A few hours before kickoff Saturday, the Arkansas tailgating areas were abuzz with energy. As the temperature surged, so did the size of the crowd. An air of anxious optimism had replaced the stages of grief and apathy suffered by loyal fans last year, a season bad enough to result in the terminations of both Athletic Director Jeff Long and head coach Bret Bielema for poor performance.
Tusk to Tail generally throws one of the best tailgate parties in the vaunted SEC, the apex of college football. We have every device, gadget, and accessory a tailgater could ever want. We used to joke that The Joneses had to keep up with us.
That was before our new tailgating neighbor moved next door. Jerry and Stephen Jones, the owner and CEO of the Dallas Cowboys, have set up quite a luxurious spread to enjoy before crossing the street to cheer for their grandson and son, freshman quarterback John Stephen Jones. Nearly everyone these days has a digital entertainment center featuring high def TVs and stereophonic sound. They are probably not the only ones with a commercial sized grill or even a professional chef. But I doubt anyone has their own air conditioned mobile restrooms, complete with running water. For as long as they are there, TTT is back to trying to keep up with the Joneses.
Though lacking an elite opponent, there were plenty of reasons to be excited. The Eastern Illinois game would be the first in Fayetteville since the North End Zone renovation was completed. In addition to nearly 4,000 new seats in the club, loge, and luxury suite levels, the stadium featured a new concourse and a few other cosmetic upgrades throughout. The corner stairwell towers in the south endzone have been painted with an ad for walmart.com, drawing mixed reviews. Some called it tacky, but Greg Houser disagreed.
“As long as they donate that Walmart money, they can paint whatever they want,” said Houser.
It was also the first chance to see new coach Chad Morris in action on The Hill. Morris is renowned for his up-tempo, high scoring style of offense, a sharp contrast to Bielema’s slow-churned play calling.
Saturday’s game would be a chance to see new faces, too. For what seemed like the first time since the Clinton administration, there would be nobody named Dick or Allen taking snaps under center for the Razorbacks. Of course, quarterback has been a fluid position so far under Morris. Sophomore Cole Kelley was named the starter over Junior Ty Storey earlier in the week, but Morris said both would play. The coach mentioned that Freshmen Daulton Hyatt, Connor Noland, and Jones also could see playing time.
As game time approached, anticipation and the temperature continued to rise. However, the heat and lackluster opponent may have kept some fans away. Only 15 minutes before kickoff, it appeared that the $160 million endzone renovation cost may translate to roughly $1 million per fan sitting in the new seats. The section began to fill, along with the rest of the stadium, shortly before kickoff.
Attendance was announced as 63,342 but a Wall Street Journal story plus my own two eyes lead me to believe that’s pure hogwash. According to WSJ reporter Rachel Bachman, “Arkansas’s scanned home attendance was 58% of its announced attendance” last year. By my estimate, the stadium was about 2/3 full for the first half before thousands of fans escaped the heat by leaving at halftime.
It was clear that a new era had begun once the players got off the bus. Whereas Bielema had allowed his players to wear sweat suits and headphones, Morris’s team was strictly business during their first Hog Walk into the locker room. Each player wore a suit and tie, and they all removed their headphones before exiting the bus. It was also refreshing to see a coach with enough sense to not wear a long sleeve windbreaker in the sweltering heat for the first time in five years.
Tusk to Tail has tried to keep expectations low while Morris rebuilds the program from the ground up, but I’m not sure anything could have prepared us for Saturday’s first quarter. Despite key personnel changes across the offensive line, many believed the strength of this team would be the run game.
The Hogs played all five feature running backs against Eastern Illinois. None of them had much success, rushing for a total of 80 yards on 26 carries. Photographer Mark Wagner told us he saw the line opening holes for the backs from his vantage point on the field. However, few of the backs hit those holes decisively, and were generally stymied by defenders lurking in the box.
The passing game met similar results during the early going. Keeping most throws in the box within about five yards from scrimmage made them too easy to defend. Kelley’s most successful first quarter drive resulted in just a field goal from a short field. Granted the Razorbacks weren’t playing the most aggressive game plan, but Eastern Illinois was refusing to allow our hammers in the down position. Our boogie was less than full tilt.
The only thing keeping us in the game was our ballhawk defense, who stripped and recovered five fumbles by Eastern Illinois ball carriers. Defensive lineman Briston Guidry pounced on a loose ball in the endzone to put the Hogs up 10-0 near the end of the first quarter. It felt like Arkansas forced and recovered more fumbles in a single game than the entire Bielema era combined.
But the offense still desperately needed a spark. That spark came during Storey time in the second quarter. Storey threw for 213 of his 261 yards and all three of his touchdowns in the 2nd frame. He added a rushing touchdown later in the 3rd quarter.
Remarkably, none of Storey’s success came by throwing to former leading receivers Jared Cornelius or Jonathan Nance. Their names were conspicuously absent from the box score altogether. Instead, Storey threw most of his bombs to Jordan Jones and La’Michael Pettway. Jones finished the day with 5 receptions for 132 yards and a touchdown. Pettway caught 5 balls for 93 yards and two scores. Jones and Pettway had long receptions of 57 and 48 yards respectively.
As Steve Sullivan pointed out, the trio of Storey, Jones, and Pettway all hail from small towns in Arkansas. Storey is from Charleston, Jones comes from Smackover, and Pettway is a former Nashville Scrapper. They each played a vital role in the Razorbacks’ 55-20 victory Saturday.
In the end, it is difficult to take much insight from a blowout victory over a FCS opponent. It seems unlikely that our young receivers will continue to run wide open past opposing defensive backs, and we will be slaughtered by SEC opponents if we can’t get production from our run game. But I know that being 1-0 sure beats the alternative. Just ask Jeff Long, who is now the AD at Kansas University. His Jayhawks were defeated Saturday by Nicholls from the FCS.
One goal for this season has to be continuous improvement for the Razorbacks, and this week’s opponent allows that opportunity. Tusk to Tail will put the hammer down high up in the mountains before watching the Hogs take on 0-2 Colorado State.
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 — @TuskToTail