Will Sheppard celebrates one of his two touchdowns on Saturday night. (Mattigan Kelly/ Hustler Multimedia). (Mattigan Kelly)
Will Sheppard celebrates one of his two touchdowns on Saturday night. (Mattigan Kelly/ Hustler Multimedia).

Mattigan Kelly

Commodore Brunch Week Five: Baby Steps

Vanderbilt won its first home game in nearly two years on Saturday night, but it wasn’t without lots of drama.

October 3, 2021

For the first time since November 2019, Vanderbilt won a home game. No, it wasn’t pretty, but it was highly entertaining and—in the end—a victory for Clark Lea and the Commodores, 30-28 over the UConn Huskies. In a contest that was filled with pure chaos and three lead changes, brunch tastes much better after escaping with a win.

Ken Seals and the Vanderbilt offense amassed 439 yards of total offense in the best offensive performance of the season. Will Sheppard had a career day in the passing game, Chris Pierce topped 100 receiving yards and Rocko Griffin sprung multiple runs of 10-plus yards. 

That said, this one was much closer than it should have been. UConn’s offense had its way with the Vanderbilt defense, topping 500 yards on the evening, including a 78-yard drive to take the lead with one minute remaining in the fourth quarter. The Commodores made countless mistakes and seemed to try and hand the game to the Huskies. Thankfully, UConn consistently one-upped Vanderbilt’s incompetence in a determined effort to get Vanderbilt a home win for its fans. Let’s see what’s on the menu this week after a sloppy Saturday night in Nashville. 

Overserved 

Vanderbilt and UConn showed up to this game drunk, were steadily served throughout the contest and finished off with a round of shots. To say the least, mimosas are on today’s brunch menu. 

I mean seriously, look at this summary from your usual host, Justin Hershey.  

The matchup between the 125th and 129th ranked teams in the FBS (according to SP+) got underway amidst a downpour on a humid Nashville evening. What unfolded looked like two teams in the bottom five of the sport trying to hand each other a win. Go figure. 

The overarching theme of the night was that each side made seemingly inexplicable mistakes to give the other tremendous opportunities. But, like a humble mother on Christmas morning, both Vanderbilt and UConn repeatedly attempted to refuse those gifts. Let’s attempt to summarize, chronologically. 

To kick us off, Huskie backup Steven Krajewski’s closest completed pass through the first two drives of the game was a ball that hit both of Maxwell Worship’s hands before falling to the turf. The UConn signal caller proceeded to go 18-32 for 264 yards and two touchdowns from that point on with a rating of 125. It was the first time he’s topped 100 passing yards in a game in his career. 

Rocko Griffin galloped 14 yards for a first down towards the end of the first quarter and Vanderbilt subsequently went into a hurry up offense. Seals whipped a screen pass out to Cam Johnson along the left sideline. There was just one UConn defender on the left side of midfield when Johnson caught the ball, at which point the refs blew the play dead. 

Why did the refs stop it after the ball was snapped you ask? To review the Griffin run on the previous play to see if his knee was down—which it clearly was.

Mimosas for you too, zebras? The combination of Griffin being so clearly down the first time and the referee crew letting Vanderbilt snap the ball anyway before blowing the whistle cannot be left off this recap of ridiculousness. 

Worship unfortunately erred again, this time after an interception that he managed to haul in. Worship ran about two yards before getting stripped by Keven Clercius. UConn recovered and picked up 11 yards and a first down in the process.

Have you had enough? Don’t worry, we’re still in the second quarter. After a long drive by Seals and the Vanderbilt offense, the Commodores were knocking on the door looking to extend their 10-9 lead. Seals picked up a fourth down conversion with his legs then lofted a fade pass that was clearly thrown away out of bounds. Huskie edge rusher Eric Watts proceeded to drill Seals in the back after the ball was thrown, leading to a personal foul and Vanderbilt touchdown. 

Vanderbilt kicked off to UConn after the score and the play was fairly routine for about ten seconds. Then UConn’s Malik Banks—with his helmet off—started throwing punches at James Ziglor III who was laying on the ground. Banks was immediately ejected. 

On the ensuing drive, Commodore defensive end Alex Williams sacked Krajewski for a loss of 10 on 3rd and 16. But Williams facemasked Krajewski in the process of the sack, leading to an automatic first down for UConn. Four plays later, on a 4th and 5, Krajewski hit Keelan Marion on a 40-yard connection in which Marion jumped up and mossed Gabe Jeudy-Lally for a touchdown. 

In the third quarter, UConn drove down deep into Vanderbilt territory to the Commodore five yard line. Vanderbilt’s defense held and forced a 22-yard field goal from UConn kicker Joe McFadden. He missed. 

