Commodore Brunch Week 10: Uninspired

On Alumni Weekend, Vanderbilt lost its eighth consecutive game at the hands of a 31-15 defeat to Auburn.
Junior Sherrill running towards the bench, as captured on Nov. 4, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Ophelia Lu)
Junior Sherrill running towards the bench, as captured on Nov. 4, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Ophelia Lu)
Ophelia Lu

This was the week. This was the moment. This is when the tides were going to turn. On Alumni Weekend, Vanderbilt was destined to win its first SEC game of the season and get back in the win column for the first time in 63 days. At least, that’s what I said on The College Loop pregame show on Friday. I predicted Vanderbilt to beat Auburn 24-21, while Dylan Larck laughed at my prediction.

Looking back on it, I should have known better.

Vanderbilt knows how to disappoint its fans, and this week was no different. 

The one thing that wasn’t smooth was Vanderbilt Football, and the alumni and seniors are used to that by now.

— Andrew Wilf

In my final home game at FirstBank Stadium as a college student, Vanderbilt fell to Auburn 31-15. I, along with the rest of the Class of 2024, have had a historically bad tenure watching Vanderbilt Football.

The Commodores are 1-16 in SEC home games since I’ve come to West End. Vanderbilt’s only SEC home win came when most of the student body was away from Nashville due to the game being two days after Thanksgiving. The seniors have seen quite a tumultuous stretch of seasons from a 0-9 season in 2020, a two-win season in 2021 that featured narrow victories over Colorado State and UConn, and a five-win season in 2022.

This season has been an absolute regression for the Commodores. Vanderbilt is looking at a two-win season straight in the face. With its only remaining games being against South Carolina and Tennessee, Vanderbilt’s only hope should be to look competitive against the two SEC powerhouses. 

Vanderbilt dance team running to open the game, as captured on Nov. 4, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Ophelia Lu) (Ophelia Lu)

Vanderbilt may have lost its fourth consecutive home game, but there were some positives on the warm November day. The Hustler’s Editor-In-Chief – Rachael Perrotta – won the prestigious Outstanding Senior award during the halftime break and many Vanderbilt alumni showed up for the game in celebration of Homecoming Weekend.

Although everything went smoothly off the field, such as Perrotta winning the prestigious award, the alumni coming back to cheer for their esteemed Commodores and the weather being 71 degrees Fahrenheit at kickoff. 

The one thing that wasn’t smooth was Vanderbilt Football, and the alumni and seniors are used to that by now.

Vanderbilt’s passing offense in the first half was as stale as a bag of pretzels left open for one week.

— Andrew Wilf

The Commodores played catch-up from start to finish on Saturday. Ken Seals and the offense planned to get off to a faster start than they did last week against Ole Miss. Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, it started just as sluggish as last week. 

In Vanderbilt’s first drive, Seals marched the offense 40 yards from the Vanderbilt 35-yard line and Jacob Borcila missed a 43-yard kick. Auburn responded with a 67-yard rushing touchdown from Jarquez Hunter on its second offensive play. Auburn’s rushing attack was what ultimately plagued the Commodores, and we’ll get to that later. On the other side of the ball, Seals had no answers for Hugh Freeze and the Tigers’ defense.

Vanderbilt’s passing offense in the first half was as stale as a bag of pretzels left open for one week. 

Vanderbilt’s offensive air was evaporated after the first drive. In the first half, Vanderbilt had 19 passing yards and punted on six of its eight drives. One of the two drives that Vanderbilt did not punt on came at the conclusion of the first half when Sedrick Alexander ran the ball four yards to end the first half in what was the only play of the drive.

Let’s dive into the structural and organizational mistakes that led Vanderbilt to lose its eighth consecutive game. 

Sloppy Joe’s (Part 2)

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that Vanderbilt’s loss to UNLV should be chalked up to the Commodores’ lack of care with the football. I called Vanderbilt’s three fumbles and one interception against UNLV as the “Sloppy Joe’s” of the game. On this week’s Brunch menu, Sloppy Joe’s makes a return. This time, though, the Sloppy Joe’s are not homemade or filled with organic ingredients. Instead, this week’s Sloppy Joe’s are the ones you will find at your elementary school lunch table served in bulk.

Instead of an item focused on turnovers, this week’s Sloppy Joe is marinated by offensive coordinator Joey Lynch and focuses on a lack of originality. 

Vanderbilt’s offensive playcalling has been a point of contention all season and Saturday proved to be a prime showing of the lack of creativity from Lynch. His conservative playstyle will not work against SEC teams, especially when you are already predicted to lose by two possessions. Instead of playing aggressively and with a sense of urgency, Lynch dialed up an incredibly defensive and tentative game plan.

