The Northern Illinois Huskies travel to Nashville, Tennessee to face off against the Vanderbilt Commodores this Saturday for their final non-conference game. In preperation for the meeting, we reached out to Anchor of Gold, Vandy’s SBN site, and talked to Thomas Stephenson about the upcoming game.
Hustle Belt: What’s the state of the program like down there? Despite playing some top-level competition, are fans getting restless for a win after an 0-3 start?
TS: It’s not great, and frankly, the fans are getting restless -- but that’s not so much to do with the 0-3 start this season and more to do with the five seasons that preceded it. Derek Mason has done okay, considering the state of the Vanderbilt football program for most of the 1980s through the 2000s, but after winning 24 games in three years under James Franklin, a lot of Vanderbilt fans have come to expect more. And while losses to Georgia and LSU were expected, the way the team lost to Purdue, with tons of penalties and missed tackles and general sloppy play, had at least one of our writers signaling that he’s done with the Mason era. And a lot of fans have started voting with their feet. Last Saturday, there were around 32,000 people at Vanderbilt Stadium -- but probably three quarters of those were LSU fans. I wouldn’t be surprised if the announced attendance on Saturday is under 20,000, though the 11 AM kickoff certainly won’t help matters.
HB: The Huskies are familiar with quarterback Riley Neal, as NIU beat him three times during his stay at Ball State. How has he fit in to your offense and do you see him keeping the starting job or will Deuce Wallace get more and more opportunities under center?
TS: I’ve heard that the biggest adjustment that Neal has had to make is that he has to go through his reads a lot faster when he’s behind Vanderbilt’s offensive line and facing an SEC defense than he did in the MAC. But he has the arm strength to make all the throws in the Vanderbilt offense and I think he’ll keep the starting job...if only because I really haven’t been impressed with what (admittedly little) I’ve seen of Deuce Wallce.
HB: Who else should Huskie fans look out for on the Commodores offense?
TS: Jared Pinkney is a future NFL tight end, and at least some Huskie fans are probably familiar with RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who started his career at Illinois. Vaughn has broken off a few big runs this season, though he frequently hasn’t had much room to run behind an inexperienced offensive line. Kalija Lipscomb is easily Vanderbilt’s most targeted receiver and is both a deep threat and a good pass catcher underneath.
HB: Vandy’s defense has allowed 46 points per game but they’ve played two top-5 teams so far. What weaknesses have you seen that NIU could possibly exploit if they’re not careful? And who are the big hitters that we should be looking out for?
TS: Vanderbilt’s big problem on defense in all three games has been that they give receivers a lot of cushion, basically conceding the underneath routes in an effort not to get beaten deep, but they’ve often missed the tackle and turned a five-yard underneath route into a longer gain. Oh yeah, and they’ve given up some deep passes, too. And they got their first sack of the season in the second quarter of the third game of the season. So... there are weaknesses to be exploited, but then again, Vanderbilt has faced two elite offenses and Rondale Moore in the first three games, so maybe those are weaknesses that not every team will be able to exploit.
HB: Finally, how do you see this game playing out and what’s your score prediction?
TS: I think Vanderbilt bounces back from the rough start to the season and pulls this one out by a score of 31-21.
Thank you again to Thomas Stephenson and Anchor of Gold. Be sure to catch the action this Saturday morning at 11 a.m. (CST) when the Huskies and Commodores kickoff on SEC Network.