Vanderbilt football beats NIU, last year's win total thanks to AJ Swann

Aria Gerson
Nashville Tennessean

DEKALB, Ill. − Vanderbilt football gave Northern Illinois a surprise Saturday: Instead of Mike Wright, whom Clark Lea insisted was still the starting quarterback after a poor performance against Wake Forest, the Commodores went with freshman AJ Swann.

The gamble paid off for Vanderbilt's offense, which largely moved the ball with ease against the Huskies, one of the worst defenses in the country. The Commodores (3-1) were down as many as two touchdowns early in the second half after some early defensive struggles, but Swann led them back each time. He threw for 255 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-28 win over the Huskies (1-2).

With the victory, Vanderbilt is guaranteed to beat last year's 2-10 record by the end of September.

AJ Swann shines

At the outset, Swann led two methodical touchdown drives, one capped by a pass to Gavin Schoenwald and one a rush by Ray Davis. Swann's first play of the game was a designed run and he continuously made plays with his arm.

After a three-and-out at the end of the second quarter and a failed Hail Mary attempt, Swann drove Vanderbilt deep into NIU territory, but a Jayden McGowan fumble halted momentum. After the Commodores got the ball back, though, Swann found a groove. Helped by a pair of short fields, Swann led three touchdown drives in five minutes to give the Commodores their first lead since the first quarter.

Defense dreadful early

Vanderbilt's defense simply could not get stops. Northern Illinois had 14 straight completions to begin the game and didn't have its first incompletion until the fourth quarter. The Huskies found yards on everything, both downfield shots and slants.

Even when Northern Illinois quarterback Rocky Lombardi got hurt in the second quarter, his backup Ethan Hampton continued to find the same success. The Commodores' run defense fared better but allowed a 51-yard rushing touchdown late in the second quarter after it looked like Vanderbilt would be able to go into halftime with a tie.

Out of the half, the Commodores allowed a 70-yard touchdown pass on a slant, putting the Huskies up by two touchdowns and putting Vanderbilt in a precarious spot. The defense settled down after that, forcing punts on back-to-back drives in the third quarter. On the first of those drives, it looked as though Northern Illinois had converted a fake punt but the play was called back due to a holding penalty. On the next drive, the Commodores stuffed a fourth-and-1 run that set up another touchdown.

Late in the fourth quarter, De'Rickey Wright made a red-zone interception, allowing Vanderbilt to bleed clock.

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Aria Gerson covers Vanderbilt athletics for The Tennessean. Contact her at or on Twitter @aria_gerson.