Three plays later—on his worst throw of the night—Seals immediately gave the ball back to UConn on the Vanderbilt 26-yard line. The Huskies were subsequently stifled and turned the ball back over to the Commodores on just four plays. 

UConn picked up a 3rd and 17 on their next offensive drive and would have picked up another 3rd and 9 if not for a blatant drop from Elijah Jeffreys. Jeffreys likely had a chance to score a touchdown if he hauled in the pass from Krajewski. 

Vanderbilt marched down to the UConn six yard line to open the fourth quarter. This was the play-calling from that point on: read option keeper for Seals, designed roll out to the short side for Seals, incomplete crossing route to Chris Pierce. Vanderbilt settled for three points. 

After a touchdown put the Commodores up 11 points, Clark Lea headbutted Will Sheppard in celebration. UConn then got nine yards on a 4th and 2 at midfield. A 25-yard gain and defensive pass interference led to a Huskie touchdown in under three minutes. 

Following an immediate three and out by Vanderbilt, UConn got the ball back and found themselves in a 4th and 18 situation with the game on the line. They, of course, picked it up after two Commodore defensive backs tipped the ball right into the hands of Kevens Clercius for a 32-yard gain. UConn scored two plays later, then missed the two-point conversion. 

A personal foul on Huskie Mark Didio put the ball at the UConn 40 yard line with 1:07 remaining. The rain began to pick up as much as it had all evening, but Vanderbilt needed just seven plays to get to the UConn 11 yard line. The Huskies called not one, not two, but three timeouts before the Bulovas game-winner. 

As the rain reached torrential downpour, fireworks erupted outside of Vanderbilt Stadium for multiple minutes. UConn hath been defeated! 

Whew. That was a long list of bullet points. Onto some actual analysis. 

Air Rai(h)d 

Okay, yes I know David Raih is no longer calling the plays for the Vanderbilt offense, but indulge my pun. And give Raih, Joey Lynch and the rest of the offensive staff some credit for last night’s performance. 

The Commodores put up 439 yards of offense, the first time they’ve topped 400 yards this season. Even more impressive—333 of those yards came through the air, the most since last year’s 24-17 loss at Mississippi State. 

Seals, though still shaky at times in terms of his decision making, established legitimate connections with both Will Sheppard and Chris Pierce Jr. The sophomore quarterback completed 68 percent of his passes and finished with a 148.9 rating. That’s his best mark since posting a 157.0 rating last year against Florida. 

And most importantly—Seals stepped up when it mattered most. Seals was clinical on the final drive of the game completing two passes to Pierce and a huge 19-yard gainer to Devin Boddie Jr. on a 4th and 4 with the game on the line. 

“What we needed was for Ken [Seals] to step up and play with confidence. He stepped up for us on the final drive. We’re proud of him for how he finished,” Clark Lea said afterwards.

As for Sheppard, it was the coming out party we’ve all been anticipating since his breakout in the spring game a few months ago. His 119 receiving yards were a career best and the sophomore also reached paydirt for the first time in the Black and Gold. Pierce Jr. had one of his better games as a Commodore as well. The senior utilized his size advantage all evening and finished with a team-high nine catches for 103 yards. 

The progress in the passing game feels like something Vanderbilt can build on offensively. Seals came into a nice rhythm after some early bumps and the talent in the receiving game was on full display. Further, the Commodore’s success through the air made life easier for Rocko Griffin—who had a quality performance with 77 yards on 19 carries. 

Building Blocks

Despite all of the frustrations in letting UConn nearly come to Nashville and win their first game in over two years, I’m with Clark Lea that there are positives to take away from this one. A win is a win is a win. 

“Boy is it hard to win, but boy is it nice to learn from a win,” Lea said. “We’ll take an ugly win any day, knowing that we have a long way to go.”

What to build on? 

Well, Lea is right—you’d rather learn from a narrow win than a close loss. And for a team and program that is learning what it takes to win, you’ll take them anyway you can get. Even if that means needing a last-second field goal to beat UConn at home. Vanderbilt has gone 5-21 in my time at school. I’m not complaining about this one. 

And the way in which the battle was won is important too. The Commodores didn’t flinch when the air was sucked out of Vanderbilt Stadium following UConn’s overtaking of the lead with a minute left in the fourth quarter. Vanderbilt responded with a methodical, focused drive to give themselves a chance to win the game. Joey Bulovas—unphased after three icing timeouts from UConn—stepp

ed up and knocked the game-winner down for his second clincher of the season. 

Building on that type of win, in that type of ridiculous, desperate, rainy environment is something Vanderbilt and Team One can store for the future. No, it doesn’t make me feel better about the Commodores chances against Florida next week. But it does against South Carolina in two weeks, and isn’t that all you can really ask for at this point?

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