NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Talk about seniority, Vanderbilt has it in Jordan Matthews, the most prolific receiver in SEC history.
So, how fitting that as the leader of the most successful senior class in Commodores history, it was Matthews who would make the play to save Senior Day in Vanderbilt’s thrilling 23-21 win here Saturday over visiting Wake Forest.
Trailing the upset-minded Demon Deacons (4-8) by one point with just over a minute to play, the Commodores (8-4) faced fourth down with 11 yards needed to keep a final drive of desperation alive. Vanderbilt senior quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels lofted a pass to Matthews, who arose above two Demon Deacons defenders draped all over him to come down with an improbable reception at the Wake Forest 23-yard line.
Four plays later, senior kicker Carey Spear would nail a 38-yard field goal with 39 seconds to play to give Vanderbilt consecutive years with at least eight wins for the first time in program history since the 1927-28 seasons.
“I still don’t know how Jordan Matthews made that catch,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said of the play that thrilled the 33,019 that attended the sun-splashed game at Vanderbilt Stadium.
“Schematically, we shouldn’t have thrown the ball there,” he added. “That’s who he is, though. Jordan Matthews had an unbelievable catch that put us in position to win the game.”
Matthews said that Carta-Samuels lofted the ball nicely so that he would be the only player possible of catching the ball.
“Even if I’m not able to come down with it, at least get (pass interference) or something like that,” Matthews said of the catch. “That is just an older guy like Austyn playing with savvy, knowing the game plan, knowing the situation, then just making a great throw.
“When he does that and trusts me, I have no choice but to go up there and make a play for him. I had a good idea it was going to come to me, so I just had to go make a play.”
Matthews added another SEC record to his resume on Saturday. His 11 catches for 125 yards helped him finish with a league-record 107 receptions this season. Matthews is also the SEC’s all-time leader in career receiving yards (3,616), career receptions (257) and 100-yard receiving games (18).
Carta-Samuels completed 24-of-33 passes for 231 yards and a touchdown while sharing time at quarterback with redshirt freshman Patton Robinette, who rushed for 44 yards and passed for another 40.
“We were expecting to see that,” Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said of Vanderbilt’s two-quarterback system. “Robinette was more of a runner, and Carta-Samuels the passer. They are both good quarterbacks.”
Among the many program historical markers for success in three seasons under Franklin, the Commodores (8-4, 4-4 in SEC) are bowl eligible for a third-straight year for the first time. After losing to Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl two years ago and beating N.C. State in the Music City Bowl last season, the Commodores are hoping to reach a more notable bowl this season, possibly the Gator Bowl.
But Franklin said the Commodores will be doing “back flips” wherever the team is sent once the bowl schedule is released a week from Sunday.
“We are not bowl snobs,” Franklin said. “Wherever they tell us to go, we will be happy to go there.”
After Vanderbilt took the lead for good, Wake Forest still had 39 seconds to get into field goal range for a possible game-winning kick. Without any timeouts, the Demon Deacons went from their own 25-yard line to the Commodores’ 44 before a sack by senior defensive end Walker May forced Wake Forest into a failed Hail Mary pass as time expired.
“It’s one of those things you just take a mentality,” May said of the defense having to come up with four successive stops of the Wake Forest offense to allow for the comeback win. “You don’t really care what is going on in the game.
“You take one snap at a time, and you dominate that snap. That was our mentality coming into the game, and that’s what we try to do.”
Holding a shaky 17-14 halftime lead, it appeared the Commodores would drive their opening possession of the second half and widen the lead. However, a pass from Carta-Samuels was deflected by Wake Forest senior nose guard Nikita Whitlock and intercepted by senior linebacker Justin Jackson, who raced 63 yards for a touchdown and a 21-17 Demon Deacons lead.
The Commodores pulled within 21-20 with 6:58 to play when a methodical drive from their own 22-yard line resulted in a 25-yard field goal by Spear. On the drive, Carta-Samuels completed all four of his pass attempts, and a 16-yard run out of the wildcat formation by sophomore back Brian Kimbrow converted a key third-and-1.
The Commodores’ defense got the ball right back less than a minute later when senior middle linebacker Chase Garnham intercepted a pass by Wake Forest senior quarterback Tannner Price and returned it to the Demon Deacons’ 33-yard line. But Vanderbilt senior running back Wesley Tate fumbled the ball right back to Wake Forest three plays later.
The Commodores’ defense then kept Wake Forest from getting a first down on the next possession, however, and they got the ball back at their own 43-yard line with 3:31 remaining to set up the game-winning drive.
“Thought it was disappointing we didn’t win,” said Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, whose team has lost to Vanderbilt three straight times in the regular-season finale for both teams.
“This would have been a nice final game for our guys,” he added. “We’ve had some tough losses down the stretch, and these guys didn’t pack it in. They played really hard.”
The Commodores marched their opening possession 88 yards on 11 plays to take an early 7-0 lead, culminating with senior quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels connecting on a 7-yard scoring pass to senior fullback Fitz Lassing.
The key play of the drive was a 41-yard reception over the middle by senior wide receiver Jordan Matthew. It was his 98th catch of the year, breaking the Southeastern Conference and team single-season receptions record previously held by former Commodore Keith Edwards, who had 97 catches in 1983.
Wake Forest, however, answered with an opening scoring drive of their own, marching 12 plays on 65 yards to tie the score at 7-7. Price scored on a 3-yard run up the middle to cap the drive.
Midway through the second period, the Commodores surged back ahead 14-7. After being the beneficiary of a 20-yard shanked punt into a brisk wind that gave Vanderbilt the ball at the Demon Deacons’ 41-yard line. Less than 2 minutes later, Robinette capped a five-play drive with an 8-yard scoring keeper around the right side. On the previous play, Robinette ran for 20 yards off the left side to set up the scoring run.
But like it had done following Vanderbilt’s opening drive for a touchdown, Wake Forest answered once again to tie the game at 14-14 with 3:09 remaining in the first half. The Demon Deacons went 75 yards on 10 plays, getting the final nine yards on a scoring run up the middle from redshirt freshman running back Dominique Gibson.
Vanderbilt settled into a 17-14 halftime lead following a 41-yard field by Spear with 10 seconds remaining before intermission. The Commodores started the drive from their own 12-yard line and had to overcome two bad snaps to Robinette lined up in the shotgun that resulted in a combined 23 yards lost.