Commodore Brunch Week 13: Knocking on the door

The Vanderbilt Commodores concluded their 2023 season on Saturday with a 48-24 loss to the Tennessee Volunteers.
Clark Lea speaking to the referees in the Tennessee game as photographed on Nov. 25, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Barrie Barto)
Clark Lea speaking to the referees in the Tennessee game as photographed on Nov. 25, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Barrie Barto)
Barrie Barto

Two days after celebrating Thanksgiving, I traveled to Knoxville, Tenn., to watch the Vanderbilt Commodores (2-10) lose their fifth straight game to the Tennessee Volunteers (8-4). The Volunteers beat the Commodores, 48-24, behind 617 yards of total offense. The loss marked head coach Clark Lea’s second two-win season. With the loss, Vanderbilt’s overall record in the past four seasons (2020-23) fell to 9-36. With the loss, the Class of 2024 witnessed Vanderbilt’s winless season in 2020 and just one SEC home win during their time on West End.

Andrew Wilf (left) and Anish Mago (right) broke down Vanderbilt’s final game of the season on Nov. 25, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Barrie Barto) (Barrie Barto)

Now is the time to turn the corner, and Lea believes that transition can happen this offseason.

“We have to find the formula, and that’s where my time and energy will be spent here as we turn the page,” Lea said. “We’ll do that with the people that see the vision and are committed to it. We’ll be excited to go to battle with those guys.” 

Lea came into this season with high hopes, confident that Vanderbilt would secure a spot in a bowl game for the first time since 2018. Behind promising quarterback AJ Swann, Lea believed the team was ready to battle in the SEC. 

“As we stand now, in front of a clean sheet our goal is postseason play,” Lea said at SEC Media Day in August. “Each program member must be willing to go beyond our limits ever evolving the internal expectations for what it means to invest in our process and strengthen our culture. We simply cannot miss any opportunity to take ground on our mission.” 

Vanderbilt’s path to postseason play was squandered due to committing self-inflicted errors throughout the season. The Commodores started the season at 2-0, but turnovers riddled the team down the stretch. Against Wake Forest, UNLV and Kentucky, Vanderbilt gave up a combined 10 turnovers.

When things get tough, everybody wants to separate and that’s what you can’t do.

— Langston Patterson

The Commodores also dealt with a quarterback dilemma, playing Swann, Ken Seals and Walter Taylor this season. Swann’s turnovers at the beginning of the season, coupled with an elbow contusion suffered in the UNLV game put Vanderbilt’s offense in the hands of Seals and Taylor until the final game. Swann showed flashes of consistency against Tennessee, but it is unclear who will be the QB1 in 2024.

In 2023, Vanderbilt ranked 112th in FBS with 318.9 yards of total offense per game and 100th in FBS with 22.8 points per game. Lea understands that a lot is in question for the next step for Vanderbilt Football. Whether he elects to stick with Joey Lynch in 2024 or look elsewhere for an offensive coordinator, a long offseason awaits.

“I think we are going to reflect back on this year, and we are going to see some things that we want to build on,” Lea said. “It is not going to be all bad, but the results are obviously not where we want them to be. It will be about setting a course and adjusting our process to aim towards those results.”

The Commodores suffered a brutal defeat on Saturday to a Tennessee team that is commanded by a very experienced quarterback. No matter what challenges the Commodores were faced with this season, they always showed fight and stuck together. 

“When things get tough, everybody wants to separate, and that’s what you can’t do,” linebacker Langton Patterson said. “You got to stick together and keep grinding.”

I predict Vanderbilt to pick right back where it left off in 2022 and make a strong push at a bowl appearance in 2024. Before turning the page, let’s look at what Vanderbilt needs to clean up to go where it wants to be. It’s been a privilege and honor to write these columns and I am grateful to have learned from the Sports Editors before me in Simon Gibbs, Justin Hershey and Bryce Smith.

On to my final Brunch.

