By Ron Wynn
The next step in the continued progress of first-year Vanderbilt University coach James Franklin’s program almost happened Saturday. The Commodores narrowly missed getting their first victory over a Top 10 team in four years, losing a heartbreaking 31-28 contest to number eight ranked Arkansas. But Vandy led most of the way, and were on top 28-17 with less than two minutes remaining in the third quarter. Then came a series of stunning plays that resulted in easily the season’s toughest loss.
A 50-yard field goal narrowed the margin to 28-20. Vanderbilt took the next kickoff and marched down the field. They were on the five-yard line, preparing to get the touchdown that would increase the lead to 15 points. Then Zac Stacy, who otherwise had a fabulous game, simply dropped the ball without being hit or tackled. Arkansas linebacker Jerry Franklin picked it up in stride and rumbled down the sideline for a crushing 94-yard touchdown. Vanderbilt was unable to stop Razorbacks QB Tyler Wilson, who evaded pressure and found an open receiver for the two-point conversion that tied things at 28-28.
Arkansas moved ahead with a little less than seven minutes remaining, as Zach Hocker made his third field goal. Then Vanderbilt’s defense held. The Commodores started on their 10-yard line with about three minutes left and 90 yards to go for the winning touchdown. They reached the Razorbacks’ 14-yard line, thanks in large part to a superb catch by Jordan Matthews of a 48-yard pass from QB Jordan Rogers. Then the Commodores were unable to get the touchdown, but moved into position for the game-tying field goal.
“We told Jordan if it’s there, make the throw to win the game,” a disappointed Vandy coach Franklin said. “If not, throw it out of the back of the end zone and we’ll kick the field goal and go to overtime. That was the plan.” But sophomore kicker Carey Spear had not attempted a field goal the entire afternoon. His kick was wide right, a miss that deflated both the team and most of the 34,000 in attendance (at least those not in the Arkansas section). However none of the Vanderbilt players or coaching staff had harsh words after the game for Spear.
“We’re not defeated. They understand this is a step in the right direction,” Franklin continued. “This is progress.” “He’s (Spear) how you would expect him to be in that situation,” Vandy linebacker and defensive star Chris Marve said. “But as a team and as him being our brother, we have to lift him up.”
Vandy did many commendable things offensively, starting with Stacy’s dazzling 62-yard TD run in the third quarter. It extended the lead to 28-17, and it looked as though Stacy’s score might key a Commodore victory. Stacy gained 128 yards on the ground, but was far from happy afterwards. “Seemed like I just dropped it,” he said in reference to the fumble. “Obviously, it affected the game and changed the game around. It cost us the game.”
The Commodores also hurt themselves by giving up a cheap touchdown right before the first half ended. Leading 21-7, Vandy’s defense fell asleep and didn’t cover Jarius Wright sneaking into the end zone. He caught an 11-yard pass with only five seconds remaining to make the halftime score 21-14. Wilson, Arkansas’ high powered passer who led a comeback the week before against Ole Miss, threw for 316 yards. Vanderbilt again got good QB play from Rodgers, who had 240 passing and 66 yards rushing. He ran less against Arkansas than he had against Army, and seemed at times a bit reluctant before taking off. But he also didn’t force passes into coverage or make costly mistakes.
Vanderbilt got another strong game from All-American candidate cornerback Casey Hayward, as well as Marve. The Commodores also caught a break in the fourth quarter, recovering a fumble by Arkansas safety Jericho Nelson at the Vanderbilt one-yard line. Nelson was headed for the end zone after recovering a fumble from Vandy receiver Chris Boyd. Had he scored the game might have been over. Instead, Vandy’s recovery gave them one last chance.
“I’m not going to have anyone saying or writing that this is the same old Vanderbilt,” Franklin defiantly said after the game. “We had our chances, but didn’t capitalize on them.”
The Commodores are now 4-4, but have only one more home game on the schedule, against Kentucky. The other three away from Dudley Stadium begin Saturday with a visit to Florida. They wrap up the SEC season with Tennessee in Knoxville. They conclude the season at Wake Forest. Vanderbilt needs a 2-2 record for six wins, the minimum required for bowl eligibility. Franklin and his team want to exceed that total.