In a span of seconds, momentum flung the other way.
Connecticut pounced on a fumble and jumped in front early in the fourth quarter. It seemed all too familiar for those watching in Vanderbilt Stadium.
But in only the second game for head coach James Franklin the fiery motivator wanted to set a new tone. So he paced up and down the sidelines, insisting to his team this wasn’t the same old Vanderbilt that buckled under adversity.
The message hit home and the Commodores rallied back on Sept. 10, 2011, for a three-point victory.
That was the last one-possession game that went Vanderbilt’s way. The Commodores have lost six straight contests decided by seven points or less. On four occasions they’ve led in the fourth quarter as was the case last week in a 17-13 season-opening loss to South Carolina.
“We’re trying to build a culture of winning and when you have that guys find a way to get the job done,” Franklin said last Thursday after the game. “… I want to make sure these losses sting and they hurt.”
On the flip side, Vanderbilt’s next opponent, Northwestern (7 p.m., Saturday), has thrived in close games. Over the last seven years, 22 of the Wildcats’ 41 wins under coach Pat Fitzgerald have been by seven points or less. Only 10 of their 36 losses were within the same point range. Last fall, they played in four one-possession games — winning two — en route to their fourth consecutive bowl.
Their most recent nail-biting finish came Saturday when the Wildcats blew a 22-point, second-half lead only to recover in the final minute. Trevor Siemian’s nine-yard touchdown pass to Demetrius Fields with 44 seconds left lifted Northwestern past Syracuse for a 42-41 victory.
“The thing that is the most impressive about Northwestern is the fact that they have been able to win so many close games and that their team doesn’t give up,” Franklin said on Monday at his weekly press conference. “They lose the lead late in the game [against Syracuse] and then Northwestern is able to come back and find a way to win it.”
Resiliency is a quality Vanderbilt is beginning to craft.
There is no overlooking the massive improvement in Franklin’s two years and a look at the outcomes before he arrived verifies such. During the 2009 and 2010 seasons, which featured a total of four wins, competitive affairs were hard to come by. Only three of the 24 games were decided by seven points or less. All three went against Vanderbilt, including a 23-21 loss to Northwestern in the 2010 season opener.
The Commodores’ 16 seniors were freshmen and sophomores then, pushing for playing time and learning on the job. No longer hit by blowout after blowout — only two of Vanderbilt’s eight losses under Franklin have been by more than two touchdowns — a different mindset has taken hold of the veteran crew. Even when the result stays the same.
“There is nobody who was down and thinking, ‘Oh, it is the same old thing’ [on Thursday]. Not at all,” linebacker Archibald Barnes said. “We were in that game to win it. What happened, happened. We just can’t let it happen this week. Northwestern obviously got a good win this weekend and that was a close game. If it comes down to a close game, we think we can pull it off.
“We’ve learned better and we expect better.”