What we learned in Vanderbilt's near-upset of Texas A&M in freshman QB Ken Seals' debut

Adam Sparks
Nashville Tennessean

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Vanderbilt narrowly missed on a season-opening upset, losing 17-12 to No. 11 Texas A&M on Saturday night.

But the Commodores found a quarterback and several reasons for optimism for this 10-game, SEC-only season. Here are five things we learned from Vanderbilt's road loss to kick off the 2020 slate:

Ken Seals didn't look like a freshman (most of the time)

One of the most poised players on the field appeared to be the least likely, considering his inexperience. But Vanderbilt freshman quarterback Ken Seals, from nearby Azle, Texas, looked right at home in his college debut.

Vanderbilt quarterback Ken Seals (8) throws a pass as Texas A&M defensive lineman Micheal Clemons (2) pressures him during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in College Station, Texas.

Seals was 20-of-29 passing for 150 yards, along witha 7-yard TD pass to Amir Abdur-Rahman and two interceptions. More importantly, Seals looked in control and mostly unfazed by the stage of an SEC game. He made clutch passes on third down, good decisions in running a new offense and never looked rattled.

Seals' big blemish came in the fourth quarter, when he threw a ball downfield into coverage. It was tipped and intercepted at the 6, ending Vanderbilt's chance for a go-ahead score.

Seals became the eighth true freshman to start at quarterback for Vanderbilt since the NCAA changed first-year eligibility rules in 1972. The others included Kyle Shurmur (vs. Missouri 2015), Wade Freebeck (vs. UMass, 2014), David Wallace (vs. Alabama, 1998), Kenny Simon (vs. Alabama, 1993), Tim Richardson (at Ole Miss, 1985), John Gromos (at Iowa State, 1985) and Mike Wright (vs. Florida, 1975). Seven of the eight made their first start against an SEC team.

Crazy way to get two points

Vanderbilt scored a safety in a very unusual way. Texas A&M’s Ainias Smith, for some reason, caught a punt in the end zone and attempted to return it. When he did, a teammate was flagged for an illegal blind-side block in the end zone, which counted as a safety. It marked the first time Vanderbilt scored a safety since Nov. 17, 2018 in a 36-29 overtime win over Ole Miss.

This safety trimmed Texas A&M’s lead to 7-5 in the second quarter. But the Commodores' next two drives stalled in Aggies’ territory, and that score remained into halftime. 

Takeaways gave Vanderbilt a chance

Three fumble recoveries gave Vanderbilt’s defense a dimension that it lacked last season. In the second quarter, linebacker Andre Mintze pressured quarterback Kellen Mond to force a fumble, which was recovered by Dashaun Jerkins. It stopped the Aggies’ drive on the Vanderbilt 28.

In the third quarter, Jerkins forced Mond to fumble on a run, and Jaylen Mahoney recovered it. The Commodores converted that takeaway into a touchdown to cut Texas A&M’s lead to 14-12.

And in the fourth quarter, defensive tackle Daevion Davis caused and recovered a fumble. Last season, Vanderbilt recorded only 11 takeaways in 12 games, ranking 121st nationally and last in the SEC.

Offense makes good first impression

Vanderbilt running back Ja'Veon Marlow (3) rushes for a first down against Texas A&M during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in College Station, Texas.

Vanderbilt’s offensive numbers weren’t eye-popping. It finished with 255 yards and 7-of-16 on third-down conversions.

But its performance was pretty good considering the circumstances. The Commodores debuted a freshman quarterback and new offensive coordinator Todd Fitch with a depleted line and few proven playmakers. The offense had to replace its four best players from last season, and four offensive linemen opted out of the season over COVID-19 concerns.

Seals completed passes to nine different receivers, led by Abdur-Rahman's career-high five receptions for 72 yards. Ja’Veon Marlow, who had been plagued by injuries the past two seasons, rushed for a career-high 65 yards on 16 carries.

The one big drawback? The Commodores didn’t finish early drives. They failed to score on five drives into Texas A&M territory, ending with two punts, two interceptions and a missed field goal.

Dimitri Moore opted back in, but didn’t play

Standout linebacker Dimitri Moore made the trip to Texas A&M but did not play because he suffered an injury earlier in the week, coach Derek Mason said. Moore was present on the sideline, but only wore a jersey and shorts. Mason said he expects Moore to play in the home opener against LSU.

Moore, an NFL Draft prospect and a Butkus Award candidate, led Vanderbilt with 99 tackles last season. He initially opted out of the 2020 season after his grandfather's death from COVID-19, but time and more information changed his mind. Moore opted back into the season on Aug. 25, he and began catching up to his teammates during preseason practice.

There were other notable absences due to injuries and quarantines, including running back Keyon Henry-Brooks (illness), linebacker Elijah McAllister (injury), cornerback B.J. Anderson (injury), safety Brendon Harris (injury) and linebacker Michael Owusu (quarantine).

Six Vanderbilt players opted out of the 2020 season over COVID-19 concerns — kicker Oren Milstein, linebacker Feleti Afemui and offensive linemen Cole Clemens, Bryce Bailey, Jonathan Stewart and Stephen Spanellis.

Reach Adam Sparks at asparks@tennessean.com and on Twitter @AdamSparks.