Traveling to follow this team is not for the faint of heart or stomach. The bandwagon has been clearing for some time now, but even in a good year, back to back road trips challenge the most diehard of fans. Consecutive trips to Auburn and Dallas, separated by a mere work week, total more than 2,000 miles round trip from Fayetteville.
Tusk to Tail manages to press on, regardless.
Someone has to be the guy behind the camera, so the first photo of our modest tailgate was just two dudes, one chair, and a cooler. Call it “Portrait of Razorback Depression, 7:35 a.m.”
Soon the party had more than doubled, reaching maximum capacity at five good friends, a couple of guests who dropped by, and a much lighter cooler. Just a couple of years ago, we were joined by significantly more company here, including an entire sorority and the opposing quarterback’s dad.
Dale Cullins, Mark Wagner, and our adopted Team Dad Sam Atkinson were among the first in line to enter the Jerry World parking lot before dawn Saturday. Since setup concluded once the chair was unfolded and cooler unzipped, there was little to do besides watching the post-apocalyptic blue glow of satellite televisions coming to life in tailgating tents along the horizon.
Cullins considered it to be a good sign that so many were committed to get their party started this early. Despite the thin ranks of TTT, Cullins estimated about 20,000 Arkansas fans made the trip to AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Don’t call us fair weather fans, though. The boys simply sat in the truck for about half an hour while a band of storms passed through on Saturday.
Blame it on the slim chance of victory or the $10 beers inside, but nobody was exactly hustling into the stadium for the kickoff. The gang was hardly through the turnstiles before the Aggie fans began to hoop and holler and carry on around them.
You can’t make this shit up.
Following a week of Coach Chad Morris talking about how special teams have become a point of focus, it took exactly 12 seconds for Jashaun Corbin to return the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. It was the third special teams touchdown Arkansas has given up in the past three games. At least they had the decency to get it out of the way early this week.
It feels like the Razorbacks and their fans are stuck in football Groundhog Day. The same things keep happening week after week. Tusk to Tail throws a successful party, everyone gets his game face on, and then we go inside to watch the Hogs fall short yet again. Saturday’s special teams slip-up ended up being the difference in the 24-17 loss.
Watching the game on television for the first time this season, it appeared even more evident that this team needs help. The Arkansas offensive line, particularly the left side, has had difficulty protecting the quarterback and opening holes for the run. While running back Rakeem Boyd was able to move the ball effectively at times, he and TJ Hammonds were often trapped behind the line of scrimmage with nowhere to run. Ty Storey’s pocket frequently caved in like an avalanche.
During a dreadful first quarter where the Hogs earned -3 yards (yes, that is negative three), I began to flip the channel to other games, including one where our next opponent, No. 1 Alabama, was dismantling Louisiana-Lafayette 56-14. My wife said she was having a hard time telling which game was which. In both games, the team in darker jerseys was absolutely dominating the team wearing white.
Alabama was a 48-point favorite over the Sunbelt Conference’s Ragin’ Cajuns. Their dominance was no surprise. But more parity should be expected between Arkansas and A&M. Both schools have new coaches, though Jimbo Fisher won a national championship at Florida State before being lured to College Station by a 10-year, $75 million guaranteed contract. Both teams now play in the SEC after decades of facing off in the old Southwest Conference. Arkansas leads the series 41-31-3, but the Aggies are riding a 7-game winning streak.
Arkansas got things turned around after the slow start, but it was not enough to secure the upset. In the end, penalties, a costly interception, and allowing the kickoff return were enough to do the Hogs in.
Nonetheless, we saw progress on the field for the second straight week. There were things Morris can build upon. Despite allowing the kickoff return touchdown and then foolishly attempting our own return from deep in our own end zone that resulted in pitiful field position, the Razorbacks’ special teams play was actually improved, particularly on punt coverage.
Two former Fayetteville High School standouts were difference makers for Arkansas on Saturday. Talented but troubled tight end Cheyenne O’Grady caught three passes for 77 yards while linebacker Dre Greenlaw had two key interceptions. Greenlaw’s 13 tackles were second only to fellow linebacker Scoota Harris’s 16. The Hogs defense stood strong when needed, most notably in the red zone. The Aggies had three consecutive trips within the Arkansas 20 that resulted in zero points.
At 3-2, Fisher is one of the more successful coaches at a new program this year. Chip Kelly at UCLA and Nebraska’s Scott Frost are both winless. Florida State’s Willie Taggart is struggling to meet the Seminoles’ high expectations. Morris and his defensive coordinator John Chavis have the Hogs playing hard, but the wins have not followed thus far.
Don’t expect that to change this week as the top-ranked Crimson Tide come to town. But after Bama, the Hogs enter a slightly easier home stretch, playing Ole Miss in Little Rock, then back to back games against Tulsa and Vanderbilt in Fayetteville.
It seems evident that Morris will have to recruit his way out of this mess, meaning tangible change could realistically take about 3-5 years. Based on this weekend’s road trip attendance, I am skeptical that Hog fans will be patient enough to wait.
Editor’s note: Welcome to the seventh 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. Tusk to Tail is managed by Talk Business & Politics and sponsored by the River Valley Smile Center … because it’s another dang rebuilding year and you’re gonna need a good smile to get through the season. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter and Instagram, all @TuskToTail.