Athletes love to toss out the word "grind" when describing trudging through the longevity of a season.
Historically for Vanderbilt's football team, when the calendar turns to November things come to a grinding halt.
These Commodores (7-4) have a chance for the rare November sweep when they travel to Wake Forest (5-6) for the regular-season finale on Saturday (2:30 p.m., ESPNU). They’ve won all three games this month, contributing to a five-game winning streak. Vanderbilt last won all its games in November in 1982.
“I think really the result of this November has been us gelling,” quarterback Jordan Rodgers said. “Last year was the first year in [coach James Franklin’s] system. We showed signs of getting better as the season went on. But this year we’re playing better and better and better as the year goes on, as we’re more experienced in this offense, with the defense. We’re playing with more confidence and you kind of get on a roll.”
In the last 30 years, wins in the 11th month have been few and far between. Before Franklin arrived prior to the 2011 season, the Commodores' November record over the previous 10 years was 3-32.
Adding to the late season woes were mounting injuries to a program that has battled depth issues. Come October and November, too many linemen and running backs leaned on crutches, donned casts or wore orthopedic boots.
This fall has been one of the healthiest seasons in recent memory. Of the 22 offensive and defensive players who started the opener, only center Spencer Pulley remains out with an undisclosed injury. Running back Zac Stacy suffered ankle and knee injuries in the last month but has not missed a game.
“I think the part of it is the way we practice,” said Franklin, who cuts back full tackling in practice this late in the season. “I think part of it is the way we substitute in games. I think it is just the overall chemistry in the program and how we do things. It is not drudgery coming out here. Guys have fun. We try to find ways to mix it up in practice and keep everybody involved ... and not just come out here and bang them and grind on them for 22 periods every single day.”
With a healthy, well-conditioned roster, a 13-week season (with a bye) doesn’t seem as daunting as maybe it used to.
Of course, as Franklin pointed out, winning cures all. Only nine times in the last 30 years have the Commodores entered the regular-season finale with a chance to clinch bowl eligibility.
This year, they wrapped up a bowl bid in the second week of November. If they win on Saturday, it will mark just the third time — and second consecutive season — since 1982 that they’ve ended the regular season with a win.
“Saturdays never get old. Saturdays are never a grind,” Rodgers said. “That’s what we play for. That is what we practice for. That is what we work for all year. Saturdays are never a grind but the weeks keep getting longer as the season goes on. Your body is breaking down a little bit. The end of the season gets longer. But we’ve found a way to be healthy this November and we’re playing with confidence.”
• Thanksgiving plans: For the second straight year, after a morning practice, Vanderbilt players will head over to their position coach’s house for Thanksgiving.
In the case of “bachelor” defensive line coach Sean Spencer, the parents of defensive end Walker May will come up from Birmingham, Ala., to help prepare the meal.
“If not it would probably be Swett’s to go,” Franklin said.
Parents of local products also open up their doors as does Franklin “for anybody that needs a place to go.”
“I think it is important to be in a house on Thanksgiving,” he said.
• Wake Forest connection: First-year wide receivers coach Josh Gattis heads back to his alma mater this weekend. Gattis was a three-year starter and two-time All-SEC safety at Wake Forest from 2003-06. He ranks fifth all-time in school history with 12 interceptions.