Tusk to Tail: One could always ‘learn to love soccer’

Moments after Keegan Brewer returned an Arkansas punt 90 yards for a touchdown to put the Mean Green up 14-0 in the first quarter, video of the fair-catch-that-never-was had gone as viral as the monkey in Outbreak. A group text thread, distributed among Tusk to Tail’s “circle of trust,” blew up. Longtime friends, dispersed around the stadium, at our tailgate, and on sofas from Atlanta to Benton County, had frustrations to vent.

“That was an all time low for Razorback football,” read one text from a guy who’s seen his share of heartbreak, going at least as far back as Joe Kines’ Memphis block party in 1993.

Like any good viral video, Saturday’s game was chock full of questionable content and genuine WTF moments. But that punt return felt like the lowest low point, particularly once punctuated by an Arkansas timeout before a kickoff later in the first half.

Ridiculed across television waves and online via YouTube and social media, the clip removed all reasonable doubt. Throughout the first two games, it has been plenty clear the Arkansas Razorbacks were struggling on offense as well as defense. We can now label this video Exhibit A. The Hogs have hit rock bottom on special teams, too.

Everyone knew this was going to be a rebuilding year. The Hogs were expected to take some lumps. I tried to keep my expectations low this season, but I’m beginning to lose hope. No amount of lowered expectations can mentally prepare you for getting run out of your own stadium by North Freaking Texas.

Arkansas was 9-0 all time against the Mean Green, just like the Razorbacks had been 3-0 against Colorado State before last week’s flop in Fort Collins. You could always count on destroying these guys. The last time UNT came to town, Houston Nutt’s 2007 Hogs curbstomped them 66-7. At the end of that season, Nutt was awarded a pair of golden handcuffs by the UA administration before they dropped him off at the Ole Miss doorstep, rang the doorbell, and drove away.

Even Coach Morris himself had beaten North Texas 54-32 last year at SMU, which raises a troubling question. Does Saturday’s loss indicate that Morris had more talent at his disposal in Highland Park than he does on The Hill? I went into Saturday’s game assuming the Hogs were good enough to beat the second best team from Conference USA. Now I’m not sure we will win another game all year.

Consumer confidence in the Razorbacks brand appears to be in steep decline across the board. My son has been my wingman at Arkansas games since he was in diapers, back when a ticket to non-conference games was cheaper than you could find a babysitter. But he asked to sit this one out, preferring the company of friends to a sweltering afternoon of second rate football.

The circle of trust was filled with regrets. Some would-be-tailgaters attended their kid’s sporting events.  Others stayed home because life got in the way.  Greg Houser voluntarily endured a medical procedure rather than go to a game like this.

Our tailgate still rolled more than 80 deep, but that’s mostly because it was Dad’s Day on Sorority Row. The sorority dads had worked up a powerful thirst, draining our bar one bottle at a time as kickoff approached. TTT does not judge. To paraphrase P.J. O’Rourke, there’s only one way to cover a season like this and bartender, please make that a double.

Leaving the surging throng of turned up sorority dads, Sam Atkinson and I ambled across the street to the game. Taking our seat as the players took the field, the stadium appeared less than half full. Attendance was announced as 62,355, but actual scanned attendance was only 44,306. Stadium capacity was expanded to 76,000 over the summer.

Two things that will affect attendance are poor performance and uncomfortable conditions, and Saturday had plenty of both. A 3 p.m. kickoff means exposure to peak temperatures. Though shade gradually overcomes the West sideline and Southern endzone seating, the new club seats in the North endzone are directly in the sunlight. Those seats may be sold out, but they have remained fairly empty. For the second game in a row, the $160 million renovation cost seems to translate to roughly $1 million per fan sitting in the new seats.

The heat wasn’t entirely unbearable, but the product on the field practically was. The Razorbacks run game remains entirely inconsistent. Our secondary is slow, but friendly.

Each week a new quarterback is voted on or off the island like it’s a season of Survivor. This week’s episode began with Cole Kelley reprising his role as the reckless gunslinger. When he wasn’t throwing arm punts over the heads of streaking receivers, Kelley was staring balls into double coverage. If there are newer, more innovative ways to throw interceptions, I’m sure he is studying them right now.

Frustratingly, Kelley had some success throwing shorter routes, dinking and dunking down the field by taking whatever the Mean Green defense would give. But before any type of momentum was ever achieved, the big QB would revert back to the school yard, telling everyone to go deep and hoping his guy comes down with it as he lets loose another long bomb.

Fans had been clamoring for new blood at quarterback, and it finally came at the cost of playing time for last week’s starter, Ty Storey. Long after most fans inside the stadium had decided the game was out of reach, the reins were handed to freshman Connor Noland. I don’t really know much about Noland besides the fact that he comes from Greenwood, but that’s good enough for me. Every player we have signed from that school, be it Tyler Wilson or Drew Morgan, and now Drew’s brother Grant, has been the toughest son of a bitch on the field. From where I sit now, we could use more of that.

Nolan looked overwhelmed and inexperienced at times, taking a few sacks and failing to effectively read the defense. Fellow freshman John Stephen Jones didn’t fare much better, throwing a pick-6 of his own. It remains to be seen whether this on-the-job training prepares the newcomers for the future or causes irreparable damage to their psyche or a throwing shoulder.

We haven’t even begun SEC play yet. The losses will continue to pile up. We were told that it would take time for Morris to put his system into place, but consumer confidence continues to lag. The names and the ticket prices keep changing, but we now lose to teams that we had been whipping for decades.

Like our disgruntled group text thread, Turnt Wooldridge tweeted multiple truth bombs over the weekend. Wooldridge used to write the weekly must-read Feel The Rhythm column during the Bielema era, and he echoes many of the sentiments I heard from my tailgating brethren. Some of his tweets, condensed into paragraph form, can be found below.

“Arkansas took on debt to expand a stadium that nobody even wants to look at at this point.  They are paying their old coach handsomely not to coach. They can’t afford to fire their brand new coach because they gave HIM a big buyout too.

“You can’t fire a coach after 3 games. You also can’t go 0-fer when you’ve got a stadium to pay for and nobody wants to come.

”It’s not Morris’ fault that he inherited a fan base on the brink. But it’s his fault for not understanding that pulling them back is priority #1. Instead he’s pushing them off the edge. There are no moves. It’s checkmate. The only move is to watch it get worse. Embrace nihilism. Learn to love soccer. Die a slow, meaningless death.”

Join us next week as we head to the plains of Auburn. Go Hogs!