Commodore Brunch Week Five: Quarterback conundrum

Vanderbilt senior Ken Seals started at quarterback for the first time since 2021 and threw for 259 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in Vanderbilt’s 17-point loss to Missouri.
Ken Seals celebrates with his teammates after scoring a touchdown against Missouri, as photographed on Sept. 30, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Barrie Barto)
Ken Seals celebrates with his teammates after scoring a touchdown against Missouri, as photographed on Sept. 30, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Barrie Barto)
Barrie Barto

“Right now, we’re a work in progress. We’re like this stadium, we’re under construction,” head coach Clark Lea said. 

On Saturday, Vanderbilt surrendered its fourth consecutive loss at the hands of a 38-point scoring spree by the Missouri Tigers. Lea metaphorically compared the recent struggles of his team to the construction of FirstBank Stadium. Although the Commodores have struggled recently, they’re stacking every tough experience as opportunities for growth.

Nearly a year after the Commodores won two SEC games and almost made it to a bowl game, Lea’s team has lost its winning ways and needs an immediate resurgence. Vanderbilt fell to 2-4 on Saturday and has an even tougher road ahead of them, with matchups against SEC juggernauts Florida, Georgia and Ole Miss coming up.

Swann’s ball security issues will force Lea with a tough decision on who to start at quarterback moving forward.

— Andrew Wilf

Following a turnover-riddled performance against Kentucky, sophomore quarterback AJ Swann did not see the field against Missouri. Just a few hours before kickoff, a college football insider announced that Ken Seals would start at quarterback against Missouri. Seals was serviceable but was outmatched by Missouri’s offense, who completed 532 total yards of total offense.

Seals made his first start for the Commodores in nearly two years and showed poise under center. The senior had a rough start to his Vanderbilt football career as a starter — going 0-8 in his freshman year and 2-6 in his sophomore year. Entering the 2022-23 season, the veteran was demoted to third-string quarterback behind Mike Wright and Swann. Seals did not see action in the 2022 season but elected to stay with the Black and Gold for his senior season.

“This game is so fickle,” Seals said after the game. “All I can ask for is an opportunity, and it’s on me to make the most of it.”

Against Missouri, Seals was solid, passing for 259 yards, two touchdowns and one interception while going 20-for-31 on his pass attempts. Seals has better ball security and is more cerebral in his decision-making than Swann. The senior is a reliable option at quarterback, but Swann’s arm talent and ability to put the ball in tight windows make him a tough player to have sitting on the bench. Yet, Swann’s ball security issues will force Lea with a tough decision on who to start at quarterback moving forward. On to this week’s tasteless brunch menu. 

Pancaked 

Vanderbilt was bested by the Missouri Tigers 38-21 on Saturday, thanks to strong play from Missouri’s dominant run defense and strong rush attack.

Howell will need to quickly clean up Vanderbilt’s defensive play if he and the team want to have any chance of competing in October.

— Andrew Wilf

Vanderbilt’s offensive line was humbled by Missouri’s front four in every regard. Entering the game, The Hustler underscored the importance of tuning out Missouri’s defensive line. Vanderbilt was manhandled by one of the best defensive line units in the SEC on Saturday. The offensive line surrendered only one sack to Missouri but provided Seals with little pocket protection and surrendered critical false start penalties. Gunner Hansen, Gage Pitchford and Bradley Ashmore all committed false start penalties.  

The Commodores also allowed four tackles for loss, and Seals was pressured nine times in the game. The Vanderbilt offensive line was completely exposed by the Missouri defense in the run game as well. The team’s rushing attack was lackluster, rushing for just 41 yards and 2.1 yards per rush.

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“You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car,” Oprah Winfrey famously said.

I couldn’t get Winfrey’s quote out of my head at all on Saturday. 

Missouri quarterback Brady Cook torched the Commodores, throwing for a career-high 359 yards and four touchdowns. Cook’s teammates Luther Burton and Theo Wease had noteworthy days as well. The wide receiving duo combined for 21 receptions, 258 yards and three touchdown catches. 

Cook had a lot of time in the pocket on Saturday, thanks to his offensive line shutting down the Vanderbilt defensive line. The junior took advantage of Vanderbilt’s lack of pressure and posted a 193.6 quarterback rating, which was good for the fifth-best quarterback rating of any Missouri quarterback in a single game. 

When the Commodores were in zone coverage, Cook took what the defense gave him and consistently found an open player for a checkdown pass. When Vanderbilt was in man coverage, Cook consistently found holes in the defense and made them pay.

The Vanderbilt pass defense allowed eight plays of 15 yards or more, which included three touchdown passes. Cook sizzled on Saturday and commanded his team from start to finish. One of his best throws of the day came early in the fourth quarter when he found Marquis Johnson for a 44-yard touchdown over Martel Hight Jr.

The Commodores will face quarterbacks with skills similar to or better than Cook moving forward. Howell will need to quickly clean up Vanderbilt’s defensive play if he and the team want to have any chance of competing in October.

Squandered bowl dreams 

A team needs at least six wins to make a bowl game appearance, which means Vanderbilt needs to win four of its next six games for that to happen. On paper and even in my optimistic mind, this feat is nearly impossible. Three of Vanderbilt’s next six opponents are ranked — No. 1 Georgia, No. 16 Ole Miss and No. 22 Tennessee.

The Commodores will also have to travel to challenging environments in the University of Florida and the University of South Carolina this season. The team’s slate ahead is quite arduous, with a matchup against the Florida Gators on Oct. 7, followed by a clash with the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs on Oct. 14.

Whether it’s Swann or Seals taking command at the quarterback spot for the Commodores moving forward, Lea’s team will need to play complimentary football and limit penalties. To have any chance of beating the Florida Gators for the second consecutive year, Vanderbilt will need to improve its rushing attack.

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About the Contributors
Andrew Wilf, 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].
Barrie Barto, Senior Staff Photographer
Barrie Barto ('25) is majoring in medicine, health & society with minors in communication of science & technology and neuroscience in the College of Arts and Science. She previously served as Photography Director. Outside of The Hustler, 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].
Michael Tung, Staff Photographer
Michael Tung ('26) is majoring in computer science. He is currently a staff photographer and is originally from Dublin, Ohio. His interests are photography, engineering, all things aerospace and music. He can be reached at [email protected]
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