By ROBBIE NEISWANGER
Arkansas News Bureau
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Receiver Jarius Wright knows Arkansas needed another Houdini-like escape Saturday.
There was one more terrible start on both sides of the ball. One more double-digit deficit to deal with on the road. And this time, some remarkably fortunate twists that helped the Razorbacks win another game.
But when the senior stood in the end zone after Arkansas’ 31-28 victory at Vanderbilt, Wright sported a big smile when he contemplated the end result.
"You can’t get frustrated with winning," he said. "You can get frustrated not starting out like you expect ... We expect to play way better than we played. But, like I said, we did get the win and you can never be mad about getting the win."
Arkansas linebacker Jerry Franklin turned in the game-changing play, scooping up a fumble and rumbling 94 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter to help the Razorbacks (7-1, 3-1 in SEC) erase a 14-point deficit. Place kicker Zach Hocker gave Arkansas its first lead at 31-28 a few minutes later. Then the Hogs held their breath until Vanderbilt kicker Carey Spear’s game-tying 27-yard attempt pushed wide left.
It wrapped up a wild afternoon in front of an announced crowd of 33,247 in Vanderbilt Stadium. One that ended just like Arkansas’ last trip to Nashville in 2006 - a missed field goal and sigh of relief.
"It gives me a heart attack sometimes," said Arkansas tight end Chris Gragg, who caught five passes for 62 yards. "But we never really think we’re going to lose because we’ve done it so many times."
The Razorbacks, who have become experts at dodging bullets, recovered from a double-digit deficit again.
Arkansas spent the week concentrating on fast starts, believing another slow one could catch up to it at Vanderbilt (4-4, 1-4). And it nearly did Saturday.
The Commodores — under new coach James Franklin — showed plenty of bravado in its upset attempt. They came out firing with trick plays on offense (halfback pass, reverses and a well-time throwback), surprises on special teams (a fake punt) and an aggressive defense (three sacks and a handful of near interceptions) that pushed the Hogs to the limit.
Quarterback Jordan Rodgers, making his first SEC start, led the charge. He guided the Commodores to three scoring drives in the first half, two of which were capped by his touchdown runs. The second — a 3-yard score — pushed Vanderbilt out to a 21-7 lead.
"You’d better not get comfortable against them," Franklin said afterward about the Razorbacks.
Arkansas soon showed why. The Hogs only had 1:39 left in the half, but sprinted downfield to gain some much needed momentum before going to the locker room.
Quarterback Tyler Wilson, who finished 27 of 43 for 316 yards, threw a critical 30-yard completion to Wright on fourth-and-10. One play later, he found Wright again with five seconds left for an 11-yard touchdown pass that cut the deficit to 21-14.
"That was huge for us," Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. "It looked like a couple of times the half was going to be over. ... We didn’t have much time left and we had to make a play. That was just a great throw and a great catch on the touchdown before the half."
But Vanderbilt didn’t crumble in the second half, remaining in control throughout the third quarter.
Stacy played a big part in that success, breaking off a 62-yard touchdown run that gave the Commodores a 28-20 lead. Vandy nearly pushed it to 15, too, moving deep into Arkansas territory after Rodgers’ 44-yard completion to Stacy to start the fourth quarter.
Stacy was handed the ball from the Arkansas 3-yard line three plays later and appeared to drop it without contact. Franklin — who had a key fumble return for a touchdown in Arkansas’ win against Texas A&M in 2009 — scooped up the loose ball and started running.
"That was crazy," Arkansas defensive end Jake Bequette said. "They ran the ball to my side and I just kind of threw my body in there. I’m not really sure what happened. But next thing I know, I look up, and I see Jerry about the 50-yard line."
Franklin had plenty of help from teammates like Jerico Nelson, who was escorting him into the endzone.
"The ball just came flying out," Franklin said. "I saw it on the ground and just scooped and scored."
Wilson threw an impressive strike to Wright on the two-point conversion to tie the game. Arkansas then took its first lead on Hocker’s 42-yard field goal (his third of the game) with 6:53 remaining.
But the nail-biting wasn’t quite over for the Hogs.
Vanderbilt got the ball one more time with 3:03 remaining and moved downfield thanks to a 48-yard pass from Rodgers to Jordan Matthews. The Commodores reached Arkansas’ 10-yard line with 24 seconds left, but couldn’t punch the ball into the end zone.
Spear couldn’t push the game into overtime, either.
"We had a bunch of guys fight until the end so it’s going to be a tough one to swallow," Rodgers said.
Arkansas’ sideline erupted with joy, Wilson downed the ball on the final snap and the celebration began.
Wilson completed 27 of 43 passes for 316 yards with a touchdown and didn’t throw an interception for the fourth straight game. Wright caught 10 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown. The duo helped carry an offense that was limited to 72 rushing yards Saturday.
Rodgers was equally important for the Commodores totaling 306 yards (240 passing, 66 rushing). Stacy had 128 rushing yards with a touchdown for and Matthews caught six passes for 151 yards and a score.
Vanderbilt outgained Arkansas 462-388.
"We have to allow other teams to beat themselves," Franklin said, pointing to the second half turnovers that led to 10 points. "We can’t beat ourselves. We’re not defeated; this is a step in the right direction and they understand that. No one is going to give you anything in life. You have to go out and take it."
The Razorbacks did so on the road once again, shrugging off another awful start to survive.
"Our kids are relentless," Arkansas offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said. "They’re going to keep grinding. They’re going to keep playing."