Tusk to Tail: Hoping for a bright future through the rain and another fourth-quarter choke

by David Rice ([email protected]) 1,032 views 

When it rains, it pours. Obviously, you could say that about this past weekend’s weather, but it applies to the Razorbacks football team (1-6) itself.

More than 51,000 waterlogged Hog fans at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium watched their team blow another 4th quarter lead Saturday. It was the 7th time in the past 21 games that Arkansas was up by 14 points or more, but choked in the final frame.

Maybe the rainy day was meant to be a sign. As we huddled under our tailgating tent to watch other games on TV, it was noted that Arkansas seemed to be the only place in the country experiencing bad weather. Nearby Memphis, hosting the undefeated University of Central Florida, looked to be overcast but dry. South Carolina was sunny and hot, despite its place along the path of the remnants of Hurricane Michael. It looked downright pleasant in typically dreary Midwest locales such as Michigan and Ohio State.

Things had been trending upward for the Razorbacks all week. On Thursday, Little Rock Pulaski Academy tight end Hudson Henry committed to play for Coach Chad Morris. Henry is considered to be the state’s overall best player, and the finest in the nation at his position. He is the seventh four-star commitment in the incoming class of 2019.

Later that day, it was announced that former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant had scheduled an official visit to Arkansas for this coming weekend’s game against Tulsa. Bryant had also been rated as a four-star recruit, and has valuable experience leading the Tigers to the College Football Playoffs. There are many who believe Bryant could start for the Razorbacks and immediately make the offense better.

Fans were also abuzz over last week’s announcement of a non-conference series to be played against Oklahoma State. The Hogs face the Cowboys in Stillwater, Okla., in 2024, and will then host the Pokes in Fayetteville in 2027. The future surely looks bright for Arkansas football. In the meantime, there was still a game to be played in the capital city.

Viewpoints vary wildly on playing games at War Memorial Stadium. Compared to the freshly renovated digs on The Hill, Little Rock’s grand grey lady is a dump. The aging locker rooms and facilities are better suited for high school sports and children’s birthday parties, both of which help pay the bills when the Hogs aren’t in town.

Few teams still play their home games in an auxiliary stadium. As such, the previous regime of Athletic Director Jeff Long and Coach Bret Bielema treated the trip to Little Rock as if it were an away game. They seemed intent on deterring fans from showing up. Long scheduled second-rate FCS opponents such as Samford and Florida A&M there, and even attempted to tack a mandatory donation to the Razorback Foundation onto the ticket price.

Bad games rarely earn prime time programming, so the lackluster matchups were often played early in the day. Attendance, as well as the Razorbacks’ performance, began to drop accordingly. Having your ass handed to you by SEC foes Georgia and Ole Miss was bad enough, but losses to Louisiana-Monroe and Toledo may have contributed to the old administration getting kicked to the curb.

A wound had been festering within our state since the Great Stadium Debate began with a previous renovation to Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium before the turn of the century. New AD Hunter Yurachek attempted to heal that wound by granting the 2018 Ole Miss game to Little Rock, as well as future games against Missouri beginning in 2019. Wildly applauded by the fans from Central Arkansas, sending these games to War Memorial was a savvy business move. This past weekend was Fall Break at the University of Arkansas, and the Missouri game is played on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The campus would be deserted for both.

The Rebels rivalry has produced great theater over the years. Matt Jones came of age in seven overtimes, and the “Hunter Heave” converted 4th and 25 in Oxford. Last year’s come-from-behind victory was our only conference win. The series has had more drama than the Lifetime Movie Network.

Accordingly, Saturday’s game against Ole Miss was deemed to be ready for prime time, a rarity when a team is struggling like the Hogs. It would be the team’s first home game after dark this year. Perhaps more notably, it was the first Saturday night game in Little Rock since 2013, the first SEC night game there since 2003, and the first conference game played under War Memorial’s Saturday night lights since 1999.

The golf course next to the stadium is both famous and infamous for tailgating. Rain or shine, having all day to eat and drink before an SEC Saturday night matchup meant we were going to party like it’s 1999.

The Tusk to Tailgaters could sense the air of throwback traditionalism while walking the War Memorial golf course Saturday morning. Meat sizzled on charcoal grills while classic playlists blasted Bocephus and Billy Squier, Tupac and Talking Heads. One tailgate was held under a simple giant tarp suspended by poles, while another revolved around an 80’s model red  Econoline van called “the Beast.”

“I traded one of those in several years ago for next to nothing,” Sam Atkinson told me as we watched the revelers climb on top of the van. “Had I known I could bring it out here and throw a party, I might have kept it.”

The hard cold rain could not extinguish the expansive celebration. Some co-eds seemed ill prepared for the foul conditions, slogging to their tents wearing little more than a miniskirt, boots, and a smile. Other men wore rain suits better suited for trapping lobsters in the Bering Sea.

We moved the chairs from our tent to accommodate more guests. Our gathering soon became a mangled mass of elbows and assholes. I sent a short video of the conditions to our friends who had the sense to stay home. They compared our tailgate to an over-crowded prison. Atkinson reminded us that it had snowed the last time Morris and Hogs played in Little Rock during the Red-White scrimmage in April. Though less than three hours from campus, the Central Arkansas weather may seem like the South Pole to Coach.

Would the foul weather affect attendance? Could 70,000 come out to tailgate while only 10,000 went in to see the game?  How long would the fans tolerate the miserable conditions? The Fayetteville stands had emptied early in blowout losses to North Texas and Alabama, and the weather had been much more pleasant than this.

As it turns out, Saturday’s attendance was one of the few bright spots of the evening. The Razorbacks’ offense performed admirably. Quarterback Ty Storey and running backs Rakeem Boyd and Devwah Whaley combined to gain 368 of the Hogs’ 476 total yards. But one by one, they were knocked out of the game by chippy Ole Miss defenders and the old stadium’s hard unforgiving field. Kicker Connor Limpert split the uprights on every attempt, but it wasn’t enough to hang on for a victory.

The Hogs were eviscerated by a second native Hawaiian quarterback in as many weeks, as Jordan Ta’amu threw and ran for a combined 528 yards and three touchdowns. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa had gained roughly half a mile on Arkansas last week before being sent to the showers early in the third quarter of their impressive win.

In each of the past few losses, the Razorbacks had given fans hope for the future in some part of the game. They had almost accrued enough moral victories to become bowl eligible. Good news from the recruiting trail continues to fuel that hope.

But as Bane says in The Dark Knight Rises, “There can be no true despair without hope.”

It’s hard to find a moral victory after watching the Hogs spit the bit again in this season’s six straight loss. Perhaps it’s time to stew on that until key areas such as poor tackling and team speed are addressed.
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.