Vanderbilt football grades vs. Northern Illinois: AJ Swann passes first test

Aria Gerson
Nashville Tennessean

DEKALB, Illinois — Vanderbilt football beat Northern Illinois 38-28 on Saturday after freshman AJ Swann started at quarterback over Mike Wright. With the win, the Commodores (3-1) have already surpassed last season's win total.

Here's how we graded the win:

Offense: A-

Swann had a strong performance in his first start. He led the Commodores to touchdowns on their first two drives of the game and got hot again in the third quarter, leading three touchdown drives in five minutes to erase a deficit. While Swann avoided major mistakes, there were some miscues from the rest of the offense. Wide receiver Jayden McGowan fumbled after a third-down catch in the third quarter, giving Northern Illinois the ball. The receivers sometimes struggled to make contested catches.

Overall, though, the offense with Swann at the helm looked how Vanderbilt would've hoped.

Defense: C-

If grades were based on the first 35 minutes of the game, this would've been an F. The Commodores struggled to make stops early, letting Northern Illinois march down the field with ease. They gave up two plays of more than 50 yards, one a run and one a pass.

The defense began to play better in the third quarter, with two fourth-down stops that set up short fields. Both led to scores for the offense. As the Huskies drove into Vanderbilt territory late in the fourth quarter, De'Rickey Wright made an interception in the red zone.

Special teams: C+

Vanderbilt had some special teams miscues. Jayden McGowan's failure to fair catch a kickoff gave the Commodores worse field position to start the game and Joseph Bulovas had a kickoff out of bounds.

Perhaps the most important special teams play was one that ended up not happening. In the third quarter, NIU looked like it had converted a fake punt after the punter deked Vanderbilt's rush, but the play was called back due to a hold, so it's hard to penalize the Commodores for that.

Bulovas made all his extra points and kicked a 35-yard field goal in the fourth quarter. Neither team punted much, but there were no major issues when they did.

Coaching: B

The biggest coaching decision came before the game: the choice to start Swann over Wright. The decision paid off, with Swann throwing four touchdowns and completing 18 of his 28 passes. It was particularly pertinent when Vanderbilt was without two of its running backs and had to rely more on the passing game.

This grade is lower due to the spotty defense early in the game. The defense took time to adjust and the coverage calls early on didn't seem to work. But the problem was fixed in time for the Commodores to make a comeback.

Overall: B+

Despite some early issues, particularly in the second quarter, this was a game Vanderbilt had to have, and it came from a two-touchdown deficit to get a vital win.


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

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