NASHVILLE — With under two minutes left in the game, Vanderbilt trailed South Carolina by what would ultimately be the final score, 17-13.
On fourth and seven, quarterback Jordan Rogers threw a fade to Jordan Mathews. It looked perfect. The crowd cheered.
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Then, the replay board showed the ball on the ground, and possibly a hold from cornerback D.J. Swearinger. No matter. The flags remained in the pockets of the referees, and the workhorse Marcus Lattimore put Vanderbilt down as he has many times before.
The atypically large, loud crowd went home as they are used to: disappointed.
“At some point, we are going to have to find a way to win these tough games,” said coach James Franklin following the game.
Since Franklin took over, he’s been beaten over the head with questions about when Vanderbilt is going to reach the level he envisions for the program. He’s been trying to build a winning culture at a school that has only been to five bowl games. Ever.
Remarkably, one of those bowl games came under Franklin’s leadership a year ago, when he became the first first-year coach to take the Commodores to a bowl game.
He built expectation throughout the offseason, punctuating his belief at SEC media days, saying, “You play Vanderbilt, you better be ready to play from the beginning of the game till the end.”
Turns out, he was correct. But that wasn’t exactly what Franklin had in mind when he said it.
“We’re trying to create a culture of winning,” Franklin said. “When you do that, guys find a way to get the job done.”
It’s taking time to build, as anyone would expect. But the waiting period is getting frustrating to say the least.
“Completely frustrating,” said quarterback Jordan Rogers. “It’s bad when you can watch a film and you can point out how many opportunities you let slip through. For us to be the kind of team we know we’re gonna be and we want to be we’re gonna need to win these close games and we’re going to need to find a way to not beat ourselves.”
Still, there were signs of improvement. Vanderbilt played another top-ten team down to the wire, and given the circumstances, that is still a positive even though Franklin doesn’t believe in moral victories.
“For the last 20 months, we’ve gotten better every day,” Franklin said. “Look at the game last year against South Carolina and then look at the game this year against South Carolina. I’m proud with our progress and there’s a lot to build on… We have to find ways to capitalize on opponents’ [mistakes].”
It’ll happen when plays at the end of the game keep the crowd cheering instead of the familiar groaning. The only question, it seems, is when.
“We’re very close,” said Javon Marshall. “It’s the little things, it’s the details. We just gotta take that next step. And we will. We’re gonna take it real soon.”