Few, if any, teams in the country can claim to have had a tougher start to the season than the Vanderbilt Commodores. Derek Mason’s squad’s first three games have included a road trip to Purdue sandwiched in between home games vs the #3 and #4 teams in the country, in Georgia and LSU. All three of the those contests resulted in losses for Vanderbilt, which now faces an uphill climb if they want to reach the magical number of 6 wins and bowl eligibility. That climb starts this week against the 1-2 Northern Illinois Huskies. NIU opened their season with a win over Illinois State but followed that win with losses to Utah and then Nebraska. With both teams fighting to keep their seasons from getting too far out of hand early, Vanderbilt will have to play a solid and complete 60 minutes to notch their first W of the season.
On the field, Vandy’s biggest advantage should come when they have the ball. NIU under new coach Thomas Hammond, plays a very physical style, but should not have the talent to match up with a Commodore offense that features three potential NFL draft picks in Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Jared Pinkney, and Kalija Lipscomb.
While QB Riley Neal was 0-3 vs NIU during his time at Ball State, he was never working with this type of talent in any of those match-ups vs the Huskies. Lipscomb leads the team with 16 catches for 174 yards and a touchdown while Vaughn has 260 yards and 3 touchdowns on the ground through 3 games.
To make things worse for the Huskies, star MLB Kyle Pugh was ruled out for the season with an injury this past week. Neal should have time to throw in this game, as NIU has only managed to accrue one sack total in its three games this season. If the offensive line can indeed give Neal time to throw, Lipscomb, Pinkney, Vaughn, and Chris Pence should be able to win their individual match-ups and create scoring opportunities for the offense.
The other side of the ball is a much bigger mystery right now, for both teams in fact. Vanderbilt’s defense has been flat-out bad, but have faced two elite teams and Rondale Moore. The fact that two red shirt-freshman safeties in Dashaun Jerkins and Brendon Harris are leading the team in tackles is both promising and concerning. While having two young players step up as key contributors is good, the fact that your safeties have to make so many tackles, indicating that many runs are reaching the second level and lots of passes are being completed in the secondary, is not. The ‘Dores will have to a better job of stuffing the run and they should find it easier to do against an NIU team that despite new coach Thomas Hammond’s background as a RB coach, has not crossed the 100 yard mark on the ground in any of their three games. Tre Harbison is the leading rusher for the Huskies, with 162 yards on 41 carries on the season.
When Cal transfer QB Ross Bowers has been given time to throw, he has been solid for the Huskies, throwing for 776 yards with a 61% completion rate, with three touchdowns and three interceptions. Bowers, however, has been sacked 10 times in three games. The offensive line has been a weak spot all season for NIU, as the 10 sacks and 21 TFLs allowed both rank near the bottom of the FBS.
Dayo Odeyingbo and the rest of the Vanderbilt front seven should be living in the backfield in this game. If that doesn’t happen throughout the game, there may be a lot more to worry about for Vanderbilt than many currently think.
Prediction: Vanderbilt 34 Northern Illinois 14
HOW TO WATCH
Time: 12:00 ET, 11:00am CT
Network: SEC Network