BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Houston lost the bowl game but found a new wide receiver to watch.
Markeith Ambles had a touchdown catch as Houston rallied to pull even after trailing by 24 points, but the Cougars couldn’t keep pace and Vanderbilt controlled the fourth quarter for a 41-24 victory today in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Ambles, a former top high school recruit who began his career at Southern California, had six catches for 105 yards, including a 6-yard touchdown catch.
Houston coach Tony Levine said he anticipated Ambles’ breakout game after the junior had only 11 catches in nine regular-season games. He joined the program late in preseason practice and made his debut the third week of the season.
“We’ve been talking about him,” Levine said. “The 35 days in between our last game and this game, that’s where you have that kind of development.
“We talked to the staff and Markeith about how he has improved really in the last six weeks or so. ... I think he’s in shape now and has a great understanding of what we’re trying to do offensively and felt he’d have a chance to have a breakout game today.”
Houston (8-5) gained only 22 yards and had one first down in the first half but tied the game with 24 points in the third quarter. Kenneth Farrow had a 6-yard scoring run and John O’Korn threw scoring passes to and Deontay Greenberry and Ambles.
“We turned it around and caught up, but it didn’t end the way we wanted it to,” Houston linebacker Steve Taylor said.
O’Korn completed 16 of 31 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions. Daniel Spencer had three carries for 69 yards.
Vanderbilt’s Patton Robinette threw two 50-yard touchdown passes to Jordan Matthews. 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’s big 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.
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.
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. O’Korn’s 67-yard touchdown pass to Greenberry tied the game.
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 named the game’s 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.
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.