The Vanderbilt Commodores were unlucky that Wake Forest got quarterback Sam Hartman back for this past weekend’s game. It was not assumed at the start of the season that Hartman would be available for Week 2.
By Matt Zemek
It was within the realm of possibility, but no one knew on Sept. 1 if Hartman was going to make a relatively quick return to the Demon Deacons’ lineup. Yet, one must also acknowledge that Vanderbilt saw where it truly stood because of the Hartman return. If Hartman had not played, Vanderbilt might be 3-0, but we wouldn’t have seen what VU’s defense looked like against a top-quality field general. Now the Dores know where they truly stand. It came at the cost of victory, but clarity is important for measuring the health and status of a football program. This is a perfect lead-in to the coming week’s game against Northern Illinois, which is simultaneously vulnerable, flawed and dangerous. We’ll explain as we move along in our three keys preview.
1 – The Lombardi Trophy
Containing NIU quarterback Rocky Lombardi would be an achievement for Vanderbilt. He isn’t an elite downfield passer, but if you followed Northern Illinois last season, you know that Lombardi won a trophy – the MAC championship trophy – with the Huskies. This was the product of a signature knack for making huge plays in come-from-behind situations and in two-minute drills. NIU won a bunch of very close games, often high-scoring contests, with Lombardi holding his nerve in the fourth quarter and doing what it took to win the game. Lombardi looked ordinary for much of the season, but much as a performer adopts a completely different personality when the lights are on and the spotlight shines on him, Lombardi comes alive when the game is in its most urgent phases. Preventing him from making plays outside the pocket and reducing his scrambling ability should both be part of Vanderbilt’s defensive game plan against Lombardi.
2 – Don’t let the game come down to one drive
If Lombardi has one drive for the win, NIU will sign on the dotted line and agree to that scenario. Vanderbilt needs to be authoritative in taking the fight to the Huskies early and taking full command of this game well before the home stretch. The mistakes the Dores made in the first half against Wake need to be weeded out, and we need to see this team show that it can be far more efficient than it has been to date. SEC play is just around the corner; this is a final chance to brush up on good habits and display the right instincts.
3 – Mash
Northern Illinois gave up 38 points to a not-very-good Tulsa team (which lost to Wyoming, which got hammered by Illinois). Vanderbilt has to mash, mash, and mash a little more with its offensive line. VU must assert itself on a purely physical level up front. If VU can’t manhandle NIU in the trenches, it’s going to be a very long SEC slate for the Dores.