For more than three quarters, Vanderbilt was doing what it hadn’t in the past — it outplayed a more talented, highly ranked conference foe.
The Commodores, however, couldn’t exorcise the demons that taunted them the last two seasons. A crucial fumble, lost opportunities on defense and a missed game-tying field goal doomed Vanderbilt in a 31-28 loss to No. 8 Arkansas on Saturday in front of 33,247 at Vanderbilt Stadium.
“When you’re playing a good team like that, you can’t make critical mistakes like we made. I thought we played hard. I didn’t think we played smart,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. “I believe in my kids. I believe in our process. We’re light years ahead of when I came here and when I got on campus. This is not the same old Vanderbilt. We’re going to find ways real soon to finish games like this.”
Trailing 31-28, Vanderbilt drove all the way from its 10-yard line in the last three minutes, reaching Arkansas’ 10. But quarterback Jordan Rodgers overshot tight end Brandon Barden and then threw the ball away under pressure.
That set up Carey Spear for a 27-yard field goal attempt. The kick near the right hash left failed to curve inside the uprights with eight seconds left, allowing Arkansas (7-1, 3-1 SEC) to escape.
“I believe in him,” Franklin said. “He’ll kick game-winning field goals this season. He’ll kick game-winning field goals the rest of his career. He is a big-time kicker.”
But the game shouldn’t have come down to a final kick. Leading 28-20, Vanderbilt (4-4, 1-4) was at the Arkansas 5-yard line when running back Zac Stacy fumbled. It was returned 94 yards for a touchdown and the Razorbacks converted the two-point conversion. Then, with 6:53 to go, Zach Hocker kicked a 42-yard field goal to give Arkansas its first lead.
It was an up-and-down game for Stacy, who was intercepted on a halfback pass but finished with 128 rushing yards and a 62-yard touchdown.
“I just simply made a mistake,” he said of the fumble. “Seemed like I just dropped it. It hurts. Obviously it affected the game and changed the game around.”
The defense will be left wondering as well. Cornerback Casey Hayward had six pass breakups but dropped three would-be interceptions. Linebacker Archibald Barnes also failed to reel in a potential pick.
Vanderbilt entered the game tied for the most interceptions (15) in the Football Bowl Subdivision. But the Commodores failed to snag one Saturday.
“I think James [Franklin] is oversaying they dropped a few,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said. “They’re good. They understand route concepts. They break on the ball well. They know how to anticipate certain route combinations. I think they dropped a couple interceptions [Saturday].”
Vanderbilt’s offense continued to improve as the Commodores built a 14-point first-half lead with drives of 68, 81 and 88 yards. The running game opened up some options for the passing game. Rodgers connected with Jordan Matthews for a 21-yard touchdown. Then Rodgers ran for two scores — the second coming on a 3-yard bootleg run that gave the Commodores a 21-7 lead with 1:39 remaining in the first half.
But for the fourth straight SEC game, Vanderbilt allowed a last-minute, first-half touchdown. On fourth-and-10, Tyler Wilson connected with Jarius Wright for a 30-yard gain. On the next play, the two hooked up again for an 11-yard touchdown with five seconds left, giving Arkansas life before halftime.
“We’re not defeated,” Franklin said. “They understand this is a step in the right direction. This is progress. We are going to keep fighting. No one is going to give you anything in life. You have to go out and take it.”