Matthew Hayball punting against Auburn as captured on Nov. 4, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Geetika Komati) (Geetika Komati)

Down 14-0 with the ball at the 50-yard line with just over 12 minutes remaining in the second quarter, Vanderbilt had the ball on third-and-20. Instead of electing to throw a slant route or hitch route 10-15 yards to put Borcilla in field goal range, Vanderbilt ran the ball three yards. The Commodores ended up pinning Auburn at the 1-yard line and Bryce Cowan had a pick-six. 

“Possession of the ball is critical,” head coach Clark Lea told The Hustler after the game. “You force that ball down the field and you throw an interception, we’re having a totally different conversation so it’s a conservative call.”

There is a difference with running the ball on third-and-20 if you are deep in your own territory, but the Commodores were approaching enemy territory. Also, Vanderbilt has nothing to lose and should start playing like that. The Commodores were competitive against Georgia because they played their own brand of football and never played scared. Running on third-and-long when you are out of bowl contention is more than defensive, it is disrespectful to the players trying to win. 

Although Vanderbilt scored a touchdown on the ensuing possession on a pick-six, the decision to run the ball at that moment sends a message that Lea and Co. believe the offense has a better chance of turning the ball over than gaining ten yards.

Gushers 

Vanderbilt’s rushing defense was nothing short of putrid on Saturday. The Commodores allowed Auburn to run for 230 yards and two touchdowns. Auburn’s lead tailback — Jarquez Hunter — ran for 183 yards, and scored a 56-yard rushing touchdown and a 67-yard rushing touchdown. Vanderbilt’s missed tackles were the culprit to Auburn’s success on the ground.

To no surprise, Vanderbilt ranks dead last in the SEC in rushing yards allowed per game. The Commodores allow 180.0 rushing yards per game, which ranks 110th of the 130 FBS college football teams. A key reason for this statistic is Vanderbilt having several missed tackles and structural breakdowns.

As sloppy as the coaching has been on the defensive end of the ball, Vanderbilt’s inability to put pressure on the quarterback this season is what has been key in the opening of running opportunities for opposing offenses. Vanderbilt’s lack of attention to detail is what makes this team a two-win team, not a five-win team like last year. From the turnover struggles against Wake Forest, UNLV, and Kentucky to the weekly quarterback conundrum, the 2023 Commodores have taken a big step back.

Lynch’s time on West End is certainly waning. I would not be surprised if defensive coordinator Nick Howell is out as well. Lea’s contract extension underscores that Candice Lee will be patient with Lea. Lea may be safe, but all signs point toward a coordinator revamp on both sides of the ball.

Fishing elsewhere

This season did not go as planned, especially with the inconsistent quarterback play from AJ Swann, Seals and Walter Taylor. Swann started the first five games and threw for 7 touchdowns, 11 interceptions and 1,290 yards. Swann’s expected jump from year one to year two looked more like a sidestep as his 34.9 quarterback rating and lack of ball security have led to questioning if Swann is the man of the future.

The sophomore suffered an elbow contusion in the UNLV game and it ultimately affected his performance against Kentucky. Swann has not seen the field since the Kentucky game and was expected to return to action for the Ole Miss game. Lea has not fully disclosed the status of Swann’s recovery and I believe that Swann’s errant playmaking at the beginning of the season has led Lea to stick with Seals and Taylor moving forward. Seals started for four consecutive games: Missouri, Florida, Georgia and Ole Miss

Ken Seals scrambling from an Auburn defender, as captured on Nov. 4, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Geetika Komati) (Geetika Komati)

Against Ole Miss, Seals completed four of his eight pass attempts and had an interception. When the Commodores trailed the Rebels by 26 points in the second quarter, Lea replaced Seals for Taylor. Taylor would finish the game for the Commodores, while Seals and Swann sat on the sideline.

Seals is not the man of the future as all signs point at the senior heading elsewhere after the season. Swann’s inconsistent play and ball security issues will need to improve if he wants to be the quarterback in 2024 and Taylor’s lack of polishing is a cause for concern. Taylor is athletic and has great dual-threat potential, but will need to work on his accuracy in order to have any chance of being the starter in 2024.

Although Lea always harps on developing players and is not keen on the transfer portal, I would not be surprised if Lea looks elsewhere for his 2024 quarterback. As inspiring as it is to build players from the ground up within a program, Lea should pursue a quarterback in the transfer portal during the offseason.

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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].
Ophelia Lu
Ophelia Lu, Deputy Photography Editor
Ophelia Lu (’26) is from Los Angeles and is double majoring in biomedical and electrical engineering in the School of Engineering. She previously served as a staff photographer. When not covering events and sports games for The Hustler, you can find her listening to a lot of music, studying at Starbucks or lying on Alumni lawn. She can be reached at [email protected].
Geetika Komati
Geetika Komati, Staff Photographer
Geetika Komati ('26) is majoring in economics and music performance and minoring in business in the College of Arts and Science. She is from Livingston, N.J. Geetika loves photographing sports games and getting in on the live action. Apart from the Hustler, some of Geetika's favorite things are traveling, boxing, and cheering on the New Jersey Devils. She can be reached at [email protected].
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