Tusk to Tail: But this year, they were Fireballs of joy

Although Thanksgiving weekend marks the end of the college football season, Tusk to Tail is usually not feeling too thankful by the final game. The Hogs had not beaten Missouri for the Battle Line trophy since 2015, and had not qualified for a bowl game since the infamous second half collapse at the 2016 Belk Bowl.

It is not uncommon for a fired Arkansas coach to be cleaning out his office while our tailgate pours the last drops of liquor from our officially licensed Arkansas Razorbacks bar.

Friday in Fayetteville was different, an ideal autumn afternoon consumed by joy and giving thanks. A big part of what we were celebrating was printed succinctly on Missy’s sweatshirt: “Pittman, Musselman, and Van Horn.” Razorbacks’ football, men’s basketball, and baseball have renewed the faith and passion of Hog fans once again, but the list does not end with these three kings of revenue sports. Nearly every program on The Hill, from softball to soccer with a whole lot of track and field in between, has reached new heights since Athletic Director Hunter Yurachek took the helm.

Despite a major accident blocking gameday traffic into town, turnout for Friday’s festivities was respectable, especially considering that the campus was closed for the holiday. The bigtop tents throughout Victory Village began filling up as Utrasuede gutted out their first set of party covers at 11 a.m.

One of the Hogtown booths beside us offered free face painting, pins, and stickers, including one that said “Let’s go Razorbacks!” I was confused. Does “let’s go” mean let’s go again? All season long, I have heard thousands of fans throughout the SEC chanting “Let’s go, Brandon.” They did not mean let’s go.

Another nearby vendor served Impossible chicken nuggets, offering all the joy of processed meat, but made entirely from plants.

“If I order chicken, the last thing I want is some broccoli or whatever,” Forrest explained. “This is why I have trust issues.”

We served Irish coffee and hot honeycrisp apple cider mixed with Fireball to fight the morning chill. Kara poured rounds of boozy chocolate chip cookie dough shooters into edible shot glasses. They must have been good. Everyone who had one shot came back for at least one more.

One bad thing about playing on Friday is the lack of quality football games to watch at the tailgate. CBS forced #22 San Diego State to kick off at 9 a.m. local time just to fill the airwaves. Personally, I preferred the preceding episode of The Price is Right to the Mountain West matchup. I felt more deeply invested watching Jessica win a Turks & Caicos trip for four in the showcase showdown than seeing if the Aztecs will play in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.

Of course you can’t talk Mountain West football without bringing up former Arkansas (via Texas A&M) QB Nick Starkel, who finished a lengthy career at San Jose State on Thursday. The graduate transfer’s run at college was extended by two trips through the transfer portal plus an extra season of eligibility granted due to COVID-19. San Jose could have probably offered Starkel tenure in addition to graduation.

Another recent Razorback defector, quarterback Cole Kelly, was also able to wash away the stink of Chad Morris by transferring to Southeastern Louisiana. Kelly is re-writing the Lion’s record book as they advance through the FCS playoffs. Meanwhile Morris continues to underwhelm at Allen, Texas, High School, who lost two games this season for the first time in ages. As contributors to Morris’s obscene buyout from Arkansas, TTT hopes the beleaguered coach is assigned permanent lunchroom duty in Allen.

Thanks to Coach Sam Pittman, most of Razorback Nation seems to have turned the page from the Morris debacle. Friday’s Senior Day festivities honored a group of young men, many who were recruited by Morris or his predecessor Bret Bielema. None of them had experienced much success at Arkansas until Yurachek hired Pittman as the 34th coach of the Razorbacks. Morris is the only full-time coach to have left Arkansas without a single conference win.

Hiring Pittman was a gamble, necessitated by very few other candidates having interest in the job. Missouri coach Eli Drikwitz reportedly rejected the Razorbacks’ overtures by calling the Arkansas job “career suicide” for an up-and-coming coach. Pittman had years of SEC experience as a well-respected offensive line coach at Tennessee, Arkansas, and Georgia, but had zero head coaching experience at a four-year university.

In just two seasons, Pittman has made an immeasurable difference at Arkansas. He believes in his players, and they believe in him. For the first time in years, everyone involved with the Arkansas program seems to want to be here. The pregame analysts pointed out how becoming the head coaching job has been for Pittman. In a profession known to age men faster than picking the wrong grail, Pittman sauntered off the bus Friday looking more trim and tan than he was for the season opener nearly three months ago.

The rest of the team wasn’t looking as fit, at least in the first half. The Razorbacks came out flat, perhaps suffering the dreaded Bama hangover from playing the Crimson Tide last week. Once known to have one of the worst run defenses in the conference, if not the country, Mizzou kept a pretty tight box around the line of scrimmage all day. Even when the Hogs could break free, as KJ Jefferson did on a 49-yard run in the first quarter, they seemed to shoot themselves in the foot. Another untimely false start, followed by a sack of Jefferson forced Arkansas to settle for a 36-yard Cam Little field goal on their first possession.

Heading into halftime with just a 10-6 lead, Pittman seemed to get his team’s attention. A series of big plays led to four consecutive Arkansas scoring drives in the second half. The performance by several senior Hogs contributed to the redemption story. Running back Trelon Smith started the second half scoring binge. Receiver De’vion Warren filled the box score with a 32-yard run, a 55-yard reception, and a long incomplete pass to KJ Jefferson for good measure. On defense, Hayden Henry was all over the field, and Mo Brown snagged his fifth interception of the season to tie for the SEC lead.

Though not a senior, receiver Treylon Burks had another dominant performance Friday. Burks grabbed 7 receptions for 129 yards, including a 52-yard touchdown. His option pitch to Rocket Sanders scored the Hogs’ final TD. Burks became the 4th Razorback receiver to surpass 1,000 yards in a season, and this was his 6th 100-yard receiving game, an Arkansas single season record. Burks is expected to forego his senior season to enter the NFL draft.

It was more than enough to dispatch the one-trick pony Tigers, who were riding running back Tyler Badie to the tune of 41 carries. Badie scored an otherwise meaningless touchdown late in the 4th quarter for the final 34-17 Arkansas margin.

Pittman’s 8th win this season kicks his salary up to $3.75 million per year. As the coaching carousel gets underway, that price suddenly seems like the deal of the century. The Hogs went 3-0 in trophy games this season after not collecting a single prize in the previous five years.

Back at the big top, Tusk to Tail was feeling giddy and grateful for Pittman and the boys. For the first time in years, we end the season feeling thankful to be Hog fans. Trips to New Year’s bowl games in Florida, once considered about as likely as a Mars expedition, have begun being planned in earnest.

Let’s go, Razorbacks.

Editor’s note: Now in its 10th 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. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter and Instagram, all @TuskToTail.

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