Vanderbilt Football | A Swann, a Sheppard and a DeKalb Day to Remember


DEKALB, Illinois — After 14 points in the third quarter on Saturday, it looked like Vanderbilt’s day was going to be terribly dark at DeKalb.

Then a blitz.

The Commodores, led by freshman quarterback AJ Swann and junior wide receiver Will Sheppard, scored 21 points in that less than six-minute game. Vandy’s seemingly porous defense flexed and scored a shutout at the final 28:37 of the game.

It all amounted to a 38-28 win over Northern Illinois, a win that gave Vanderbilt (3-1) more wins than the 2021 season.

“They saw that we were down 14 and I think everyone saw that we just never give up,” Sheppard said. “The defense went out there and they gave up that first touchdown in the second half, but after that they shut them down completely and they had a series of fourth-down stops, third-down stops and I think we’ve got Vanderbilt football right now played in the second half.”

After Northern Illinois backup quarterback Ethan Hampton completed a 70-yard touchdown pass to Cole Tucker to give the Huskies a 28-14 lead, the result looked as bleak as the Commodores could get fumbled away their next possession on the Northern Illinois 26. The Vandy defense took the field, a scrum on the field during the time-out rallied the troops.

This unit only allowed 68 yards of total attack for the rest of the way. It forced three punts. It stopped the Huskies on fourth down twice. And then De’Rickey Wright put a shout out on the performance’s clock with an interception at 4:15.

“There’s a moment where you really feel the dynamic of the game shift and what we’ve been talking about as a team all week is that a week ago against Wake Forest we had a chance to play for a win , but when bad things happen, they snowball happen. We have to be a team that can step onto the field and change the energy of the game,” said Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea. “We succeeded.

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“I’m really proud of the team for that. I think it represents growth. Doing it and doing it consistently are two different things. I thought a big part of that was our defense stepping in after the turnover and making the first stop. Sometimes it’s that simple.”

On the other side of the ball, Swann and Sheppard and their offensive teammates put on a show.

Swann, a freshman making his first start, passed 18-to-28 for 255 yards. He completed touchdown passes for 3, 21, 31, and 13 yards. Two of those went to Sheppard, who finished with 10 catches for 171 yards.

Ray Davis rushed for 116 yards on 23 carries. Vanderbilt’s offensive line didn’t allow for a sack. The Commodores were 2-for-2 in fourth place and 7-for-14 in third place.

“It was a team effort on offense,” said Lea. “Ray Davis continues to be a guy who’s a bell cow, runs for hard yards, plays on the boundary — he stays in the fight, he stays in the game. Sheppard and (Jayden) McGowan are both going to be hosting (Swann’s) performance and that’s how it should be, right? The quarterback unleashes the power in the other 10 positions on the field and (Swann) did that. Then the other guys showed up and did their part too. That’s what you want to see.”

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Swann, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound Georgian, got the Commodores off to a flying start with 12-play possession and 80 yards, capped by a 3-yard lob on Gavin Schoenwald. Davis returned the 14-7 lead to Vandy with a 3-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter.

Then things got a little haywire when the Vanderbilt defense allowed a 4-yard touchdown pass, a 51-yard touchdown run, and a 70-yard touchdown pass, making it 28-14 with 13 :37 before the end of the third quarter.

One of the plays of the day took place a little less than seven minutes later. In fourth place on the Northern Illinois 21, Swann attempted to scramble to the left and went straight into what appeared to be what appeared to be a sack. But the newcomer ducked and escaped, floating back to his left where he dropped his back foot on the left touchline.

Davis sprinted in that direction and dove for reception while getting a toe in the end zone.

“Just kind of improvised. Not every game goes the way you want it to,” Swann said. “Maybe I missed the reading? If so, I must see the film. But they flashed down the middle, I tried to get out of the pocket, a D-end came loose, he caught me and I just worked my way out of the sack and kept the game alive. Just play it to the whistle.”

Swann and Sheppard were virtually unstoppable as the two respectfully threw for 31 and 13 yards. With 12:21 left, Joseph Bulovas secured victory with a 35-yard field goal.

“I’m still not very happy,” Swann said of his first career win. “I think we still have a lot of work ahead of us, both offensively and as a team. But getting an away win, especially on my first start, felt really good.”

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Vanderbilt now turns its attention to the start of Southeastern Conference games at 6:30 p.m. and a daunting trip to Alabama (3-0) at No. 2. For now, however, the Commodores can enjoy a comeback to remember, and a day at DeKalb they won’t soon forget.


  • Swann’s four touchdown passes was one fewer than Vanderbilt’s single-game record of five.
  • Sheppard now has touchdown receptions in five straight games.
  • Davis had a touchdown in each of the last five games he’s played.
  • Vanderbilt’s opponent is now fourth this season at 2:11.
  • Vandy has now had at least one takeaway in 13 straight games.
  • The Commodores are now 16-16 in the red this season.
  • Vandy scored a touchdown on his first two offensive possessions Saturday, the first time since September 28, 2019 against Northern Illinois.
  • The Commodores are now 7-1 in their last seven non-conference road games.
  • Vanderbilt was the first Southeastern Conference program to play in Northern Illinois.
  • Northern Illinois is now 1-12 all time against the SEC.
  • Vandy now leads the all-time series 5-0 over northern Illinois and is now 10-1 against current members of the Mid-American Conference.
  • Vanderbilt’s two road wins are the most since 2017.
  • Saturday’s matchup against Northern Illinois was Vanderbilt’s second straight game against a defending conference champion. Next, the Commodores travel to defending SEC champions, Alabama.
  • Vanderbilt is now 4-1-1 in its history at Illinois State games.
  • Attendance on Saturday was announced at 14,110.

— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
follow him @MrChadBishop.





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