 259 yards and 2 touchdowns.

“As of today, [Ken Seals] is our starting quarterback. We will continue to evaluate as we go forward,” Lea said. “Really proud of Ken. I think he made some plays, I think he created. I thought he played with confidence down the back late. I thought the deep ball to Junior [Sherrill] was as good as a ball as I’ve seen him throw.”

Still, in spite of Seals’ game, things were never going to come easy as the defense allowed 532 total yards to Missouri. 

“Right now, we’re a work in progress. We’re like this stadium, we’re under construction. You can close your eyes and imagine that stadium full of Vanderbilt fans,” Lea said. “That’s what they see, and every day up until that moment, we’re experiencing things that are going to deliver us there. It’s all a part of the process to become the program we want to become.”

Vanderbilt (2-4) will be back in action next week as the Commodores hit the road to take on the No. 22 Florida Gators in Gainesville on Saturday, Oct. 7 at 2:00 p.m. CDT.

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About the Contributors
Aiden Rutman
Aiden Rutman, Sports Editor
Aiden Rutman (‘25) is a student in Peabody College majoring in human and organizational development and minoring in communication studies. He formerly produced The Hustler’s sports podcast, Live from West End. In addition to writing and podcasting, Aiden is an avid New York sports fan, and he loves playing sports, spending time outdoors and trying new foods. You can reach him at [email protected].
Barrie Barto
Barrie Barto, Editor-in-Chief
Barrie Barto ('25) is majoring in medicine, health & society with neuroscience and communication of science & technology minors in the College of Arts and Science. She previously served as Photography Director. When she's not strolling around campus with her camera, you can find Barrie cheering on the St. Louis Blues or tracking down the best gluten-free food in Nashville. She can be reached at [email protected].
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