NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt closes out the nonconference portion of its schedule at 2:30 p.m. Saturday when it takes a trip to The Prairie State.
The Commodores (2-1) will be looking to avoid a second straight loss when it faces Northern Illinois for the fifth time in its history and second time in four years. Vandy was handed a 45-25 defeat last time out against Wake Forest at FirstBank Stadium.
The Huskies (1-1) opened the season with a seven-point win over Eastern Illinois before losing 38-35 at Tulsa on a last-minute touchdown. Head coach Thomas Hammock’s program won the MAC championship in 2021 and played in the Cure Bowl.
Here is more on how to watch, listen to and follow Saturday’s contest as well as five key matchups to consider when the Commodores face the Huskies:
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Location: Huskie Stadium (24,000); DeKalb, Illinois
Television: CBS Sports Network
Carter Blackburn (play-by-play) and Randy Cross (analyst)
Available at cbssports.com/cbs-sports-network/
Vanderbilt Sports Network from Learfield
On-Air Time: 2:30 p.m.
Affiliates: Nashville WQZQ 93.3 FM; Chattanooga WALV 95.3 FM; Lewisburg WJJM 1490 AM, 94.3 FM; Memphis WMPS 1210 AM, 103.1 FM
Satellite: SiriusXM 191; SiriusXM online 962
Vanderbilt Athletics App (Free)
81 degrees at kickoff, zero percent chance of rain
1. Stay, Huskies, Stay
In 2021, Northern Illinois had the nation’s fourth-best rushing offense at 241.4 yards per game and five Huskies totaled at least 400 yards on the ground.
Northern’s rushing totals haven’t been that gaudy to start the ’22 campaign, but the Vanderbilt defense still expects that the Huskies’ game plan Saturday to feature the ground game.
“Northern Illinois runs a whole bunch of different types of formations,” Vandy senior Maxwell Worship said. “They’re very multiple. They’re very run-heavy. They pass here and there, but we know that they’re very run-heavy. We’re going to have a whole bunch of personnels to combat their personnels as well.
“And just understand that they’re a downhill team and they want to run it down our throats. That’s the biggest deal is just stopping the run.”
Vandy has done a solid job against the rush through three games having not allowed more than 152 yards on the ground in any one single game. If they can keep up the good work in their rush defense, the Commodores will give themselves a chance at victory Saturday.
2. Stay Red Zone Perfect
Vanderbilt totaled only 24 red zone scores in 2021. Through three games this season, that number is already at 13.
Furthermore, Vandy is 13-for-13 when crossing inside the 20 and has 12 touchdowns out of those 13 trips. Only Nevada and Georgia have more red zone scores (14 each) this season.
The Northern Illinois defense hasn’t exactly been a brick wall when backed up inside its only 20 as opponents are 9-for-9 against the Huskies this season in those scenarios. Vanderbilt needs to take full advantage of that matchup this Saturday.
3. Bully Rocky
Rocky Lombardi had an outstanding season for Northern Illinois in 2021 by throwing for 2,597 yards and 15 touchdowns while leading the Huskies to a MAC championship. The former Michigan State quarterback and Iowa native is completing 60 percent of his throws this season.
The Huskies’ offensive line, meanwhile, has yet to allow Lombardi to be sacked through two games.
Vanderbilt’s defense must figure out a way to make Lombardi uncomfortable, whether that’s through confusing coverages or unexpected blitzes. If the 6-foot-3, 227-pound signal caller gets into a rhythm that could spell a long day for the Dores’ defense.
4. Air it Out
Northern Illinois has allowed nearly 300 yards passing per game this season and its passing efficiency defense ranks 119th nationally.
Vanderbilt is coming off its worst passing game of the season (181 yards against Wake Forest) and needs to get back into the passing game rhythm it so aptly displayed the first two weeks of the season.
The Commodores also need to find a way to get more receivers involved in the passing game outside of Will Sheppard. Whether it’s Jayden McGowan or Devin Boddie at receiver or tight ends Ben Bresnahan and Gavin Schoenwald, it will behoove Vandy to air it out to its offensive playmakers Saturday.
5. Make Third Down
While Vanderbilt’s offense has been crisp more often than not through three games, where it has begun to fade is on third down.
Vandy is now 12-for-37 on the crucial down and coming off a 2-for-13 performance against Wake Forest. It has to do better this week against a championship-caliber program on the road.
Northern Illinois has already surrendered 14 third downs and opponents are gaining first downs on 56 percent of those plays. Thus, Vandy has to make third down an emphasis Saturday and can’t punt away possessions.
(6.) Huskies Honored
Ten years ago, Northern Illinois put together one of the best seasons in Mid-American Conference history.
That season the Huskies went 12-2 and played in the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida. The team’s only two losses were by a point to Iowa to start the campaign and 31-10 to Florida State in the postseason.
Northern Illinois won 12 straight games in between then, including a double-overtime thriller over Kent State in the MAC championship game, to earn a bid to the Orange Bowl. The Huskies became the first MAC team to play in a Bowl Championship Series bowl game.
Quarterback Jordan Lynch threw for more than 3,000 yards and rushed for more than 1,800. Martel Moore was a 1,0o0-yard receiver and hauled in 13 touchdown passes.
Nearly 40 members of the 2012 team are expected back for Saturday’s matchup with Vanderbilt.
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.