Tusk to Tail: Mud and Misery on Markham

Following a full day of cold rainfall Saturday morning, the Little Rock skies were gray as the wind howled and temperatures hung around 40 degrees. It was weather better suited for Coach Bielema’s days of playing and coaching in the Midwest’s Big 10 conference.

Perhaps the weather would add to our home-away-from-homefield advantage at War Memorial Stadium. If nothing else, Bielema would not look out of place wearing his trademark long sleeve windbreaker. In a season long on moral victories but short on the kind that count, we were starting off strong. The Hogs’ coach would look like less of a douchebag than he did the last time he came to town.

The drab weather and string of seven straight losses had a less desirable effect. It kept the fans at home. It was 9:30 a.m. before I made it to the tailgate on the War Memorial golf course. While many would consider a midmorning cocktail party to be plenty early enough, this was the closest to game time I had arrived all season. Dale and Kara Cullins and their daughter accompanied my son and I while the rest of our Northwest Arkansas compatriots chose to stay home.

The entire golf course was fairly populated, though subdued. Typically a place to see and be seen, drink and get drunk, the tailgating grounds were reduced to a muddy bog this weekend. Even though we all know that Hogs love the slop, these conditions were not for the faint of heart.

The tailgate party started by Craig May, Jason Parker, and Jamey, Jordan, and Jarrod Johnson in front of the 18th tee is a tradition unlike any other. They have been hosting golf party soirees longer and better than anyone I know. The last time I attended, we wound up in the state paper’s High Profile section. That section usually features Arkansans’ achievements in business or commitment to philanthropy. Tusk to Tail earned a spot by drinking vodka in the morning.

But things were different Saturday. Gone was the “Beacon of Hope,” the giant helium balloon usually reserved for car dealerships that would soar high above our tent as a landmark for those trying to find us. Most of the fans coming out this weekend were grizzled veterans, trading designer jeans and loafers for duck boots and coveralls.  These people know where to find the party.

The entire tent was austere compared to past occasions. No table cloths or fancy decorations, just a random assortment of donuts and pastries to accompany a hot tray of biscuits, gravy, and an SEC (Sausage, Egg, and Cheese) casserole. The bar was a cardboard box filled with bottles of liquor and stack of red Solo cups. There were coolers of beer and soft drinks, but few were even filled with ice since the overnight lows had properly chilled the cans. The mud was deepest in front of the donuts and liquor, revealing where the morning traffic was heaviest.

I was content waking and warming with my cup of Starbucks until I was offered a shot of Bailey’s Irish Cream to top it off. Halfway to a good cup of Irish coffee, I decided to add a little Jack Daniels. Tennessee has an Irish population, right?

“I’m usually not much of a whiskey drinker,” I told Parker as the bottle let loose a sizable bubble.

“You’ve been selling me that bullshit for over ten years,” he replied.

As part of the set-up crew, Parker was on his third hour of pre-game celebration. He appeared unfazed by the wind and mud, spending most of the morning drinking with friends by the fire pit.

Before long, we all made our way toward the stadium for the last game in the Natural State this year. Tusk to Tail headed in with a sense of optimism. Mississippi State’s lone conference win was against Kentucky, perhaps the only team stuck in “rebuilding mode” more than Arkansas. Besides, the Bulldogs had never beaten the Hogs on our turf. As Tom Petty says, “Even the losers get lucky sometimes.”

The team came out in the anthracite grey uniforms, adding a new dark helmet to the fashion affront to tradition. We soon learned our leading rushers Jonathan Wililams and Alex Collins would be replaced by Korliss Marshall and Kody Walker for the first quarter as punishment for arriving late to team functions. But the replacement duo performed admirably, punctuated by Marshall’s 44-yard kickoff return that helped lead to a touchdown on our opening drive.

Clay Travis, an infamous agitating Internet sportswriter, had referred to this game as the saddest game in the SEC, and at times it was hard to argue. Good plays like the end-around touchdown runs by wide receivers Javontee Herndon and Julian Horton, or Zach Hocker’s career-long field goal from the painted Hog’s tail at midfield contrasted with both teams continuously making boneheaded mistakes.

Arkansas called a fake punt that fooled nobody at its own 44 late in the first half, giving the Bulldogs the short field to tie the game before halftime. Alex Collins’s fumble at the 9-yard line late in the 4th quarter effectively cost us the game. But Mississippi State failed to capitalize on their own scoring opportunities, fumbling near our goal line once, having a field goal blocked by Razorback behemoth Dan Skipper another time, and then driving all the way to our 17-yard line at the end of regulation before penalties and tackles backed them up enough to miss a field goal into the wind.

As we went into overtime, May said nobody seemed to know how to win. It looked like we may be there for awhile. Then Bulldog Freshman quarterback Damian Williams ran 25 yards into the endzone on the first play, highlighting a day where the Hogs never seemed able to tackle on first contact. The ensuing Arkansas possession was woefully ineffective, culminating in a Brandon Allen interception on 4th down to end the game. The loss set a historic mark of ineptitude, the first time Arkansas has lost eight consecutive games in its 120 year history.

Next week isn’t looking much better, as we head to Death Valley Friday to face LSU on what is likely to be the last time the Hogs will play the Tigers on the day after Thanksgiving. The journey will wrap up Tusk to Tail’s 9,000 mile trail of tears during a season that will set multiple records for losses.

Maybe we should have followed the basketball team to Maui instead.