James Franklin's exasperation was so apparent after the mind-boggling 27-21 overtime loss at Tennessee, his post-game quotes should have been bent into a pained grimace.
"They blew the whistle. They blew the play dead. They blew him down," Vanderbilt's coach said, sounding like a man gazing upon the ashes of what had been a winning lottery ticket. "But they said, they explained to me, why you can do that and the play can still count."
After a 60-minute back-and-forth that the Commodores could have, should have, taken control of and won, the quest for the third Vandy victory over the Volunteers in 30 years was bespoiled by an interpretation of college football's review rule.
UT defensive back and former Hillsboro star Eric Gordon intercepted Jordan Rodgers' pass, returning it 90 yards for a game-clinching touchdown.
Or did he?
Initially, the head linesman blew the whistle, ruling Gordon's knee hit the ground, negating the return.
But the shadowy figures high above the field in the Neyland Stadium press box alerted the on-field officials — this is the only known remaining use of the beeper, by the way — to take another look.
After another look, it seems, Gordon's phantom patella never came tangent with the turf. Touchdown Tennessee. Heartbreak Vandy.
First: The call was correct. Gordon's knee never did touch the ground. He should have been able to return the interception as he did.
Unfortunately, though, that touchdown — no matter how honestly earned — was the fruit of a poisoned tree. The linesman whistle should have not only negated the return, it should have removed the ability to review.
The whistle is clear, the linesman waving his hands stopping the play is evident. In spite of the bizarre camera angles ESPN employed to broadcast the match-up in glorious 3-D — yes, 4-6 Tennessee and 5-5 Vanderbilt merited 3-D, proof positive the Worldwide Leader has too much money and too many toys — this final play does not require a Warren Commission-esque analysis. Indeed, the SEC head of officials said as much in a late-night press release. The decision to review was wrong. That press release is now the definitive example of the term "cold comfort."
Of course, the final call was right. And even if Gordon were ultimately ruled down, UT would have begun its overtime possession needing just a field goal to win.
Not that field goals are a given for Tennessee. Vols kicker Michael Palardy was so bad Saturday, the officials penalized Vanderbilt.
Ahead 21-14, Vandy forced Tennessee into a field goal attempt. The try appeared to be blocked, but a yellow flag — in hindsight, a golden tear from the collective lachrymosity of the Commodore faithful — lay in the backfield. Palardy's kick wasn't blocked: It hit a lineman in the rear. The flag was for Sean Richardson running into the kicker, giving UT a second life.
It doesn't take a lifetime of watching Vandy football to predict the outcome of the decision. UT scored a tying touchdown, setting up the overtime.
As with so many Vandy losses, this one was equal parts improbable and irresistible, like a tornado speeding through a field empty but for a single mobile home. Statistically, of course, there's almost no chance the twister will smash that lonesome trailer. Intuitively, though, you know you'll see the resident scratching the back of his neck on the nightly news, explaining that, yep, it sounded like a freight train all right.
Franklin and the Commodores, despite all the things they've done right this year, can't seem to get out of the way of their own metaphorical twister: a half-century long Tornado Alley of bad breaks. It doesn't matter if the sky is cloudless. The forecast calls for pain.
The 'Dores — and now Tennessee — enter Thanksgiving weekend needing a win for bowl eligibility. Back in August, such would have seemed as unlikely as a pizza magnate being a contender for the presidency. In two seasons prior, Vandy had won a total of two games. Now, in 2011, the 'Dores need a win at Wake Forest to play in the post-season.
Believe James Franklin when he says he's changed the culture. But as always with Vandy, expect the worst and gird for the inexplicable.
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