NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The eighth-ranked Arkansas Razorbacks know they have plenty of talent. That’s what makes falling behind early and having to rally for victory so frustrating.
They fell behind by double-digits for the third time this season Saturday, trailing Vanderbilt by 14 points before coming back for a 31-28 victory. The comeback was keyed by Jerry Franklin’s 94-yard fumble return for a touchdown that turned a 28-20 deficit in the fourth quarter into a 28-all tie.
Arkansas receiver Chris Gragg said it gives him a heart attack sometimes falling behind, even though the Razorbacks now have won four straight.
"We never really are on the sidelines thinking we are going to lose because we have done it so many times, and I just think we have the playmakers and that drive to get the W," Gragg said.
Razorbacks defensive end Jake Bequette said the growing reputation for slow starts in the first half is very frustrating.
"We’re definitely not satisfied with where we are right now. We’re not happy at all," Bequette said. "We’re happy to be 7-1. It’s a great position. It looks good on paper, but we know we’re capable of much better on defense and offense. When we put a complete game together, it’s going to be something sweet."
The Razorbacks (3-1 in the Southeastern Conference) are 7-1 for only the third time since moving to the SEC and first since 2006. They now prepare to start a three-game homestand against No. 10 South Carolina, off to its best start under coach Bobby Petrino.
"The thing I am happy about is we are going home 7-1," Petrino said. "You know, it has been a tough go for our football team."
Arkansas trailed 21-7 in the first half and never led Vanderbilt until Zach Hockner’s third field goal, a 42-yarder, with 6:53 left. The best offense in the SEC was held to 388 yards, and Arkansas gave up 462 yards to the Commodores. Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson called the Razorbacks’ defensive play erratic.
"We couldn’t get anything stopped in the first half, and again it came back in the second half where we did," Robinson said. "We couldn’t create a pass-rush with four guys. We had to sit down and create pressure. Honestly, we’re still searching."
Arkansas had two sacks and forced three turnovers, turning those into 10 points thanks to Franklin’s fumble return. Tyler Wilson threw for 316 yards and a TD. Backup quarterback Brandon Mitchell also ran for a TD.
Wilson set a school record for consecutive passes without an interception, a streak now at 176 and counting despite going against a Vanderbilt defense that came in leading the SEC and tied for first nationally with 15 interceptions. His streak continues only because the Commodores couldn’t hold onto a handful of balls they got their hands on.
The junior showed off his strength and resiliency as he took a beating from the Commodores, who sacked him three times and hit him repeatedly. Tim Fugger’s second sack took Wilson to the ground so hard fans went "Oh!" watching the replay.
But Wilson helped start the latest comeback to go with those against Texas A&M and last week against Mississippi. He found Jarius Wright for a 30-yard completion on fourth-and-10 with the clock running down, then tossed a perfect pass to him in the end zone for an 11-yard TD on the next play to trim Vandy’s lead to 21-14 at halftime.
"If you learn anything from the World Series, it’s that you just hang in there and keep going," Petrino said.
Wright finished with 135 yards on 10 catches, not counting the 2-point conversion catch that tied the game at 28.
"You can’t get frustrated winning," Wright said. "You can get frustrated by not starting out like you expect your team to do. We know how good we are. We expect to start faster. We expect to play way better than we played. We did get the win. You can never be mad getting the win."
Still, the Razorbacks couldn’t stop Vanderbilt from driving from its own 10 starting with 3:03 left down to the Arkansas 10 in the final seconds. Jordan Rodgers, who threw for a TD and ran for two others, missed tight end Brandon Barden in the end zone before throwing the ball away on third down. Carey Spear’s 27-yard field goal to force overtime was wide right with 8 seconds left.
"We’re lucky they missed the kick," Bequette said. "I felt like our chances were good in overtime, but I’m glad we didn’t have to do that."