With his performance last Thursday as the latest bit of evidence, there is reason to believe that Jordan Matthews eventually will take a place alongside Earl Bennett as one of the all-time great wide receivers in Vanderbilt — not to mention the Southeastern Conference — history.
Thanks in large part to a single moment in that season-opening loss to South Carolina, the junior joined a long line of notable Commodores, including Bennett, who have been victimized by questionable calls at critical junctures.
In this case, officials opted not to call pass interference — or anything else, for that matter — when Matthews tangled with a Gamecocks defensive back for a pass on fourth down with 1:47 to play. Up to that point he had eight catches for 147 yards, including a 78-yard touchdown reception. That’s exactly where his numbers stayed too because after that ‘incompletion’ the Commodores never got the ball back and were left to deal with a 17-13 defeat.
Same old Vanderbilt? Not likely.
Same old officiating? Absolutely.
Woody Widenhofer wanted his players to “have fun and expect to win.” Bobby Johnson swore off cursing and demanded intelligent language and play. James Franklin has shown no fear and has charged his players to do the same.
For whatever reason, officials can’t seem to change their view of the program or their perception of justice at key moments. Whether it is simple human error or a preconceived notion to err on the side of the favored, more celebrated opponent, there is no denying that it happens to the Commodores with inconceivable frequency.
The results speak volumes.
According to Coaches By The Numbers, a locally based statistical analysis service for colleges and universities, 41 percent of Vanderbilt’s conference games under Johnson were decided by a touchdown or less and his team won 26 percent of the time. Under Franklin thus far, 44 percent of the conference games have been decided by a touchdown or less and he has won 22 percent of them.
The margin for error on the Commodores’ part is minimal. It is so slim, in fact, that even when someone outside the program messes up (i.e. a game official) it can have a devastating effect.
None comes more immediately to mind than the ridiculous excessive celebration call against Bennett after he scored a touchdown with 54 seconds left and got the Commodores within one, 35-34, of Florida. Rather than go for two and the win — as he intended — Johnson was forced by the penalty to kick a long PAT. Vanderbilt eventually lost in double-overtime.
Now Matthews can join the club. Obviously, there was no guarantee that if pass interference was called against South Carolina’s D.J. Swearinger, the Commodores would eventually have scored the game-winning touchdown. There seems to be little doubt, though, that they earned the opportunity to try only to have the official swallow his whistle.
In so doing, the Commodores and their fans were forced to swallow the same bitter pill on which they have choked so often throughout the years.
Franklin kept quiet about the incident after the game, muzzled by the threat of sanctions from the conference office for a cross word about officiating.
What could he say, though? His predecessors have hooted and hollered – there were times Johnson had to be tempted to let fly with expletives – and stomped and screamed about calls for years. It has all been for naught.
Traditions are important in the South, particularly when it comes to college football.
For Vanderbilt, moments such as the one Matthews experienced last night happen with maddening consistency. If nothing else, the game-breaking wide receiver is in good company.