Tusk to Tail: 1.5 million reasons for the ‘seething’ disappointment
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“Do you remember the 21st night of September?
Love was changing the mind of pretenders
while chasing the clouds away.”
– “September,” by Earth, Wind & Fire
Saturday night’s 31-24 loss to San Jose State was a generational gut punch to Arkansas fans, ranking alongside 1991’s agonizing defeat by The Citadel and far worse than 2012’s collapse against Louisiana-Monroe.
Two of those losses, and oh so many more, have occurred during our program’s current post-Petrino slide. There is little denying that this has been the worst 7-year stretch in program history.
And yet up until kickoff, things seemed pretty good. Tusk to Tail thought we had found our quarterback. I loathe the term “fake news,” but we personally used four different puns and nicknames to anoint quarterback Nick Starkel our savior last week. We might have jumped the gun a little bit.
Razorback Nation was all too willing to buy in. The hottest piece of merch in the Hog Trough student section was not officially licensed by the NCAA or Nike. It was a black Justin Bieber tee shirt, mimicking the one worn by “Starkansas” beneath his pads and jersey. Following his staggering 5-interception performance, Starkel tweeted that he had torn the shirt in half and thrown it in the garbage. There was no report whether that throw was intercepted too.
Arkansas paid San Jose State $1.5 million, by far the biggest payout for a loss by any team this season. The Spartans were a 3-touchdown underdog, but took command right out of the gate. Quarterback Josh Love threw a 60-yard completion on the first play, leading to a 3-yard touchdown pass a couple of minutes later. Arkansas responded to the Spartans’ unexpected offensive acumen with a wet fart, punting three plays and five yards later.
For the second straight week, some lower tier Mountain West conference team was beating the Hogs before I had even finished my last cocktail, poured in a red plastic to-go cup to be enjoyed on the walk to the stadium. I try not to miss a play of conference games or other marquee matchups, but just didn’t feel motivated to be seated before kickoff against the likes of Colorado State and San Jose State. Two and ten can do that to a man.
Besides, up until kickoff, it had been as fulfilling of a game day as I could recall in some time. We’re all still seething over the embarrassing loss, but flash back to before the game started Saturday, the 21st night of September. It was the last day of summer or the first day of fall (I’ve been known to confuse a solstice for an equinox), and somehow felt like both. A cool morning had given way to hot sunshine, but remained mostly tolerable thanks to a strong, swirling breeze.
The HogTown street festival had once again significantly improved from the week before. The midway was widened, and loud generators were replaced by a quieter shared power source. The band DialUp played a remarkably fun set, reminding us that not all 90s music sucked, but some of it sure did.
Associate Athletic Director Elvis Moya, the hardest working man in HogTown, deserves a heaping helping of credit for the fest’s success. On my way to the stadium, I walked past Elvis leaning on a golf cart, eating from a styrofoam food truck box. He confirmed it was the first bit of sustenance he’d had since the party started nearly half a day before.
It was Parent’s Weekend on The Hill, which surely bolstered attendance against an otherwise lackluster opponent. The Tusk to Tailgate kept growing larger as our friends and family welcomed their friends and their families.
A large crowd can obviously wipe out our food and liquor supply pretty quickly, but Chef Brad’s amazing street tacos somehow fed the masses like so many loaves and fishes. The bar was finally drained as most of our crew reconvened under the Big Top once Starkel’s interceptions began to pile up. By the time he’d heaved his fifth and final arm punt, there was little left in the coolers besides a couple of random flavored cans of White Claw.
The family reunion nature of Parent’s Weekend carried over throughout the tailgate. I may have seen more Pi Phi Dad polos than Razorbacks gear. I saw several people taking small children to see their first Arkansas football game. I’m sure it seemed like a great idea at the time, but that may not have been the game to spring forth a new generation of fans. Therapy may be required for some children traumatized by Saturday’s events. They could point to the place on the doll where the Razorbacks hurt them.
When I look back on Saturday, there were two distinctly different events. There was the tailgate and HogTown festival all afternoon, and then the game that night. Throughout the day, I visited with family and friends I have known my entire life. Some old traditions changed a bit, like when my son, who’s been going to games with me since he was a toddler, asked if he could bring his girlfriend. Other traditions began anew, as friends took their own children to see their first game. Everywhere I looked, people seemed to really be enjoying themselves. That is in part due to the efforts of the University athletic department.
That night at the game, the only one smiling besides the 17 Spartans fans in attendance was the Bud Light distributor. Each vendor throughout the stadium concourse had a long line of folks willing to fork over eight or nine bucks for a beer. While I get the desire to drown one’s sorrows, that’s just a dollar or two cheaper than crack.
The rest of the crowd seemed pretty miserable. “Bring back the baseball team,” shouted a nearby fan following one of Starkel’s infamous picks. The applause for the baseball team and Coach Dave Van Horn during a timeout introduction certainly exceeded anything the football Hogs earned on Saturday. The Diamond Hogs had played a well-attended exhibition game against the University of Oklahoma Friday night. Forrest attended the scrimmage and was impressed by the showing.
“I proudly support all winning Razorbacks sports programs,” he said before skipping the football game to watch it on TV back at the tailgate.
There are winning programs all across campus, highlighted by the women’s soccer team upsetting top ranked North Carolina last week. Football, on the other hand, has quite a long way to go. This team has no idea how to win. As Turnt Wooldridge tweeted, the Hogs were unable to focus on beating a crappy Mountain West school because they were celebrating a comeback win over another crappy Mountain West school. That may be the most Arkansas thing ever.
When casting blame for Saturday’s loss, only so much should be placed on Starkel’s or any other player’s shoulders. That loss was all about coaching, as the Razorbacks had much more talented players than SJSU across the board.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but coaching performance is also the responsibility of the University athletic department. If the current staff cannot raise the level of game day satisfaction to be consistent with that for pre-game entertainment, improvements will have to be made.
On to Texas A&M.
Editor’s note: Now in its eighth year, Tusk to Tail is 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. The primary focus of Tusk to Tail will be to follow the Hogs through the fans’ perspective with their insightful, irreverent, smart-alecky and sometimes practical style. Tusk to Tail sponsors are the Arkansas Lottery Scholarship program and Turn Key Construction Management. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter and Instagram, all @TuskToTail.