Arkansas QB KJ Jefferson dives for a touchdown against Ole Miss on Oct. 9. (photo by Mark Wagner for Talk Business & Politics)

Tusk to Tail: Dealing with a bad bounce in the ‘Bounceback Bowl’

Whenever the state of Arkansas experiences a particularly severe or significant amount of rainfall, Sean always says the same thing. “We could be just a couple of weeks away from a drought.” It’s the kind of simple logic, picked up by experience on a farm (likely from his father Red), that is almost never wrong.

Such is life on the mean streets of the SEC. You can end September ranked 8th in the country with a perfect 4-0 record, the undisputed rulers of the Lone Star state. But you might just be a couple of weeks away from a two-game losing streak.

Admittedly, Tusk to Tail was not well represented in the stands at Ole Miss Saturday. Mark was our lone correspondent, shooting the action from the sideline. You may recall that the Razorbacks’ schedule was declared the nation’s most difficult before the season. It has also become the most inconvenient. Saturday’s game at Oxford was the Hogs’ third straight week away from home, each against ranked teams. It was also the second of at least three consecutive 11 a.m. kickoffs. Our group has been hitting The Grove for 20 years, since that infamous 7-overtime thriller, but the timing just didn’t work for most of us this time.

I was looking forward to some couch therapy in front of the TV Saturday. I was still feeling a little road weary, and there was an excellent slate of games on tap all day long. Arkansas vs. Ole Miss was a top-25 matchup with a legendary ending in a series known for fantastic finishes, and it was still like the third most notable outcome of the day. Forrest dropped by the Oaklawn casino’s new sports book Saturday while in Hot Springs for a wedding. I’m not sure he ever left.

Our game was dubbed The Bounceback Bowl by ESPN, following last week’s dismemberment of Ole Miss and Arkansas by #1 Alabama and #2 Georgia, respectively. Coach Sam Pittman warned his Razorbacks to not let the hangover from one loss lead to another. Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin was still dealing with the aftermath of telling the nation to “get your popcorn ready” before the Bama blowout, saying the lopsided loss lingered like the smell of burned popcorn in the microwave.

Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral played a leading role in the redemption story narrative. Corral is among the favorites to win the Heisman trophy this season and has apparently become the darling of the media. Greg McElroy’s and Joe Tessitore’s infatuation with Corral while calling the game ranged somewhere between “fan club president” and “unhealthy man crush.”

Last year, however, was a completely different story. Corral threw an astonishing six interceptions in the 33-21 loss to Arkansas in 2020. Two picks were returned for touchdowns, accounting for the winning margin. Following that game and once again this summer, Corral said last year’s losing performance against the Hogs motivated him this season.

In the opposite corner was Arkansas QB KJ Jefferson. Jefferson grew up less than 40 minutes away from Oxford in Sardis, but was not recruited by Ole Miss. A virtual unknown before the season, conventional wisdom said the Hogs would go about as far as Jefferson’s arm and legs could carry them. Jefferson had his own cheering section of family and friends at Vaught–Hemingway Stadium that wore customized tee shirts covered with images of KJ in a Razorbacks uniform.

The Hogs quickly established a gameplan to run, then run, and finally run the ball some more. Arkansas called 17 rushes and only 4 passes in their first two drives, punctuated by Jefferson’s 5-yard touchdown run to take a 7-0 lead. Razorback runners were no longer getting throttled, as they were by Georgia’s elite defense the week before.

You certainly won’t hear the term “elite defense” in any recap of the Ole Miss game that featured 1,287 total yards and 14 touchdowns by both teams combined. Arkansas allowed rapid strike touchdown passes of 67 and 68 yards by Corral. Ole Miss running back Snoop Conner rushed for three second half touchdowns, including one for 51 yards and another for 34 yards.

The Razorbacks ground out prolonged drives with the same results to keep the game even. As ESPN tirelessly promoted Saturday night’s Fury-Wilder championship fight, this game felt like watching two heavy weights exchanging blows. Ole Miss and Arkansas combined for three touchdowns in the game’s final 90 seconds. Dale suggested that the team holding the ball last would win, an opinion later echoed by the announcers.

Mac and Tess continued slobbering over Corral. McElroy even called the Rebels’ QB the toughest guy in powder blue. It was accurate commentary given the profound number of Ole Miss players who conveniently stopped the clock with reported injuries.

KJ Jefferson had the better game statistically. Jefferson threw for 326 yards, rushed for 85 yards, and was responsible for 6 touchdowns. Corral passed for 287 yards, rushed for 94, and scored 4 total touchdowns. The only difference in the 52-51 final score was that Corral successfully ran for a first half 2-point conversion, while Jefferson’s attempted conversion pass to Treylon Burks fell incomplete to end the game. Several Ole Miss defenders approached the Razorbacks’ signal caller to pay respect for his gutty performance before he walked off the field.

In a game like this, you might hear that it’s a shame someone had to lose. It is the loser who usually says that. Trust me, Tusk to Tail would not have considered it a shame at all if Ole Miss had lost this game. Coach Pittman made the right call to play for the win rather than taking his chances in overtime. Unfortunately, another walkoff victory was not in the cards for the Hogs this time in Oxford.

A close loss to a potent offense like Ole Miss might have been considered a moral victory in recent years, but Pittman is changing the culture on The Hill. The Hogs can hold their head high following their gritty effort, but understand that they will have to work harder to stop the 2-game losing streak.

Tusk to Tail looks forward to returning to Fayetteville to host Auburn in another revenge game this week. It is time for the Razorbacks to successfully bounce back.

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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