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.

Film Room: Searching for consistency

Vanderbilt is still struggling with the little things, and that’s a big problem this late in the season.
Narenkumar Thirmiya
Vanderbilt during a timeout against Georgia. (Hustler Multimedia/Narenkumar Thirmiya)

The Vanderbilt Commodores have lost seven games in a row, dating back to the team’s Sept. 2nd win against Alabama A&M. Those losses have ranged from blowouts to close games to complete giveaways, but one common theme  has persisted throughout: a failure to execute with any semblance of consistency on both sides of the ball.

The Commodores looked completely outmatched in their most recent defeat, a 33-7 thrashing at the hands of No. 11 Ole Miss. Vanderbilt’s hapless performance on both offense and defense is a depressing microcosm of why Vanderbilt’s many detractors question if the program belongs in the SEC. To make matters worse, the Commodores were coming off a bye week and some positive momentum stemming from a surprisingly competitive bout with No. 1 Georgia. For a team that should be hungry to pick up their first SEC win, the lack of urgency or aggression to start the game is a serious concern for the Commodores.

On Ole Miss’ opening drive, the Rebels drove down the field and scored with ease in under two minutes. After Ken Seals responded by throwing an interception on his first passing attempt of the day, Ole Miss found itself in ideal field position and kicked a field goal to take a 10-0 lead less than five minutes into the game. For the rest of the half, Vanderbilt’s offense stalled while Ole Miss continued to move the ball downfield at will, eventually taking a 26-0 lead midway through the 2nd quarter. By that time, Vanderbilt had long conceded any chance of victory. 

Ole Miss is a very good football team and worthy of its No. 11 national ranking. Jaxson Dart is one of the best dual-threat signal callers in the nation, and the Rebels routinely churn out NFL-caliber skill position players. None of that justifies the lack of effort that Vanderbilt came out with to start the game, especially with an extra week to gameplan. In his weekly press conference, Clark Lea reiterated his belief in the team and their ability to weather an undeniably stormy third year of his tenure.  

“It’s hard for everybody,” Lea said. “My challenge to the coaches and to the team is to stay connected to an identity and purpose behind what we do. I do believe that these times of adversity are also times of growth, and sometimes that means you need to change and evolve. That’s what we’re going through right now. “ 

Vanderbilt’s final home game of the season, a matchup with the Auburn Tigers, may be their last best chance to win an SEC game this season. The Tigers 1-4 conference record might not seem all that impressive, but Auburn has improved quickly in head coach Hugh Freeze’s first year at the helm. In their most recent contest, quarterback Payton Thorne solidified his status as QB1 with an impressive performance in a 27-13 victory over Mississippi State. If the Commodores hope to pull off the upset Saturday, they’ll need to cut down on the mistakes and low-effort plays that have defined their season. 

Ole Miss-ed Tackles

Vanderbilt’s lackluster defensive performance in the first quarter was highlighted by a litany of missed tackles. On the Rebels’ first drive, Quinshon Judkins easily broke two half-hearted tackle attempts on his way to his first  touchdown of the day. According to Lea, those misses stem from the defense’s inability to keep the offense out of open space early in the down.

“It falls on both coaching and execution.” Lea explained, “ [Ole MIss] is an offense that’s driven by getting the ball into space, and they have good players. You’re going to miss some of those”

Dart and Judkins certainly made the most of the space their offensive line provided. Ole Miss’ star quarterback was able to use the extra running room to pick up steam going downhill, and was surprisingly difficult for Vanderbilt’s defense to contain. Judkins, who led the SEC in rushing yards as a true freshman in 2022, shredded the Vanderbilt defense to the tune of 124 yards and 2 touchdowns.

As Lea stated, it’s understandable that Vanderbilt is missing tackles against future NFL players. What’s more troubling is the apparent lack of effort and chemistry within the defense. If they expected Judkins to beat them in one-on-one plays, why is there no effort to collapse on him with multiple players? If Vanderbilt expects to beat another strong rushing team in Auburn, they’ll need to be much more cohesive in closing out open space.

The Walt Taylor Experience

After Vanderbilt fell into a 26-0 hole halfway through the second quarter, Seals was pulled from the game in favor of sophomore Walt Taylor. Taylor, a 6’7” left-handed quarterback with dangerous rushing ability, is unlike any quarterback Vanderbilt has ever rostered. Taylor has a long way to go with his consistency and poise on routine throws, but his potential is scary. In the midst of a lost game, it was certainly interesting to see Lea test out what may be the future at quarterback for Vanderbilt. 

“As we got into the 2nd quarter and it felt like we were struggling to do something offensively, that’s where the decision went to go with Walt.” Lea explained, “ It wasn’t about Ken’s performance. It was about injecting some energy into the offense to help us find some rhythm. I believe Walt was able to do that, although we still didn’t complete the ball at the level we needed to.Taylor completed just four of his twelve passing attempts for 38 yards and an interception. The lack of consistency as a passer makes him virtually unplayable in a serious game at this stage in his career. However, he did lead Vanderbilt in rushing with 59 yards and a touchdown, including a few massive first downs to extend drives that would have otherwise stalled out. 

Previewing Auburn

Similarly to Vanderbilt, Auburn has faced a bit of a quarterback conundrum for much of the 2023 season. Unlike Vanderbilt, however, that debate appears to have reached a definitive conclusion heading into Week Nine. Payton Thorne, a junior transfer from Michigan St., is the clear cut starter heading into the matchup with Vanderbilt after a string of solid performances. In his most recent game, Thorne played a huge role in guiding the Tigers to victory against the Mississippi St. Bulldogs. 

Thorne completed 77 percent of his passes for 230 yards and 3 touchdowns, while also finishing second on the team with 38 rushing yards. To defeat the Tigers, Vanderbilt will need to display a much better ability to contain the quarterback than it did against Ole Miss. Not only does Thorne’s mobility pose a threat in the rushing game, it also helps create space in the passing game by giving receivers more time to get open. 

A win against Auburn would send a powerful signal to the rest of the SEC and the national media circuit. Just like Vanderbilt’s surprise November victories against Kentucky and Florida last year, defeating a heavy favorite in Auburn would demonstrate Vanderbilt’s ability to contend with middle of the pack SEC teams. More importantly, it would serve as a much-needed reminder that Lea is continuing to lead the program in the right direction. 

Vanderbilt football will play its final home game this Saturday at 3:00 p.m. CST against the Auburn Tigers. 

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About the Contributors
Brandon Karp
Brandon Karp, Senior Staff Writer
Brandon Karp ('25) is from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and is studying human and organizational development and political science in Peabody College. You can reach him at [email protected].
Narenkumar Thirmiya
Narenkumar Thirmiya, Staff Photographer
Narenkumar Thirmiya ('24) is from Orlando, Fla., and is majoring in neuroscience and medicine, health, and society in the College of Arts and Science. When not shooting for The Hustler, he is streaming TV, playing the piano or guitar or exploring nature photography. You can reach him at [email protected].
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