Three Matchups to Watch: Vanderbilt vs. Kentucky

While the first win of the season continues to elude the Commodores, they hope to change their fortunes against an inconsistent Kentucky team

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Emily Gonçalves

Bowden Jr. celebrates a touchdown as Kentucky defeats Vanderbilt 38-14 on Saturday, November 16, 2019.

Luke Mukundan, Staff Writer

After going toe-to-toe with Mississippi State and falling just short this past week, Vanderbilt will once again be on the road to face the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday. While Kentucky and Vanderbilt have enjoyed a competitive intradivison rivalry, the past few seasons have been far from kind for the Commodores. Since Derek Mason was hired as head coach, Vanderbilt is 1-5 against Kentucky, with its sole victory coming all the way back in 2015.

So far in the 2020 season, Kentucky has fallen short of expectations. Entering the year as the 23rd-ranked team in the nation, the Wildcats now sit at a disappointing 2-4. Injuries to key players and inconsistent play have had major roles in Kentucky’s performance. If the Commodores hope to win a game this season, Kentucky presents one of the best remaining opportunities on their schedule. Let’s take a look at three key matchups to watch this week:

Offensive Linemen Tyler Steen and Bradley Ashmore vs. Linebacker Jamar Watson

Vanderbilt’s offensive line has been a work-in-progress for the vast majority of the 2020 season. Due to injuries and opt-outs, the coaching staff has had to patch together a revolving door of offensive linemen every week. Thankfully, the line is beginning to solidify as Tyler Steen and Bradley Ashmore have both started the past two weeks at left and right tackle, respectively. In the two games that they have started together, the offensive line has only allowed two sacks and has done a good job of keeping the pocket clean for freshman quarterback Ken Seals. However, Steen and Ashmore will have their hands full trying to stop Kentucky linebacker Jamar “Boogie” Watson.

Watson is one of the most dangerous edge rushers in all of the SEC, as teams have had a world of trouble trying to scheme around him. Last season, Watson compiled six and a half sacks, good for seventh-most in the conference. This year, Watson is keeping the momentum from his stellar junior season going. Watson has a sack in three of Kentucky’s past four games and an interception for good measure. If Vanderbilt hopes to keep Ken Seals protected this Saturday, it’s imperative that Steen and Ashmore set the edge against Kentucky’s best edge rusher. 

Defensive Backs Brendon Harris and Jaylen Mahoney vs. Quarterback Terry Wilson

Although Kentucky’s defense has proven to be one of the best in the SEC, its offense has held the team back several times throughout the first half of the season. Most of these issues stem from the quarterback position, which has been hampered by injuries and rather poor play. Senior Terry Wilson started the season under center but has been out for a couple weeks with a hand injury. Sophomore quarterback Joey Gatewood started in his place in Kentucky’s most recent game but only managed to throw for a meager 91 yards on 25 attempts. While Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops alluded to Wilson starting against Vanderbilt, the Wildcats can hardly feel great about where they currently stand. Given the uncertainty at Kentucky’s quarterback position, Vanderbilt’s defense has a great opportunity to prove themselves against the passing game.

Early on in Vanderbilt’s matchup against Mississippi State, the Commodore defense looked helpless against the Bulldogs’ air raid pass attack. Mississippi State quarterback Will Rogers was nearly flawless in the first half, completing 25-31 passes for 170 yards and a touchdown. However, the second half saw the Commodores’ best defensive effort of the season so far. After coming out of the locker room, Vanderbilt held the Bulldogs to a mere 56 yards through the air, stopping an offense built on the passing game dead in its tracks. 

A lot of the credit for this improvement can be given to the secondary, specifically safety Brendon Harris and cornerback Jaylen Mahoney. Both players let their presence be known in the second half, with each accumulating an impressive ten tackles. Moreover, Harris and Mahoney combined for three pass deflections, making it much harder for Mississippi State to do anything through the air. Their physical play sets the tone for the rest of the defense and gives the Commodores a blueprint to build upon this week. 

Wide Receiver Cam Johnson vs. Cornerback Kelvin Joseph

One of the main benefactors of Vanderbilt’s new offensive system this season has been wide receiver Cam Johnson. The junior has already surpassed his total yardage for all of last year, having made 33 catches for 338 yards through the season’s first five games. He’s also only getting better as the year goes along, as he’s compiled 211 yards in the past two games alone. As quarterback Ken Seals continues to learn how to get comfortable with the offense, Johnson will continue to be his go-to option. But, if Johnson hopes to keep his hot streak alive, he will have to do so despite being matched up against one of the SEC’s top-performing cornerbacks.

Kentucky cornerback Kelvin Joseph looks like a star-in-the-making in Kentucky’s secondary. After sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, Joseph has emerged as a ballhawking cornerback. He has recorded three interceptions so far this season, tied for first among all players in the SEC. These three interceptions also include a 41 yard pick-six against Tennessee, in which he showcased his tremendous closing speed on passes. When Joseph and Johnson line up against each other this weekend, it should be one of the more competitive matchups that we’ll see on the field.