Tusk to Tail: It’s a long way to the top …

This is the first time since 2016 Tusk to Tail has written a bowl game article, and we couldn’t be happier about it. The Hogs’ destination? The Outback Bowl. I could scatter through this article the tired old Australian cliches, but I won’t stoop to that level. I will rely heavily on the best thing ever produced by Australia: rock legends AC/DC.

A quick history about this band. AC/DC began enjoying success with their “Highway to Hell” album when front man Bon Scott died unexpectedly. Brothers Angus and Malcolm Young thought about quitting. After interviewing several replacement lead singers, Brian Johnson auditioned. The band hired him, recorded the iconic “Back in Black” album, and the rest is history.

The Razorbacks (hear me out) have followed a similar path. We had some unprecedented success under Bobby Petrino. But after his untimely demise, we were desperate to find a new leader. Many fans gave up season tickets and attendance dwindled.

Enter Sam Pittman.

With Pittman in his second season as our new head hog, and a dare I say high voltage offense under Kendal Briles, Hog fans feel they have a head coach who can guide the Hogs to compete with college football’s heavyweights.

And to that point, our band of Razorbacks performed admirably in that respect in 2021, grinding out an 8-4 record and earning a New Years’ Day bowl game, ending our five-year postseason drought. I told my son I got him bowl tickets for Christmas, but since I was going with him, I can’t really say it was an altruistic gift. We had to make a detour to Kansas City on Tuesday, but were resolved to make the 18-hour drive to central Florida.

As the week progressed, and we made stops in Nashville and Atlanta during our journey, it seemed like there were COVID bowl cancellations every few hours. UCLA cancelled its bowl game mere hours before kickoff. I couldn’t help but wonder if we were on the highway to hell. Were we going to drive for three straight days, just to show up in Tampa and have the bowl cancelled? Unfortunately, there was no way to know for sure.

Once in Tampa, it was clear Arkansas had traveled well. We spotted Hog fans everywhere. Our free hotel breakfast area had about a 10-1 Arkansas to Penn State ratio. I guess when your team hasn’t been to a bowl game in half a decade, you have a little money saved up for a football related vacation.

As Friday progressed, our COVID concerns dissipated, as there were no indications of pandemic related bad news. We did however have a bigger issue. We were missing some of our Tusk To Tail regulars, and everyone but me was flying to Tampa. This left us without most of our normal resources and some logistical obstacles to pull off a tailgate of our normal standards. Rising to the occasion though, Todd, Ryan, Brad, Eric and I pooled our efforts and came up with a game plan.

Once gameday arrived, we assembled just across the street from Raymond James Stadium. We spoke with several Penn State fans, who were all extremely polite. Now, most of our tailgate group, and I am sure our readers, have a familiarity and therefore unbridled hatred for at least one or two SEC teams (Ole Miss for me). But this was our first date so to speak with the Nittany Lions, so conversations with their fans felt like a first date. Our conversations were limited to compliments about the other team’s regular season, the weather, and other noncontroversial topics. I refrained from telling anyone their blue and white outfit looked cute.

The morning tailgate progressed, and the weather got warmer. This meant people were enjoying more and more bloody Mary’s and John Dalys, and not as many sausage biscuits. Knowing I had to get rid of all of our beverages by the end of the day, I welcomed all comers with a “Have a drink on me!” Most of the tailgaters in our group are around my age, but since Eric and I have college aged children, it was great to see their friends drop by, and their excited attitudes. It reminded me of my first bowl game during college, the 1990 Cotton Bowl.

As the game unfolded, it felt like a win that was exactly as Sam Pittman had planned. The Hogs had 353 yards rushing on the day. When we wanted to run the ball, we did so with ease. We have come to expect trick plays these days, and those were less than successful, to put it nicely. As my friend Matt texted, “We have negative 75 yards and an interception on the trick plays, and 300 yards rushing when we go between the tackles.” Such trick plays were frustrating, but in the end it didn’t matter.

It’s hard to tell who made who. Did the emphasis on running the ball allow us to keep the ball, ending with a 36 minutes to 24 minutes time of possession advantage, or was Pittman focused on time of possession in the sweltering Florida heat, which gave the Razorbacks a tired Nittany Lion defense to run over in the second half? Only he knows, but either way, it worked.

Coach Barry Odom also had the defense well prepared. With the exception of one big play (How does one receiver have half of the field to himself? Insert social distancing joke here.), the Hogs defense held Penn State to three measly points.

I said to a few people a few times during the fourth quarter, “ESPN is going to say tonight we beat Penn State … that is a big deal!” Penn State is one of the old guard in college football, one of traditional powerhouse programs. This is a great feather in our program’s cap. And as you look back at our season, our 9-4 record exceeds even the biggest optimist’s expectations for the year. Two of our four losses were to the two teams playing for the national championship next week.

When Sam Pittman turns that damn jukebox on next week, I bet “Money Talks” by AC/DC will be playing. And based on what he has accomplished so far, we say pay the man his money.

Woo pig!

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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