BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — James Franklin wanted to savor Vanderbilt’s bowl win.
Any public comment about his interest in another job would have to wait.
Patton Robinette threw two 50-yard touchdown passes to Jordan Matthews, and Vanderbilt recovered after blowing a 24-point lead to beat Houston 41-24 on Saturday in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Robinette, starting after senior Austyn Carta-Samuels had season-ending surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee, also had an 8-yard scoring run as Vanderbilt built a 24-0 lead in the first half.
After Houston (8-4) pulled even by scoring 24 points in the third quarter, Vanderbilt reclaimed the lead on Brian Kimbrow’s 21-yard touchdown run. It was the start of 17 fourth-quarter points for the Commodores.
“The thing that’s probably the most exciting to me is there is a culture of winning at Vanderbilt,” Franklin said. “These guys know how to win. A lot of different ways they do it, ugly, pretty, people can describe it however they want.”
Vanderbilt (9-4) closed the season with five straight wins, adding to Franklin’s status as a possible candidate for coaching vacancies, including at Penn State and with the NFL Browns and Redskins. The Commodores played in three straight bowl games under Franklin — a first for the program — and completed their first back-to-back nine-win seasons.
Franklin talked after the game about Vanderbilt’s returning players. He left the interview room without replying when asked if he would be back.
Vandy players doused Franklin with a water bucket in the final seconds.
Houston gained only 22 yards and had one first down in the first half but rallied with 24 points in the third quarter to pull even. Kenneth Farrow had a 6-yard scoring run and Deontay Greenberry and John O’Korn threw scoring passes to Markeith Ambles.
Franklin joked the Houston comeback was arranged to protect the TV ratings.
“Statistically, it was crazy,” Franklin said. “Our defense gave up 22 yards in the first half, 300 yards in the third quarter. We were told by the ESPN people that the ratings had gone down so we wanted to spike them back up by making it exciting in the third quarter.”
The Commodores regrouped with two big gains on direct snaps to running backs early in the fourth quarter. Jerron Seymour ran for 38 yards to the Houston 34. Kimbrow’s touchdown run gave the lead back to Vanderbilt.
Jahmel McIntosh’s interception less than a minute later gave the ball back to Vanderbilt, setting up Carey Spear’s 35-yard field goal.
Seymour added a 2-yard scoring run with less than 2 minutes remaining.
“We turned it around and caught up, but it didn’t end the way we wanted it to,” Houston linebacker Steve Taylor said.
Matthews, a senior who set Southeastern Conference records for career catches and yards receiving, had five catches for 143 yards and two touchdowns and was selected the game MVP.
Robinette completed only one pass to another receiver — for 11 yards to Jonathan Krause. Robinette completed 6 of 17 passes for 154 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Seymour had 14 carries for 46 yards.
O’Korn completed 16 of 31 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns. Daniel Spencer had three carries for 69 yards for Houston and Ambles had six catches for 105 yards and a touchdown.
Matthews took advantage of a lead block by Krause to make his first touchdown catch.
A forced fumble by linebacker Chase Garnham set up the Commodores’ second touchdown. After Houston’s O’Korn threw a pass to Greg Ward Jr., a big hit by Garnham forced the fumbled recovered by Andrew Williamson at the Houston 16. Robinette, making his third career start, scored on an 8-yard keeper on fourth down.
No Houston defender was near Matthews on his second 50-yard scoring catch in the second quarter. It capped a dominant first half for the Commodores.
“We started off slow,” Houston coach Tony Levine said. “Depending on how you look at it, they started off fast. They certainly controlled the line of scrimmage, specifically when we had the football.”
Levine said he told his players at halftime they could make up the 24-point deficit quickly.
“We talked at halftime and said they scored 24 and we scored zero and that’s what we could do in the third quarter,” Levine said. “Lo and behold, after those 15 minutes, it was all tied up.”
A lost fumble by Robinette set up Farrow’s 6-yard touchdown run to start Houston’s third-quarter comeback.
Houston built on the momentum. Spencer’s 62-yard run set up O’Korn’s 6-yard touchdown pass to Ambles. O’Korn’s 58-yard pass to Ambles set up a 30-yard field goal by Kyle Bullard. The Cougars completed their big third-quarter comeback on O’Korn’s 67-yard touchdown pass to Greenberry to tie it.