4 execution errors that doomed Vanderbilt football in loss to Wake Forest
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Vanderbilt football put up 423 yards of total offense against Wake Forest. That included 314 passing yards from AJ Swann, the first 300-yard passing game of his career.
Those 423 yards translated into just 20 points in the 36-20 loss Saturday. The Demon Deacons did outgain the Commodores, with 484 total yards, but also ran 11 more plays.
The problem for Vanderbilt (2-1) was instead the way it constantly suffered from back-breaking mistakes. Turnovers, penalties, special teams errors and even bad snaps provided Wake Forest with free points and yards. It was uncharacteristic for the Commodores, who have generally played clean under coach Clark Lea, but as the opponents get more difficult, it proved a warning for Vanderbilt.
"You can certainly go through and find the places where you account for those 16 points," Lea said. "That is the difference between being on the losing end of this game and being on the winning end. Wake did the little things well; Wake put the pressure on us to execute."
Here's what happened to prove the difference:
Swann threw two interceptions in the first half. Although Wake Forest scored just three combined points off the turnovers, each came with Vanderbilt driving near Demon Deacons territory.
The first interception was a bad omen for the rest of the game, as it occurred shortly before a two-hour lightning delay.
Although Swann set a career high in passing yards, he also had never thrown two interceptions in a game before. In 2022, he didn't throw a pick until his seventh game.
One Will Sheppard fumble on punt return
Will Sheppard, normally sure-handed at punt return, fielded a kick and returned it to the 31-yard line, disaster struck as he fumbled before getting tackled and former Vanderbilt safety Brendon Harris returned it for a touchdown. The Commodores had also been called for a running-into-the-kicker penalty on the play, though it was declined.
"(Sheppard) was pressured by the coverage unit putting − I think it was Tyson Russell was blocking — they put Tyson into the ball," Lea said. "And I think in those situations, obviously punt return is all about securing the catch and possessing the ball. He makes the decision to return that and we'll look at it on film and decide whether or not that should be a fair catch or whatever the case may be on the decision, but the point at which it becomes a return, we have to have the ball secure."
Vanderbilt failed on two key fourth downs: one early in the third quarter and one to start the fourth quarter. The first was when the Commodores failed on three attempts to gain 1 yard at the goal line, the second was a failed fourth-and-4 at midfield.
Lea defended the choice to go for the second fourth down, saying that the fact that the team was down 27-14 at the time and needed two scores to win was the reason. He felt the play Vanderbilt called − a slant to Sheppard − was available. While Sheppard was open and Swann found him, Sheppard couldn't complete the catch after taking a hit from a defender, and a potential targeting call was overturned.
"The points that we needed to cover to be back in the game required us to go make a play," Lea said. "We want to do that with confidence. We don't want to sit there and be wishy-washy or be gray about the fact that we feel like we can go bang a slant on fourth-and-4 and convert. We've done that in the past. We've done it to win games in the past."
REPORT CARDWhy two areas graded out with an 'F' in Vanderbilt football's loss to Wake Forest
Before each fourth down play, Vanderbilt had plays blown up due in part to bad snaps. The first was on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Swann corralled the errant snap but was unable to do anything other than run up the middle himself, getting back to the line of scrimmage but gaining no yardage.
The second bad snap was on third-and-1 just before the fourth down at midfield. Running back Patrick Smith took a direct snap and was dropped for a loss − but, Lea said, the play wasn't intended to be a direct snap at all. Instead, center Julian Hernandez was off target and Smith was forced to improvise.
"It's just small lapses of technique," guard Bradley Ashmore said. "It's nothing big and we all have full confidence and faith in Julian that those won't happen again. It hasn't happened before. ... He'll learn from it and get back better next week."