Tusk to Tail: More depth needed to avoid getting Auburned

It was a beautiful day for homecoming Saturday. It just wasn’t the Hogs’ day. The weather was perfect, Reynolds Razorback Stadium was sold out, and Arkansas was favored over a Power 5 conference team for the first time since 2016.

But big plays, a motivated performance from an opposing quarterback, and some questionable officiating contributed to the Razorbacks falling short for the third straight week. Arkansas (4-3, 1-3 in the SEC) lost to Auburn 38-23.

Recent developments have created some bad blood between Arkansas and Auburn and especially between Arkansas and the game officials. Trailing Arkansas 28-27 last year, Tigers QB Bo Nix muffed the snap while attempting to spike the ball to stop the clock. Nix picked up the ball and threw it to the ground behind him. Hogs safety Joe Foucha recovered what should have been ruled a fumble due to the backward pass. The play would have essentially ended the game with the Hogs on top. But after further review, SEC referee Marc Curles claimed that an inadvertent whistle by the officials nullified the recovery, allowing Auburn to retain possession and kick the winning field goal.

Saturday felt like more of the same old bullshit. Arkansas defensive lineman Jashaud Stewart stripped the ball while tackling Auburn’s Jarquez Hunter in the first quarter. The Hogs recovered. But the referees ruled that Hunter was down before losing the ball, despite strong video evidence to the contrary.

At the end of the 3rd quarter, a Tigers defender appeared to have wrapped up Razorbacks receiver Treylon Burks before he could catch a 2-point conversion pass. No pass interference was called. The non-call seemed particularly dubious given that Arkansas defensive back Hudson Clark was flagged for a far less obvious infraction on an uncatchable ball earlier in the game.

CBS Sports analyst Barrett Sallee tweeted, “Arkansas vs. Auburn always has an Arkansas vs. the Officials element to it.” ESPN’s Tim Tebow agreed, tweeting “As a die-hard fan of college football, it is frustrating to watch some of these games being taken out of the player’s hands because of officiating.”

The game’s announcers echoed that the officiating seemed biased in the Tigers favor. It’s a pitiful excuse to blame the referees for a loss, and I don’t think anyone is doing that here. But this year’s model of Razorbacks is not quite good enough to beat an SEC team and the officials. A level playing field would be nice.

Perhaps motivated by last year’s loss that wasn’t, Nix played his best game of the season against Arkansas Saturday. Nix’s effort was similar to that of Ole Miss QB Matt Corral the prior week when Corral atoned for last season’s 6 interceptions against the Hogs to win 52-51. Nix went 21 for 26 for 292 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He also ran for another 42 yards, including a 23-yard touchdown with 2:30 left to seal the win.

Just like the Ole Miss game, big plays by the opponent helped beat Arkansas. Momentum really seemed to swing in Auburn’s favor following a third quarter punt. Razorbacks returner Nate Parodi said he lost sight of the ball in the bright autumn sunlight, allowing it to roll to the Arkansas 11 yard line. After a 6-yard sack on second down, Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson dropped back in the endzone where he was sacked and stripped of the ball. The Tigers recovered for the touchdown and a 21-17 lead. Jefferson was stopped short on a 4th down run on the next possession, turning the ball over to Auburn on downs. The very next play was a 71-yard touchdown pass from Nix to Demetris Robertson, and the game was effectively over.

The TIgers had scored twice in just over three minutes, and the Hogs seemed to have lost their swagger. The Razorbacks ended up outgaining Auburn 460 yards to 427. Arkansas had more first downs, a better third-down conversion rate and fewer penalties. Auburn’s big plays made the difference.

If Arkansas didn’t look quite like the same team that started the season 4-0 with big wins over Texas and Texas A&M, it is probably because they weren’t. At least four Razorbacks starters were out on Saturday. Clark, who was covering Robertson on the long touchdown, was playing in place of LaDarrius Bishop, who was out with a hamstring injury. Preseason All-American safety Jalen Catalon was out with a shoulder injury and replaced by Myles Slusher. Defensive tackle Markell Utsey and right tackle Dalton Wagner also missed the game. Coach Sam Pittman said Catalon will have shoulder surgery on Monday and miss the rest of the season.

“I think we all feel like crap,” Pittman said. “Our team is beat up, and this bye week can’t get here fast enough. I think we’ve got a physically beat up team. They’re trying, but if you see the plays we were making earlier in the year, we’re not making them now. Sometimes we are, but most of the time we’re not. I just think we’ve got a beat up football team.”

Back at the tailgate, Craig agreed, adding that the Hogs need better depth and talent. “These guys just have better players on both sides of the line,” the Godfather of Tailgating said. “If we can win 6 or 7, that is more than most people thought. At least we are competitive. [Pittman] just needs to go get better players.”

There is still one more game before the bye week. The Hogs’ first ever matchup with University of Arkansas Pine Bluff will take place this Saturday at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium. Though Arkansas fell out of the Top 25 following their third straight loss, few expect the FCS Golden Lions to seriously challenge the Razorbacks. Plenty of tickets remain available.

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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