Shrimp and grits

For the second time under Lea’s tutelage, Vanderbilt went winless in SEC play. None of Vanderbilt’s conference losses in 2023 were within one possession with its closest SEC defeat in 2023 was a 16-point loss to the Auburn Tigers. On paper, Lea’s team took several steps backward this season. Following a five-win campaign that included wins over Kentucky and Florida in 2022, Team 3 did not have the same success on the field.

Following the sixth-biggest deficit in the Lea era, the Commodores came to Knoxville and showed grit. Entering the game as 27-point underdogs, Vanderbilt laid it all out on the line on Saturday. Despite being outdueled in all three phases of play, Vanderbilt fought until the end on Saturday. In a season that has been filled with disappointment, the Commodores’ resilience was best demonstrated in the second quarter.

On third-and-14 with 3:12 remaining in the second quarter, Vanderbilt trailed the Volunteers by 14 points with the ball on the Tennessee 40-yard line. Before Swann snapped the ball, left tackle Gunnar Hansen committed a false start penalty, which pushed Vanderbilt five yards back. Although a deadball foul was called, Tennessee defenders tackled Swann. On the next play, Vanderbilt committed a delay of game penalty and Swann was tackled once again.

Lea and the Commodores were furious after Swann was tackled on consecutive plays, leading the two teams into a scuffle. Lea was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty a few moments later due to pleading for an explanation from the referees. Two Tennessee players were also called for the same penalty. The three unsportsmanlike penalties ultimately offset each other. Vanderbilt ended up punting on fourth-and-long. Tennesee scored on its ensuing possession to end the first half.

Xavier Castillo and Tyler Baron get in a fight during Vanderbilt’s game vs Tennessee, as photographed on November 25, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Josh Rehders) (Josh Rehders)

“Our players were fighting for one another,” Lea said. “Our first covenant is true brotherhood. I respect the fact they were standing up for one another.”

Lea ultimately cares about the safety of his players and in that moment he felt that Swann was not protected by the referees. Swann left the game with a back injury in the next quarter due to the constant hits he suffered in the game. Seals — who entered the transfer portal today — replaced Swann and went seven-for-nine on his pass attempts and threw for 68 yards and one touchdown. 

Despite being sidelined in the third quarter, Swann showed poise in the pocket in his first start since Week Four. Swann played within himself on Saturday and committed no turnovers. The sophomore completed 60.8% of his pass attempts and threw for 167 yards and one touchdown. Swann has dealt with adversity all season, and Saturday was no different.

“I thought he [Swann] showed up today in the right mindset,” Lea said. “It was great to see him back there playing with confidence.”

Vanderbilt’s passing offense was respectable on Saturday night, but the Tennessee offense stole the show.

Vanderbilt’s passing defense has been its Achilles heel all season and Saturday evening was no different.

— Andrew Wilf

Milton III magic

On Saturday, sixth-year senior Joe Milton III annihilated the Vanderbilt Commodores in his final game at Neyland Stadium. The veteran quarterback threw for a career-high four touchdowns and ran for two touchdowns on quarterback keepers. The 23-year-old’s six-touchdown performance was the most touchdowns scored by a Tennessee quarterback since 2009. 

“We didn’t do enough on the perimeter to make it hard on him [Milton III],” Lea said in his postgame press conference. “I think he is really hard when he extends plays, and there were times where I felt we had the opportunity for pressure and a sack, and he was able to evade and extend the play.”

Helicopters fly over pregame of Vanderbilt’s game vs Tennessee, as photographed on November 25, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Josh Rehders) (Josh Rehders)

Milton III went 22-for-32 on his pass attempts and threw for 383 yards on Tennessee’s Senior Day. Of Milton III’s 383 passing yards, 272 came from just nine plays. The 6’5” quarterback averaged 11.6 yards per pass attempt and 17.4 yards per completion and had a 210.5 quarterback rating. 

