Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews, drops a pass in front of South Carolina safety D.J. Swearinger, who pulled Matthews' left arm before he could catch the ball on fourth down during the fourth quarter. Vanderbilt lost 17-13. - JAE S. LEE / THE TENNESSEAN
With the Vanderbilt-South Carolina game in the balance, D.J. Swearinger grabbed the left arm of Jordan Matthews before the football arrived.
I saw it. You saw it. ESPN's cameras definitely saw it.
But the official on the scene didn't.
With that, Matthews was unable to catch a long fourth-down pass from Jordan Rodgers, turning the ball over to South Carolina with less than two minutes remaining and dooming Vanderbilt to a 17-13 loss.
OK, it was just one of 121 plays in the game. I'm sure there were several others where a call was blown.
But with Vanderbilt, this kind of officiating error is a death blow. The Commodores simply aren't good enough to overcome such things. Their margin of error is too small.
That fact was brought home again on Thursday night. Vanderbilt failed to capitalize on a couple of opportunities early in the game, and those glitches came back to haunt the Commodores. Coach James Franklin suggested -- correctly -- that his team could have owned a 10-0 lead midway through the first quarter but instead was in a scoreless tie.
Ultimately, the Commodores' first-quarter failings put them in position where a late-game miscue by an SEC official resulted in yet another near-miss against a quality opponent.
"We shouldn't have been having to make plays late," Franklin said.
Asked specifically about the critical no-call, Franklin deferred comment rather than become the first coach to run afoul of the conference's toughened gag order.
"You did know the SEC just came out with very clear rules about talking about the officials and what happens after games? You're trying to get me fined," he said.
Likewise, Matthews took the high road.
"I'm not really going to comment on any calls or anything," he said. "The bottom line is we didn't get it done. ... I'll leave it up to anybody else to speculate on calls. I don't do that."
Look, it is entirely possible that every other SEC team suffers as many bad calls as Vanderbilt. With the current state of SEC officiating, there are enough blown calls to go around.
Perhaps it's just that when it happens to Vanderbilt, it leaves a mark.
This was a classic example. The Commodores played on virtually even terms with the nation's No. 9-ranked team -- Vanderbilt gained 276 yards, South Carolina 272 -- but were undone by a penalty flag that wasn't thrown.
"We didn't get it done," Franklin said. "We didn't make plays when we needed to make plays. ... Life is about handling adversity. This game is about handling adversity."
To their credit, the Commodores handled considerable adversity on this evening. After failing to take advantage of two Gamecocks turnovers in their first three offensive plays, Vanderbilt found itself trailing 10-0 barely three minutes into the second quarter.
If you've charted Vanderbilt football over the past 30 years or so, you know there have been many Commodores teams that have not handled this kind of adversity. A 10-0 deficit often has snowballed.
But that was B.F. -- Before Franklin.
As we saw several times last season, Franklin has instilled a different mind-set in his Commodores. They don't flinch. They play through.
With one play, Vanderbilt got back into the game. Rodgers and Matthews hooked up on a 78-yard touchdown play, with Matthews making a fingertip catch, regaining his balance and then sizzling past the South Carolina secondary.
Later, the Commodores went up 13-10 before South Carolina took the lead on Marcus Lattimore's 1-yard touchdown run with 11:25 remaining.
It stayed that way until the final heave by Rodgers, who was under pressure by South Carolina's pass rush but managed to unload an on-target throw to Matthews.
The ball hit the turf. But no penalty flag did.
Thus, it was yet another close call that will have some invoking the term Same Ol' Vandy even if that is far from the case.
"There's a lot of positives but at some point we've got to find a way to win these tough games," Franklin said.
And that is the right call.
Reach David Climer