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Recap: Former Ball State QB Neal leads Vanderbilt over Northern Illinois, 24-18

After the Commodores staved off a late Huskie rally, Riley Neal wins vs. NIU for his first time in four tries.

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Northern Illinois hasn’t battled Vanderbilt since the end of the last millennium, but the Huskies were matched up with a familiar foe in the country music capital of America.

Former Ball State quarterback Riley Neal transferred to Vanderbilt as a graduate last December and won the starting job in Derek Mason’s offense. Neal entered Saturday 0-3 against Northern Illinois in his collegiate career, but he guided his new squad past the Huskies, 24-18, in Nashville on Saturday afternoon.

Neal completed 75% of his passes for 189 yards and a touchdown in a mistake-free game. Vanderbilt’s offense received a considerable boost from the ever-electric running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn. A back with big play capabilities, Vaughn posted 138 yards and a touchdown on 17 attempts.

Vaughn appeared to have opened the scoring for the day on Vanderbilt’s opening drive with a 59-yard touchdown run. A holding penalty negated the play but the Commodores sprinted right back to the Huskies end zone on the following play with freshman running back Keyon Brooks. Vaughn added to the lead by a scoring a 1-yard touchdown on the following possession.

Down 14-0 at halftime, Northern Illinois finally ignited its offense, which punted on all six of its first half drives. Grad transfer quarterback Ross Bowers completed a 44-yard pass to Spencer Tears on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter, a play which set up a field goal to break the shutout.

The Huskies defense forced a stop and got right back to work. Running back Tre Harbison served as the horsepower for the following NIU drive, but Bowers 38-yard completion to Mitchell Brinkman got the points on the board. Vanderbilt’s 14-0 lead suddenly stood at 14-10.

Vanderbilt caught a relieving break to follow up the Huskie touchdown. Vaughn fumbled in the open field to cap a 12-yard run into NIU territory. Several Huskie defenders seemed capable of pouncing on the ball, but it suddenly bounced out of bounds and set Vanderbilt up nicely with a first down at the 38. On that first down, Neal connected with the team’s star receiver Kalija Lipscomb for a long touchdown pass. Lipscomb finished with a game-high seven receptions and 94 yards, scoring Vanderbilt’s only touchdown of the final three quarters.

Northern Illinois allowed a field goal, but down 14, the Huskies once again jump-started the offense. Bowers completed three passes for 79 yards on an early fourth quarter drive, placing NIU in perfect scoring position. Running back Marcus Jones reaped the rewards on his 1-yard score. But the Huskies made a bold decision — one which had a great impact on Vegas at the game’s conclusion. Bowers completed a 2-point conversion pass to Brinkman, putting the Huskies down six in Nashville.

A Vanderbilt false start on 3rd-and-6 on the ensuing possession created a difficult situation for the Commodore offense. They failed to convert, giving Northern Illinois an opportunity for a game-winning drive with 8:29 left.

The offense continued to move the sticks with Harbison and Jordan Nettles picking up chunks of yardage from the backfield. But once NIU crossed the 50, disaster struck. A backward pass on first down resulted in an egregious fumble. The scramble for the loose ball on the broken play caused the Huskies to lose 16 valuable yards. The setback was too difficult to rebound from and Northern Illinois punted for the eighth and final time.

Upon receiving the punt, Vanderbilt successfully ran a speed option pitch to Vaughn on 3rd down, sealing a 24-18 victory for the Commodores — Vanderbilt’s first win of 2019. With the loss, Northern Illinois finishes non-conference play at 1-3, faring 0-3 against FBS opponents Utah, Nebraska, and Vanderbilt.

The Huskies have positives to build on including Bowers’ standout passing performance in the second half and their ability to cough up zero turnovers. The reigning MAC champions face Neal’s former team, Ball State, in DeKalb next week in hopes of building an 11-game win streak on the Cardinals.