NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Will Sheppard scored two touchdowns on short receptions, and Sedrick Alexander reached the end zone twice on fourth-quarter runs to help Vanderbilt beat Alabama A&M 47-13 Saturday.
Sheppard finished with six receptions for 62 yards, and Jayden McGowan added six catches for 70 yards. Alexander ran for 87 yards on 12 carries.
AJ Swann completed 15 of 29 passes for 194 yards with one interception and directed a balanced attack that amassed 194 yards passing and 160 yards rushing before the reserves took over midway through the fourth quarter. The sophomore quarterback connected with Sheppard on the two touchdowns and scored his first career rushing touchdown on a third-quarter sneak.
Vanderbilt is 2-0 for the second straight time under third-year head coach Clark Lea. Alabama A&M, an FCS program, is 0-1.
“This team is not done growing,” Lea said. “We’re going to try to take every opportunity we can to keep working toward what our highest level is. … We’re not all the way there yet.”
Sheppard scored the game’s first touchdown on a 3-yard reception with 8:50 to play in the second quarter. His 17-yard touchdown catch 2:42 into the second half gave Vanderbilt a 19-3 lead.
The latter touchdown was the first of five in six second-half possessions for the Commodores.
“I feel like we came out in the second half, put together a great drive,” Alexander, a freshman, said. “In the first half, we started kind of slow, and we just wanted to put them away (after that).”
The teams traded field goals on their opening possessions. Vanderbilt went ahead to stay when freshman Bryan Longwell blocked a punt and the ball rolled through the back of the end zone for a safety. That made it 5-3 with 26 seconds to play in the first quarter.
Another blocked punt in the fourth quarter this one, credited to Langston Patterson, led to Alexander’s second touchdown, a 9-yard run with 11:32 remaining.
“I think actually (Longwell) got them both,” Lea said. “Patterson was a part of them too on both. Those are two young players that are stepping up for us. … Really nice job executing.”
Alabama A&M used its two experienced quarterbacks, Xavier Lankford and Cornelius Brown IV, as it tried to keep pace. Lankford got the majority of the playing time and completed 11 of 22 passes for 105 yards. He also ran for 31 yards on nine carries. Brown was 7-of-12 passing for 38 yards with one interception.
The Bulldogs’ lone touchdown was a 62-yard touchdown reception by Terrell Gardner on a deep pass from Lankford. Gardner finished with three receptions for 83 yards.
Gardner’s big catch and a 39-yard run by Isaiah Nwokenko accounted for 101 yards of Alabama A&M’s 278 total. Vanderbilt’s defense limited the Bulldogs to just 102 yards of total offense in the first half.
“We’ll use those as growth moments,” Lea said. “We’ll grow forward from that. … I was proud of how (the offense) responded coming out of the half and dialed into an identity that allowed us to separate in the second half.”
Alabama A&M: The Bulldogs made it clear from the start that they had no interest in repeating recent history. A year ago, they were shut out in their opener, 59-0 against Alabama-Birmingham on Sept. 1, 2022. The same was true of their only other game against Vanderbilt, a 42-0 defeat on Sept. 9, 2017.
This time, they opened the contest with a 20-play, 71-yard drive that ended with kicker Victor Barbosa’s 21-yard field goal. The possession lasted 8:55 and included five third-down conversions (on six attempts).
Vanderbilt: Sheppard has matched his start to the 2022 season. His two receiving touchdowns equaled his total from the previous week against Hawaii and gave him four for the season.
Now, the challenge is to finish better.
The senior wide receiver became the first Commodore since Earl Bennett in 2005 to have two touchdown receptions in back-to-back games when he did it in the first two contests of 2022. Sheppard had seven through the first four games but finished with nine for the season, which left him second in the SEC behind Tennessee’s Jalin Hyatt (15).
With 17 career touchdown catches, Sheppard has tied Bucky Curtis (1947-50) for seventh in program history. Allama Matthews (1981-82) is in sixth with 18.
Alabama A&M will play its home opener, the Louis Crews Classic against Lane, Saturday evening. The game honors the winningest coach in Alabama A&M history.
Vanderbilt plays its third straight non-conference contest but its first on the road, at Wake Forest on Saturday morning.
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