(photo courtesy of Mark Wagner)

Tusk to Tail: It was at first ‘erotic’ until the ‘natural order’ was restored

The pictures started coming in around 9:30 Saturday morning. They showed a gorgeous autumn day on the University of Arkansas campus, like so many football weekends before it. If you had never been on The Hill for all the pageantry of game day, you might not even notice the difference.

But the difference was there in the pictures, or not there at all.

Typically the photos would be coming from Tusk to Tail’s social media accounts, showing our tailgate party getting turned up before kickoff. You would see us watching two games on our big screen TVs, catching up with friends over cocktails from our officially licensed Razorbacks bar, or noshing on vittles prepared by our good friend Chef Brad. It would be taking place beneath our twin spired Big Top tent in the misfortunately-named VIctory Village across from the stadium. TTT has been there for every home game since they opened the Maple Avenue tailgating venue in 2012.

As the pictures revealed, the stadium and surrounding areas were a virtual ghost town, even just a couple of hours before kickoff. Seating inside the stadium was limited to 16,500 to allow safe distancing between fans in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tailgating was completely prohibited as ordered by our state’s guidelines and government proclamations, enforced across the University campus.

As a result, some TTT members missed their first home game in decades. Some chose not to order tickets due to the inherent risk and restrictions resulting from the coronavirus. Having seats moved from their usual spot to the far corners of the stadium was also a deterrent. Others, such as myself, applied to buy the full season ticket package, only to be sold a partial allotment that did not include the Georgia game. After years of paying full price to watch Razorback blowouts with far fewer than 16,000 fans sticking around for the second half, it was somewhat shocking to miss the cut for the opening game of the Sam Pittman era.

We press on, regardless. If tailgating is outlawed, then only outlaws will tailgate. Some TTT members watched the game outdoors on decks and patios with small private gatherings of friends or family as allowed under the guidelines. In honor of the opponent, Chef Brad served Georgia low country shrimp and grits, as well as grilled shrimp tacos topped with a homemade spicy Georgia peach salsa at his home. I personally celebrated the SEC’s return by wallowing in the all-day football coverage with my wife and dog alongside me on the sofa. It felt odd to still be sober for an afternoon kickoff, as the drinks usually start flowing once our tailgate is set up in the morning.

Though TTT wasn’t able to watch the game and party together, that didn’t stop us from sharing our opinions. Our group text thread stayed lit up for hours. Mark told us the small group of fans in the stadium were louder than expected as he watched the game from the field. We all marveled at the new look of Pittman’s Hogs. The Razorbacks seemed to be playing with more energy and focus than they had for the last three years under the past two and a half coaches.

Offensively, Arkansas appeared to run new Offensive Coordinator Kendall Briles’ up-tempo gameplan much more effectively than they ever did former coach Chad Morris’s “left lane, hammer down, full-tilt boogie” system. Morris talked tempo, but this team was playing it. As my friend Jason opined on the Book of Face, Morris’s version of Tempo was just a crappy old Ford.

Sour grapes for the former coaches who got us into this mess stayed on the menu all day.

When sophomore wide receiver Treylon Burks scored the first touchdown of the new season, it was also the first of his Razorback career. Burks has the size and ability to play at the next level, but still couldn’t catch a touchdown from the five different quarterbacks that started games last year under Morris and interim coach Barry Lunney Jr. The thread collectively groaned when the SEC Network displayed a graphic featuring 8 Arkansas QBs who started a game over the past two seasons.

“The pupu platter,” as Bill SImmons would call it.

Former coaches were recalled even when we were celebrating. When Burks caught the 49-yard touchdown strike from quarterback Felipe Franks, Forrest couldn’t control himself.

“Erotic,” he texted, suggesting his love had moved past Bret Bielema’s borderline.

It seems for every step forward, Arkansas football tends to take a couple of steps back. On offense, those steps backward came in the form of trick plays that simply didn’t work. A first half double reverse from our own 14 yard line resulted in a safety after TJ Hammond fumbled the ball out of the endzone. A double pass play caught then thrown by Burks was intercepted in the third quarter. The turnover resulted in a Georgia touchdown.

As titillating as we found parts of the Arkansas offense Saturday, the defense seems to have made even further progress. Defensive coordinator Barry Odom instantly became one of TTT’s all time favorite Barrys, along with White, Gibb, and Manilow. For the first time in years, several players stood out for their toughness and nose for the ball. Former walk-on linebacker Grant Morgan led the team with 13 tackles, and fellow backer Bumper Pool may have played his best game as a Hog. The future looks bright for redshirt freshman safety Jalen Catalon.

The unit needing the most improvement is once again special teams. Morris had famously said, “if you don’t have speed you are chasing it.” During Georgia’s punt and kickoff returns, the

Razorbacks’ coverage units were consistently chasing the man with the ball. The Hogs literally outkicked their coverage to the tune of 148 Georgia return yards on just two kickoffs and three punts. Errors were plentiful on each special teams unit. The punt team allowed a punt to be blocked. The field goal team drew a delay of game penalty that pushed them beyond kicker A.J. Reed’s range.

There was still plenty for Hog fans to be proud of Saturday. The 7-5 halftime lead over #4 Georgia may qualify for yet another Arkansas moral victory. Nevertheless, the game ended the same way the past 19 SEC contests have ended for the Razorbacks, this time a 37-10 loss to the Bulldogs.

“Natural order has been restored,” Chris texted once Georgia began running away with the game.

While Arkansas appears to be better coached than they have the past two years, the fact remains that the coaches must continue to improve player size, speed, and depth to have any chance at success. The Hogs’ 20-game conference losing streak is close to passing the 23-game skid suffered by Vanderbilt between 2000-2003.

Next up is a trip to Starkville to take on the Bulldogs of Mississippi State. These Bulldogs just upset the defending champion LSU Tigers in the SEC debut of Coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense. The Hogs will have their hands full with Stanford graduate transfer quarterback K.J. Costello. Costello threw for an SEC record 623 yards and five touchdowns in the win at Baton Rouge.

Editor’s note: Now in its ninth 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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