Tusk to Tail: Off to see Morris with a 1-game winning streak
Last week’s loss to #4 Georgia set the Hogs on a crash course with a dreadful record for SEC futility. It was the Razorbacks’ 10th consecutive loss, but their 20th straight loss in conference play.
Vanderbilt holds the record with a 23-game SEC losing streak between 2000 and 2003. Being Vandy, they also hold second-worst honors with a 22-game skid in the 90s. In football, you never want to be grouped in the same class as Vanderbilt. But here was Arkansas, left lane boogying toward sole possession of the longest losing streak in the history of the SEC.
After seeing Mississippi State Coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense completely dismantle the defending national champion LSU Tigers in Baton Rouge last Saturday, even the most optimistic Tusk to Tailgaters believed the Hogs didn’t have the horses to keep up with the new look Bulldogs. Arkansas was an 18-point underdog heading to Starkville.
In a typical year, TTT might convoy down to Davis Wade Stadium, tailgating in the piny shade of their visitor parking lots before the game. Our crew has made the trip through similar losing streaks under previous coaches. I can’t say whether many of us were eyeballing a weekend escape to exotic Starkville before the pandemic, but COVID-19 made the decision for us. Stadium capacity had been reduced, and tailgating was prohibited. Tickets to the away games were not made available to Arkansas fans that I am aware of.
Somehow the Hogfather Randall Ford and his wife Sherry continued their weekend tradition of following the Hogs. There were reports that tails may have been gated with their usual travel companions before the game. Randall’s signature red hat adorned with classic Hog flair was spotted on tv when they panned the crowd.
For one of the first times since the beginning of the Houston Nutt era, no one from our tailgating band of gypsies was inside the stadium for the game. Mark texted that this was only the third time in the past 10 years that he had watched a Hog game on TV, rather than from the field. There was a time beginning in 1999 that Craig had attended 239 of the 240 games without missing another until a year or two ago.
This time, we each gathered individually in front of the loving glow of our televisions, linked by the community of our group text thread. Whether all caps shouting the same expletive after another botched double reverse or cracking jokes about the anemic offense Chad Morris is coordinating at Auburn, the thread documented the events across the Mississippi State timeline.
One of our friends in the media texted that Offensive Coordinator Kendall Briles and some of his coaching staff were running wind sprints on the field before the game. Big Sam Pittman may not have joined them, but you have to appreciate the energy this group brings every week.
Yet it was Defensive Coordinator Barry Odom’s gameplan that drew our praise.
Odom had seen LSU get repeatedly burned in man coverage, particularly when covering crossing routes favored by Bulldog quarterback KJ Costello. Odom countered that strategy by dropping 8 defenders into zone coverage, typically leaving only short routes underneath and clearly confusing Costello. Mississippi State’s graduate transfer QB threw an interception to
defensive back Greg Brooks that was returned for a touchdown on the game’s first possession. It was the Razorbacks’ first Pick 6 of the Trump administration. Seriously. The last was in 2016.
The game was hard fought and physical, sending several key competitors to the sideline medical tent or locker room. Starting running backs Rakeem Boyd from Arkansas and Mississippi State’s Kylin Hill were both knocked from the game in the first half. Neither returned. The Razorbacks battled attrition all night, losing heralded receiver Treylon Burks, linebackers Bumper Pool and Grant Morgan, and defensive back Montaric Brown for extended periods Saturday. Morgan and Pool returned and seemed to be involved in nearly every tackle. Bumper’s 20 tackles were the most by a Razorback since Jerry Franklin also recorded 20 at Starkville back in 2010.
Linebacker play wasn’t the only throwback to that bygone era. Chris declared that Felipe Franks’ 52-yard bomb to De’Vion Warren was the sexiest Arkansas pass play since Coach Bobby Petrino prowled the Arkansas sideline. Franks threw touchdown passes to Warren and tight end Hudson Henry, the latter to give the Hogs a 21-14 third quarter lead.
“Trying not to get too excited, trying not to get too excited, trying not to get too excited,” texted Chris, He has been previously burned by premature faith in the Hogs.
The announcer wasn’t making it any easier, repeatedly pointing out that things Arkansas did was why they had lost 20 conference games in a row. But when the Hogs defense needed another 4th quarter stop of the Bulldogs, they got it. Jaden Walley’s muffed punt return effectively ended the game for Mississippi State once Warren’s 11-yard reception earned a first down at the Bulldog 24 with 1:44 remaining.
What followed may be the ugliest execution of the victory formation I have ever seen.
Obviously the Hogs haven’t had much practice using the victory formation lately. Used at the end of games to run out the clock without conceding much field position, the Razorbacks failed at both. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against receiver Mike Woods forced Arkansas to punt from midfield with 32 seconds remaining.
Being an Arkansas football fan is never easy. I have seen the Razorbacks snatch defeat from the jaws of victory too many times to trust that a game is over until the clock reads all zeros. My wife and I could barely speak to each other, refusing to acknowledge that the game was almost over, but could still be tied or lost if the Bulldogs scored a touchdown. It felt like we had seen that movie before. Even after the game was over, it didn’t seem quite real.
But it was real, and it was magnificent. Sam Pittman was able to do in just two games as head coach what Morris couldn’t do in two seasons: beat another SEC team. Arkansas heads to face Morris, Coach Gus Malzahn, and his Auburn Tigers this week on a 1-game winning streak.
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.