Tusk to Tail: 18 holes of tailgating heaven, 60 minutes of football hell

For the Arkansas fans basking in the cool autumn sunlight on Little Rock’s War Memorial golf course Saturday, life seemed pretty good. Generators hummed, smokers smoked meat and other tasty treats, and cocktails flowed stronger than the creek that meanders around the pond. It was a tailgater’s paradise, a little slice of heaven under every pop-up tent.

The game could be one of the final trips to the capital city in Razorback football history, as the one-crappy-game-a-year contract only runs through 2018. Following this year’s game, the course was hosting a free concert by celebrity yokel Brad Paisley, so the lawn was literally rocking from the early, early morn until the break of, break of dawn.

But tailgating heaven led to football hell. This year’s crappy opponent, the Toledo Mudhens or whatever, played the role of spoiler for the first time since the last time the Hogs got embarrassed by a school from a town you never want to visit, in the same exact place and time in the 2012 season. For the nearly 50,000 fans who could manage to go three hours without drinking,18 holes of party fell to 60 minutes of pigskin frustration.

The Tusk to Tailgate was chugging right along when I got there at 10 a.m. Ten is relatively late for an afternoon game, keeping my streak intact for arriving after the tailgate had already been set up. Sixteen cases of beer, courtesy of Little Rock’s Lost Forty Brewing, chilled and filled cups and coozies all day. Lost Forty Bare Bones Pilsner and Love Honey Bock seemed most popular among our guests. I preferred their pale ales, Imperial or otherwise, enough to eschew my usual regimen of Firefly Sweet Tea vodka.

Jamey Johnson smoked and shredded six large trays of pork butt, and a few more pounds of beef brisket because why the hell not. The delicacies were warmed on his son Jordan’s PK aluminum grill. Simmering crocks of Buffalo chicken and cheese dips invited a variety of grazing chips. I sampled a cookie from every platter to ensure quality control.

The weather could not have been more perfect. A 79-degree afternoon nestled between stretches of days reaching well into the nineties seemed like a gift from the football gods. As nomadic fans who endured every. single. game. of Arkansas’s recent 17-game losing skid in person, Tusk to Tail should have known that if something seemed too good to be true, it probably was.

But this ain’t supposed to be John L.’s Razorbacks. This is the 18th best band in all the land, Coach Bielema’s band of Wild Hogs that cannot be tamed by an afternoon practice nor underage drinking penalties. Bielema’s trips to Little Rock are reserved for country concerts and ass-whoopins, and both happened to be on the day’s agenda. But a funny thing happened on the way to the office.

Bielema has been known to be critical of the annual journey to the old grey war relic that never fills up for losses to our Sun Belt and rust belt foes. Perhaps he’s trying to suck up to his boss, Jeff Long, who seems to have no intention of renewing the contract with War Memorial. Of course playing in Fayetteville means sleeping in your own bed with your smoking hot wife a couple of hours after the final whistle rather than getting on a bus with a bunch of sweaty dudes, so I could see the concern.

But suck it up, big fella. His predecessor Smith bilked us for 80 grand the season we stunk it up against Lousiana-Monroe. Bielema is making four and quarter million, and felt confident enough in his team to cancel the standard two-a-day practice schedule.

Sure we are missing last year’s leading rusher Jonathan Williams, and moving Denver Kirkland from guard to tackle has not been any more successful than changing Dan Skipper’s number every time he gets multiple holding penalties. But this is freaking Toledo, and we made them look like Ohio State.

Arkansas football is supposed to be all about running the ball, stopping the run, and not hurting yourself with costly turnovers and penalties. Simply put, the Razorbacks failed at each. 

Running back Alex Collins averaged less than three yards a carry, and backup Kody Walker jammed his thumb in the first half, removing him from the rotation. Freshman Rawleigh Williams only had one catch and one carry, which seems remarkably odd after it was revealed that Collins had been hospitalized for an infection, missing most of the week’s practice as a result.

Toledo’s leading rusher was suspended for this game. So of course backup Damion Jones-Moore looked like Walter Damn Peyton when he ran for an 11-yard touchdown.

Quarterback Brandon Allen spent the summer media tour assuring everyone he was not just a “game manager” quarterback. And I’ll be damned if he hasn’t had career high passing totals each of the past two weeks. But first and goal just can’t end with an INT, especially when penalties and other blunders effectively cost us 21 points. If you’re the band Europe, you love the Final Countdown.If you’re BA, you clang the ball off the goalpost. It’s what you do.

And what was up with special teams? It was good when Skipper recorded his fifth career block of a field goal. It was bad when Cole Hedlund missed one for the Hogs, and a penalty nullified Jared Cornelius’s punt return touchdown. The long snap over punter Toby Baker’s head was just ugly. Thank God Toledo’s two-point conversion attempt failed, or else some Sportscenter moron would be proclaiming them the Oregon Ducks of the rust belt.

“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Mike Tyson’s famous quote is reportedly painted in The Black Room, the hallowed ground of weightlifting for Razorbacks football. There is little denying that our snouts got punched Saturday. How the team will respond remains to be seen.

Last year Missouri was upset by Indiana before winning the SEC East division, and Ohio State’s early season loss to Virginia Tech began the Buckeye’s rally to the championship. Arkansas could still win the West and play for the title. All they have to do is beat Texas A&M, Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and probably Tennessee and Missouri too.

Unfortunately, Saturday’s loss leads me to believe they have as good a shot as a golf ball on the War Memorial course the morning after Saturday’s drunken Festival of Suck.

The Godfather of Tailgating Craig May’s son has been teaching my boy to play, and they thought it would be fun to play through the tailgating detritus Sunday afternoon. Upon his return, my son described the course as “basically a field of broken glass, chicken bones, and cigarette butts.”

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2015 Arkansas Razorbacks!

Now about that contract …