The start to the 2019 season has not been kind to either Northern Illinois or Vanderbilt, with the two teams combining for just one win thus far in six total games. But when the two come together Saturday in Nashville, squaring off for the first time since 1999, a chance to rebound from the poor start will be alive for both sides.
The Huskies enter with a 1-2 record, losing two straight after a 24-10 win over FCS opponent Illinois State to begin the season. In the two losses that followed — both on the road at then-No. 13 Utah and at Nebraska — Northern Illinois allowed 79 total points while scoring just 25. The Commodores' margin hasn’t been much better, though Vanderbilt has played two top-5 teams in Georgia and LSU as part of its grueling conference slate.
Vanderbilt does have a decided edge over Northern Illinois in this series, having won all three meetings dating back to the inaugural matchup in 1994. All three games have been competitive, with the 1994 game decided by a single point and the '99 meeting by a field goal.
Northern Illinois at Vanderbilt
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 28 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Vanderbilt -6.5
When Northern Illinois Has the Ball
The 36-point loss at Nebraska was certainly not a pleasant showing, with Ross Bowers passing for a respectable 248 yards but gaining little support from a rushing attack that totaled just 74 yards. The only scoring came on a pair of field goals and a safety, and all eight points came in the middle two quarters while the Huskies were shut out in the first and fourth.
The offense around Bowers has been quiet as of late. Jordan Nettles and Tre Harbison combined to rush for 3.5 yards per carry against Nebraska and 4.3 the week before at Utah, Spencer Tears caught five passes for 112 yards and a touchdown against the Utes but was held in check to the tune of 32 yards on three catches against Nebraska as the offense as a whole was held without a touchdown for the first time all season.
The Commodores would like to find some defense after giving up at least 30 points in each of their first three games with LSU scoring 66 points last week, the third-most points allowed in Vanderbilt history. There weren't many bright spots from that game, but the defensive touchdowns certainly have to rank near the top. Elijah McAllister recovered a fumble in the end zone just before halftime while Randall Haynie nabbed an interception and returned it 49 yards for a touchdown. Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow ensured his name would end up in the record books, however, with a school-record six touchdown passes while falling just two yards short of 400 on the day.
When Vanderbilt Has the Ball
Ke'Shawn Vaughn finally had the breakout game many in Nashville were hoping for, posting a 20-carry, 130-yard effort with a pair of scores against LSU. While he did score against Purdue in Week 2, he hadn't topped 75 yards in either of the first two games before more than eclipsing the century mark against the Tigers.
Riley Neal must really look forward to non-conference action after playing against two of his conference's — not to mention, the nation's — best defenses to start the season. Neal threw for just 85 yards against Georgia and 206 with a touchdown and an interception against LSU. In between, he completed 24 of 35 passes for 378 yards with two touchdowns on the road at Purdue, and he'll look to keep the non-conference momentum going this week going against a team he has some familiarity with after starting his career at Ball State, another MAC program.
If the adage holds that good defense travels, the Huskies — like the Commodores — never got the memo. In each of its last two games, Northern Illinois has allowed four rushing touchdowns, with Utah's Zack Moss and Nebraska's Dedrick Mills notching two apiece. Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez was more than comfortable, throwing for 257 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 44 yards and an additional score. Even backup signal-caller Noah Vedral got in on the fun with a three-yard touchdown on his only carry of the game as the Huskies failed to record a sack or interception against the Cornhuskers.
In a battle to see which defense can right the ship first, this one might just come down to whether Northern Illinois can limit the Commodores on the ground. With Ke'Shawn Vaughn finally breaking out of his early rough spell, his presence alone spells trouble for the Huskies as they look to keep the Commodores from securing their first win of the season.
Prediction: Vanderbilt 31, Northern Illinois 27
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.