NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Vanderbilt is ready to put the toughest three-game start in program history in its rearview mirror.
That doesn't mean they will risk overlooking Northern Illinois from the Mid-American Conference. Vanderbilt quarterback Riley Neal knows the challenges awaiting Vanderbilt.
"I certainly don't feel that," Vanderbilt quarterback Riley Neal said . "I'm 0-4 against Northern Illinois in my career. So they're a really good team, and I think that's understood throughout the team."
The Commodores (0-3) are among five FBS programs to start the schedule playing three Power Five teams, but nobody else had to play a pair of Top Five opponents like No. 3 Georgia and No. 4 LSU. Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason has pointed out enough numbers about Northern Illinois that he expects the Huskies (1-2) have his Commodores' full attention.
"This group has been giant killers over the years ...," Mason said. "They beat Nebraska, and they've beat Purdue. They've beat a lot of big teams."
First-year Northern Illinois coach Thomas Hammock knows exactly what the Commodores have been through to start this season.
"They're 0-3 for a reason," Hammock said. "They played probably one of the toughest schedules in the country with Georgia, Purdue and LSU, so they're a good football team."
Vanderbilt played Northern Illinois in a three-game series between 1997 and 1998. The Commodores won all three, though a combined 14 points is all that separated the teams. Hammock played for the Huskies the last time these programs met in 1999 and remembers a late Vandy punt return being the difference in a 34-31 win.
"We are a program that's built ourselves on playing these types of games and having an opportunity to win," Hammock said.
Some other things to know about Vanderbilt and Northern Illinois:
The Commodores were routed by LSU last week, but they also scored the most points this program has ever managed against a Top Five program in the 66-38 loss. Ke'Shawn Vaughn, the Southeastern Conference's top returning rusher, also ran for 130 yards for his first 100-yard game this season. Neal lost all four games he played with Ball State before graduating and transferring to Vanderbilt, has thrown for 669 yards and three TDs this season.
Better yet, left tackle Devin Cochran could return Saturday from an injury that has kept him out all season. That would be a big boost to an offense that has allowed eight sacks.
The Commodores scored not once, but twice on defense against LSU for the first time that's happened at Vanderbilt since the 2011 season opener. Elijah McAlister recovered a fumble in the end zone, while Randall Haynie returned an interception 47 yards for a TD. They also got their first two sacks of the season against LSU. But Vanderbilt ranks 127th nationally allowing 46 points a game.
HUSKIES' RUN D
Northern Illinois usually is pretty stingy on the ground, but the Huskies just snapped a 17-game streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher in their 44-8 loss at Nebraska on Sept. 14. Dedrick Mills ran for 116 yards on just 11 carries, the first to do that against Northern Illinois since Nov. 24, 2017, when Jonathan Ward of Central Michigan topped that mark.
Vanderbilt is 7-2 all-time against the MAC. Better yet, the Commodores are 8-2 in their last 10 regular season games against non-SEC teams. Those losses came on the road to Notre Dame last season and Purdue earlier this month. Vanderbilt is 31-14 outside the SEC over the past decade.
BLOCK THAT KICK
Northern Illinois set a school record in the loss to Nebraska blocking three kicks: two field goals and an extra point. Jalen McKie had two of those and now is tied for first in FBS for blocked kicks. Vanderbilt kicker Ryley Guay was hurt in the loss to LSU, though the senior from Napierville, Illinois, is expected to play.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker