Marching North

Commodores head to Northern Illinois for final nonconference game of the regular season

by Chad Bishop

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It’s a bounce-back week for the Commodores.

Vanderbilt (2-1) was dealt its first loss of the season Saturday when No. 23 Wake Forest came in and led for all but 49:10 of a 45-25 victory. It was a humbling blow for the Commodores who had been riding high off two straight wins to start the season.

Now second-year head coach Clark Lea is eager to see how his team responds after the season’s first true dose of adversity.

“This is about this team, where it currently is, trying to bounce back from a game where we didn’t perform at our level,” Lea said about his program’s next challenge. “And we’re competing against a good team. We’ve got to show maturity to quickly get past that, taking the learning with us and go on the road and be road warriors.

“We’ve got to find that grit that it takes to go on the road and play to our identity. I’m excited to do it. I’m excited to get back on the road with these guys and to see how they respond to what was a tough game for us last weekend.”

Vandy had a 3-0 lead in Saturday’s contest, but 21 Wake Forest points in a span of five minutes of game clock ultimately did in the Dores. Three turnovers – Vanderbilt’s first three turnovers of the season – didn’t help matters either.

Two days removed from that setback, the Commodores have turned the page to their final nonconference game of the schedule

“One thing our coach emphasizes is getting back to rebuilding on our foundation, really resetting the foundation, really going back to our five principles and our five covenants,” Vanderbilt safety Maxwell Worship said. “One of the things that we’ve put emphasis on is getting back to playing at our highest level as a team and understanding what that means and what that entails.

“It’s really about building on the positives knowing that we haven’t played at our highest level yet and that’s really the goal. Playing at our highest level allows us to have a chance at winning. Winning ’s never guaranteed but we still haven’t played at our highest level as a team so that’s the goal moving forward. We aim to do that this week.”

Northern Illinois is coming off disappointment of its own, a 38-35 loss at Tulsa in which it took a 35-31 lead with 5:57 to go and then gave up a touchdown with 58 seconds on the clock.

But the Huskies, the 2022 preseason MAC West Division favorites, are the defending MAC champions and fresh off a nine-win season. Northern Illinois returned 18 starters from that team including wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph, offensive tackles Nolan Potter and Marques Cox and conerback Jordan Vandy.

Quarterback Rocky Lombardi started his career at Michigan State and is coming off a 2021 season which saw him throw for nearly 2,600 yards and complete 15 touchdown passes.

“Northern Illinois runs a whole bunch of different types of formations,” 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.” 

Vanderbilt has faced Northern Illinois four times before and as recently as 2019 when the Huskies came to Vanderbilt Stadium and lost 24-18. Vandy has won all four of the previous meetings dating to 1994, including its lone trip to Huskie Stadium in 1997.

Vandy defensive backs coach Dan Jackson coached at Northern Illinois for the past two seasons before coming to Nashville.

“We’re going to have to, obviously, be at our best,” Lea said. “That’s been the message to the team this week. A year ago this team opened the season at Georgia Tech with a win. They’ve beaten eight Power 5 teams since 2009.

“All of these things are indicators to us that this is a team that is prideful, it’s a great program and it’s a team that we’re going to have to go on the road and be at our best to have a chance to play at our highest level. They are certainly going to make it difficult on us.”

— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for
Follow him @MrChadBishop.