Three Matchups to Watch: Vanderbilt vs. Stanford

This Saturday the Commodores will look to win back-to-back games for the first time since the 2018 season.

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After snapping an 11-game losing streak, the Vanderbilt Commodores will look to make it two in a row this weekend against Stanford. (Vanderbilt Athletics).

Jayce Pollard

The wait is finally over. After 658 days without a win, Vanderbilt took care of business last Saturday night, edging out Colorado State 24-21. With the proverbial monkey now removed from the program’s back, the Commodores will suit up in Nashville this Saturday night at 7 p.m. CDT against the Stanford Cardinal.

Stanford is also coming off its first win of the 2021 season, an upset of formerly-ranked USC in Week 2 that caused the Trojans to fire their head coach of seven years two days later. It’s too early in the Clark Lea era to be talking about staff turnover; however, the Commodores will have to remain hyper-vigilant to avoid the same on-the-field problems that plagued the Cardinal’s last opponent. Here are three matchups to keep an eye on this Saturday once both squads take the field.

Re’Mahn Davis vs. Stanford Running Back Room

With a step-up in competition this week, the Commodores are going to have to establish the running game to walk away with another tally in the win column. Through the first two games of the season, starting running back Re’Mahn Davis is averaging 67.5 yards on 16 attempts, a solid 4.5 yards per carry. However, it’s likely we’ve yet to see his full potential in either explosiveness or consistency, as the Temple transfer logged 4.8 yards per attempt and three games of over 100 yards in his first year with the Owls. The Commodores will hope to generate something closer to his freshman year performance to establish the ground game against Stanford, a team that has given up 192.5 rushing yards per game—the third-worst in the Pac-12—to start the season.

Unfortunately, the Commodores haven’t been lights-out when it comes to stopping the run either. Allowing an almost identical 193 rushing yards per game through its first two matchups, Vanderbilt is going to have to unlock a whole new dimension of its defense in order to stymie the Stanford running back room. The Cardinal rushing game is led by All Pac-12 honorable mention Austin Jones, who has disappointed thus far with a statline of only 38 yards on 19 attempts. Therefore, expect sophomore E.J. Smith and junior Nathaniel Peat, who opened last game with an 87-yard touchdown run, to also be contributing factors. Stanford’s success on Saturday will hinge largely upon the play of this unit: in its loss to Kansas State, Stanford totaled a measly 39 yards; in its upset win against USC, the Cardinal brought the yardage total up to 141. If the team total crosses 100, it’ll likely be a long night for Commodore fans.

Vanderbilt Offensive Line vs. Stanford Defensive Front

If the Commodores want to get anything going offensively, they’re going to have to play much better along the line of scrimmage than they have the past two weeks. There’s cause for optimism, as the offensive line play definitely improved between the first and second games of the year—creating more rushing space, limiting the number of sacks and minimizing pocket pressure. That last part will be especially crucial this Saturday, as creating time for Ken Seals to operate in the pocket will be the only way Vanderbilt can secure a victory against 11-point favorite Stanford. For the Commodores to walk out of Vanderbilt Stadium with a win, it’s going to require another solid performance from Ben Cox, Cole Clemens and company.

The good news? As aforementioned, Stanford’s defensive line has allowed 192.5 rushing yards per game. The bad news? This will still be the best defensive front Vanderbilt has faced up to this point. Senior Thomas Booker, an All Pac-12 defensive first teamer, will lead a squad that has totaled three sacks and seven tackles for loss through the first two games of the season. At times, the Stanford front seven has looked like the formidable unit it was expected to be in the preseason. At other times, it has failed to impose any sort of pressure upon the opposing line. Whether head coach David Shaw’s squad will head home with a win or a loss will be largely dependent upon what happens in the trenches between these two teams.

Vanderbilt Secondary vs. Tanner McKee

Through the first two games of the Clark Lea tenure, the Commodore fanbase can say that it got what was advertised in at least one regard: a focus on the defensive side of the ball. Vanderbilt’s secondary has only allowed 186.5 passing yards per game to start the season, placing it in the top half nationally. After coming up with a timely interception to begin the second quarter against Colorado State, expect cornerback Jaylen Mahoney to be locked in against the Cardinal alongside the veteran presence of senior safeties Maxwell Worship and Dashaun Jerkins. Vanderbilt has yet to allow an opposing offense to throw for 250 yards in 2021, a streak the team will hope to continue on Saturday.

With Davis Mills gone to the NFL, Stanford was left with a hole at quarterback to begin the season. The situation wasn’t resolved in Week 1, as starter Jack West threw two interceptions in his first 12 passing attempts, sealing the deal on any hope of a comeback against Kansas State. Fortunately for the Cardinal, it appears they’ve now found their answer in sophomore Tanner McKee, who racked up 234 yards and two touchdowns in last week’s upset win against USC and is yet to throw an interception through 41 attempts this season. If there’s any weakness in McKee’s game, it’s an inability to scramble for additional yardage—something the Commodores should hope to exploit this Saturday.