Franklin: Perception biggest challenge at Vandy
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)
First-year coach James Franklin keeps saying this isn't the same old Vanderbilt, the phrase used so often over the decades to sum up how the Commodores find new ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
There's only one way to stop such talk.
Until then, Franklin says fighting perception is his biggest challenge at the Southeastern Conference's only private school.
''I needed to change the perception of how our players see themselves and then on our campus and then in this community and then nationally. But before I can do any of those things I've got to clean up my own house. I think we've made tremendous strides there. We've still got a ways to go. There's no doubt I think the foundation has been laid, and it's built well and it's strong and we're just going to continue to build from there,'' Franklin said Monday.
''That's the biggest thing. Perception's a powerful thing because it's that person's reality.''
Franklin defended his Commodores as not being the ''same old Vanderbilt'' minutes after a 31-28 loss to No. 8 Arkansas after they blew a chance to go up 15 in the fourth quarter on a fumble returned 94 yards for the game-tying touchdown. It was exactly the kind of turnaround that sums up the phrase ''same old Vanderbilt.''
No team in the SEC has more losses by seven or fewer points since 2003 with 26 as Vanderbilt, the close but not quite wins called moral victories by fans looking for comfort.
And it's nothing new. With a 4-3 record going into the Arkansas game, it was just the seventh time in three decades Vanderbilt had been above .500 that late in the season.
Flip through the Commodores' media guide, and those moral victories are scattered everywhere. A 29-25 loss to rival Tennessee in 1992. Or 17-7 to No. 11 Alabama in 1994. One of Florida's toughest wins en route to the 1996 national title was 28-21 over Vandy. People still talk of a 7-6 loss to No. 13 LSU in 1997 when Woody Widenhofer couldn't try the 2-point conversion for the win because of two delay of game penalties before having the extra point blocked.
Just this season, Vanderbilt blocked a punt against Georgia and had two plays to pull out a win before losing 33-28.
Against Arkansas, the Commodores led 21-7 in the first half and were at the Razorbacks 3 before sure handed Zac Stacy fumbled. It turned a potential 35-20 lead into a 28-all tie, and Carey Spear's 27-yard field goal with 8 seconds left missed wide right.
Franklin apologized to fans for the frustrating loss. He also defended Spear, saying the Commodores had eight to 12 plays where the game turned.
''That was the No. 8 team in the country that we played and the same team we lost 49-14 to (last year). So ... were we in a situation where we had a very, very good chance to win the game and we gave it away? Yeah, we did,'' Franklin said. ''I still think we've shown tremendous progress, and I still think we showed tremendous progress this past game.''
Franklin said the Commodores must learn to win and finish opponents by eliminating crucial mistakes.
A change this season is how the Commodores are improving this late in the schedule. Vanderbilt (4-4, 1-4) goes into Saturday's game at Florida (4-4, 2-4) with the offense averaging 437 yards over the past three games in a big jump since Jordan Rodgers came off the bench against Georgia early behind an offensive line that has allowed three sacks over the past four games. A defense usually banged up by SEC play ranks 27th nationally held Arkansas, the SEC's top offense, 74 yards below its average.
Left tackle Wesley Johnson defended the program, saying this isn't the same old Vanderbilt with the confidence they have at this point in the season. Vandy has improved offensively, averaging 437 yards in the past three games with Jordan Rodgers taking over at quarterback behind an offensive line that has settled down.
''We're real excited. There's a lot of hope. We learned from it, and we know how we can play now,'' Johnson said.
Vandy has finished five times with five wins since 1984 with only one winning record and bowl appearance since 1982. The 2008 team needed the Music City Bowl win to get to 7-6. After the trip to Florida, the Commodores host Kentucky (3-5) and visit Tennessee (3-5) before wrapping up the season at Wake Forest.
Safety Javon Marshall said they have bought into what Franklin wants them to do in focusing a week at a time.
''We take care of everything coach Franklin talks about, and the wins will take care of themselves,'' Marshall said.
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