The Tennessee offense did not score on methodically long drives. Instead, most of the Volunteers’ touchdowns came from explosive plays. Although Vanderbilt held possession for 57% of the game, Tennessee outscored Vanderbilt by 24 points due to capitalizing on several explosive plays.

Milton III set the tone right from the get-go. Tennessee scored a touchdown within 55 seconds of the kickoff, thanks to a 56-yard touchdown from Milton III to Ramel Keyton on the fourth play of the game. Tennessee’s recipe for success came from explosive plays the rest of the night.

CJ Taylor on the field against Tennessee as photographed on Nov. 25, 2023. (Hustler Multimedia/Barrie Barto) (Barrie)

Following a quick strike on its first possession, Tennessee was forced to punt on its next two drives. Tied at 7-7 with 4:16 remaining in the first quarter, Tennessee had the ball on the Vanderbilt 39-yard line. The Volunteers scored in just four plays, thanks to two rushes from Jabari Small that totaled 29 yards and a 10-yard touchdown from Milton III to McCallan Castles. The drive lasted just over one minute. Tennessee continued to capitalize off of quick drives.

Milton III had two more passing touchdowns on Saturday evening. He scored his third passing touchdown out of the shotgun when he found a wide-open Jacob Warren for a 34-yard connection. The Volunteers swiftly marched 73 yards down the field in just four plays due to utilizing a hurry-up offense, which confused the Vanderbilt secondary.

Milton III scored his fourth passing touchdown of the night midway through the third quarter when he found Keyton for another 56-yard touchdown. He connected with Keyton on a slant route, who beat Martel Hight, Marlen Sewell and Tyson Russell on his way to the endzone. The touchdown capped off an 80-yard drive that lasted 90 seconds.

Vanderbilt’s passing defense has been its Achilles heel all season, and Saturday evening was no different. This season, the Commodores ranked 125th in FBS in passing yards allowed per game (279.6). Vanderbilt allowed a Tennessee team that averages 250.92 passing yards per game to throw for 449 yards on Saturday. The Commodores will need to clean up their pass defense if they hope to compete in one of the hardest divisions in college football next season. 

Next chapter

“This year has been painful and frustrating,” Lea said. “We just never got synched up.”

The 2023 season was disappointing in several ways for the Commodores. Vanderbilt won three fewer games than it did in 2022 and was unable to get into a rhythm from the start of the season. 

“You go back to Hawaii, you go back to Alabama A&M, and you see a team that played well enough to win those games,” Lea said. “As the competition increased, the things we got away with in those games continued to show up.”

While this season’s Commodores snuck past a Hawaii team by one touchdown, Vanderbilt beat the Rainbow Warriors by 63 points in 2022. Vanderbilt showed dominance in its next game, though, and sped past Alabama A&M, 47-13. The Commodores were unable to bring their momentum from the first two games into their remaining nonconference games.

Over the offseason, Lea will need to improve Vanderbilt’s offensive line and defensive line. The Commodores scored 10 rushing touchdowns to its opponents’ 23 rushing touchdowns in 2023. Vanderbilt amassed 100+ yards on the ground in three of its conference games.

Team 4’s chapter is yet to be written. Next year will be pivotal for Lea, as well as Vanderbilt’s history as FirstBank Stadium will be revamped.

Time to rest up, heal and get back to work.

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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].
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].
Josh Rehders
Josh Rehders, Former Photography Director
Josh Rehders ('24) is from Houston and is studying computer science in the School of Engineering. When he is not shooting for The Hustler, Vanderbilt Athletics or freelancing, he enjoys finding new music and good food. He can be reached at [email protected].
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Josh Kammerer
6 months ago

Love being an alumnus of a school keeping an incompetent public antisemite in a role they failed horrifically at least year and again this year. If it’s not shameful enough to retain this level of incompetence, it leaves me with the presumption that the antisemitism of that coach was a feature, not a bug.