“This place is a football graveyard,” Craig May reported from Oxford right before kickoff. It was a fitting epitaph for Halloween weekend. You can’t blame the godfather of tailgating for being cynical. Nothing tells a fan base that their favorite team sucks like being sentenced to the early TV game.
Eleven a.m. is a slap in the face to the tailgate mecca called The Grove. Eleven a.m. mocks the drama that this mini-rivalry has always been. Eleven a.m. is freaking cold, man.
In one corner, sporting mascots of the Rebel, Bear, and Land Shark species, slouched Ole Miss. In an attempt to one-up the “SEC Coach in the Hot Seat” meme, these kids don’t even have a coach right now. It’s like Lord of the Flies, punched up with subplots involving paid players, escort services, and Houston Nutt phone record subpoenas. At least Ole Miss has an excuse to suck. The BearShark’s scandal had some of our gang waxing nostalgic.
“They flew too close to the sun,” the text replied, recalling the Hogs’ recent glory days that were also derailed by sex and money.
No wonder we have to play at 11 a.m. Isn’t that when the soap operas start?
Across the field limped Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks, beleaguered both by opponents and fans for the better part of the past year. Each of the seven consecutive Power 5 losses dating back to last season seemed a bit more excruciating than the last. As Auburn ran away with the game in the 3rd quarter last week, it felt like the players wished they could join the thousands of fans draining out of the stadium early.
The SEC boasts some of the fastest, most skilled athletes in the world. Each week our defense has a front row ticket to watch them run by, sometimes even chasing behind them in support.
“You are witnessing the death of a coaching staff,” May continued after the first long Ole Miss touchdown, exactly two plays into the game.
Thirty seconds had expired. A touchdown had been scored. Half a bottle of vodka was not going to be enough. And things would get worse before they got better.
Ole Miss zigged and zagged for 31 first half points. A four play scoring drive was considered “sustained” for the Rebel Sharks. The Hogs managed only one score of their own during this time, looking like a slow car in the fast lane for most of the half.
You could see, if not feel, the Razorbacks’ desperation early on. You never want your football team to be called cute. Calling an escort service may lead to a coach getting fired, but “trying to get cute” is still the most foul curse ever tossed around the gridiron.
Our offensive linemen sprinted out wide into a goofy cluster formation that fooled no one on the opening drive. Tackle for loss. QB Cole Kelley failed to convert a short 4th down in the second half after pretending to fumble the ball. The attempted deception wasted an opportunity for the mammoth Kelley to stretch past the marker.
But it also begs the question: Why are we practicing to appear that we are fumbling the ball? Couldn’t that time be better spent elsewhere ? I think we’ve got the appearance of ineptitude down pat, Coach.
The simple truth is neither of these teams is built to win. Ole Miss still has some stud athletes, but no one has anything to play for besides future individual success. That does not bode well in a team sport. It is not surprising to see the players drop the rope in the face of adversity. Arkansas did it like clockwork during John L. Smith’s lone season as coach.
But of all the things you could accuse Bielema for this season, losing the locker room is not one of them. In the face of adversity, leaders emerge. The seniors, the team captains, someone has to make a play. Saturday in Oxford, those leaders emerged from the defense.
Touting a unit that had allowed big play after big play en route to a 31-7 first half deficit highlights the absurdity of the comeback.
The fumble forced and recovered by defensive captain Santos Ramirez got things turned around. The resulting touchdown drive broke the Hogs’ 20 minute scoring drought, and a 54-yard interception return by senior safety Josh Lidell set up another touchdown right before the half.
Arkansas had all the momentum. The Hogs would get the ball to start the second half, now down only 31-21. But the second half hasn’t exactly been our thing. In addition to the two infamous choke jobs to end last season, there was that one “how does that even happen” stat. Bielema was 0-18 when trailing at halftime. Bielema is now 1-18 when trailing at halftime.
Thank god for Mississippi.
When the Land Sharks had their rear dorsal fin to our throats, they bit the line again. Without defensive captain Kevin Richardson’s fumble recovery for a touchdown, the Hogs don’t win that game. The play was exciting. Craig’s brother Chris said it felt like the Hogs’ first scoop and score since the Hatfield era. But it was an unforced error, a dropped ball that nobody could be bothered to pick up.
“What the hell was that,” screamed the Godfather at the Ole Miss fan sitting next to him. May had been commiserating the “football graveyard” with him all afternoon.
“We’re about to fire this guy, and you’re just going to give us THAT?”
It was all in jest.
“It always feels good to come home with a win,” concluded May as he pulled into his driveway 30 hours after the adventure began.
Arkansas ended up taking the lead, thanks to our kicker of all people, with four seconds left in the game. It was the only four seconds the Hogs led an opponent during the entire month of October.
Next up is the Fightin’ Chanticleers of Coastal Carolina, a homecoming matchup so highly anticipated, you can literally buy tickets on the internet cheaper than you can buy toilet paper.
But you just know this soon-to-be two game winning streak will be referenced when it’s time to renew season tickets. And when Athletic Director Jeff Long finally addresses Bielema’s contract, guaranteed topics will include overcoming key injuries and progress made late in the season, especially if Arkansas beats a weak Missouri team in the home finale.
Heading into Halloween, it may be hard to put much stock in beating the headless land sharks or Chanticleers. But this was noted to be the biggest comeback in Razorbacks history, by a group that was all but written off as dead.
This team isn’t lacking heart, so don’t dig Bielema’s grave just yet.
Editor’s note: Welcome to the sixth season of Tusk to Tail – the sport of tailgating as organized, performed and perfected by a group of Hog fans who have been tailgating together sober and otherwise for more than a decade. Members of the Tusk to Tail Team are Sean Casey, Jack Clark, Dale Cullins, Greg Houser, Craig May, David Rice and Mark Wagner. Tusk to Tail is managed by Talk Business & Politics against the advice of attorneys and family. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter — @TuskToTail