Tusk to Tail: The No Joe game and some football mojo
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Over the years and across the spectrum of Razorbacks sports, Tusk to Tail has witnessed a slew of close losses. If there was enough effort or improvement, a narrow margin of defeat might even be considered a moral victory. We joked that some of Bret “We’re close” Bielema’s football squads earned enough moral victories to become bowl eligible. We knew it was loser talk, but it was all we had.
Chad Morris slammed the door on the concept of moral victory after last year’s 31-27 loss to Texas A&M. “Losing is not acceptable,” Morris said. “There are no moral losses. We’ve got to find a way to win when you get down to the end like this.”
Six weeks and another five losses later, the embattled Texan was shown the door with two games left in the season. He took his $10 million buyout, and never said goodbye to his team or the fans who had tried to support him. Maybe Morris believes in immoral victories.
Nevertheless, the question remains: Can some form of victory be found when the scoreboard or standings show defeat? During this week in Razorbacks athletics, signs clearly point to yes.
Start with Eric Musselman’s basketball team. Traveling to Tuscaloosa last Saturday, the Hogs were on a three game SEC losing streak. The “Check Engine” light had come on for the Muss Bus.
The game started disastrously for Arkansas as Alabama, winners of 8 of their last 11 and 8-1 at home, jumped out to a 12-0 lead. Sophomore guard Isaiah Joe was little help, nursing a swollen knee. Joe was widely considered to be the best player on the team before this season, the Hog with the brightest future. He could shoot from just about anywhere in the gym. Joe finished the game with 0 points in 21 minutes.
Mason Jones picked up the slack left by Joe, and then some. The junior guard had scored 34 in the loss to South Carolina, and would not be denied against Bama. Arkansas took its first lead, 23-22, at 7:15 in the first half when a Jimmy Whitt steal led to a layup by Jones. Arkansas finished the game with a 27-13 advantage in points from turnovers, and converted 11 steals into a 16-5 point advantage in fast break scores. Jones scored 30 to earn the SEC’s Player of the Week honors for the third time this season. Whitt added 26 points in the 82-78 victory. It was the third time this season Arkansas came back from a double-digit deficit to win.
It was a short turnaround before #11 Auburn came to Bud Walton Arena Tuesday. Jones had become the leading scorer in the SEC, also leading the Razorbacks in rebounds, assists, and steals. If the Hogs had any chance of beating the Tigers, it was going to take Jones’ best effort. It was announced before the game that Joe had been put on the shelf for a few weeks following knee surgery earlier that day.
The game was marked by a series of scoring runs by each team. A 17-2 first half run by Arkansas spurred a 30-23 advantage before forwards Adrio Bailey and Reggie Chaney took the bench with two fouls apiece. The lack of inside presence and pressure down low allowed Auburn to counter with an 11-1 run to retake the lead. The Razorbacks fought back with second half runs of 7-0 and 9-0 giving Arkansas a 65-54 lead with just under six minutes to play.
Arkansas radio announcer Matt Zimmerman was already declaring victory for the Hogs when they appeared to try to slow down the game. The strategy was likely intended to preserve the lead and help the depleted Razorbacks regain their legs. From his seat at the game, Dale called it “half court bullshit offense.” Arkansas did not score another field goal in regulation, eventually losing 79-76 in overtime.
Jones played out of his mind again, scoring 40 points for the second time this season. He is the first Razorback to accomplish the feat since Dean Tolson in 1973-74. In the 2,665th game in team history, Jones also became the first Arkansas player to score 30-plus points in three straight games. His effort was needed to offset a prominent Hogs’ contributor being held scoreless for a second consecutive game. Whitt delivered a goose egg despite being on the floor for over 40 minutes.
Despite the loss, the Razorbacks have nothing to be ashamed of. They had 14 steals and forced 18 turnovers. The Hogs only committed 3 turnovers themselves in the second half and overtime after giving it up 7 times in the first half. Joe had been held out and Whitt was held scoreless, but Arkansas still had Auburn on the ropes with a chance to win at the end. If the Razorbacks had converted just 4 of their 10 missed free throws (they shot just 61.5% from the charity stripe), the outcome could have swung the other way.
“There’s just no margin for error when you don’t have any depth or size,” Craig said.
So could the effort be considered a moral victory? As Musselman said after the game, “I think we just played the 11th ranked team in the country and had a lead. We’re down a player who’s one of the best players in the country, and we lost to an 11th ranked team. I think the effort was phenomenal.”
Meanwhile, across campus at the football operations center, Coach Sam Pittman had a little mojo working of his own. When Pittman took over in December, most of the players Morris was recruiting had decommitted. The Razorbacks’ recruiting class was ranked outside the top 100. By the official signing day on Wednesday, Pittman had hauled in the 29th best class in the country. We’ll be providing more in-depth coverage in the near future, but suffice it to say, this class fills a lot of needs.
A premium was placed on the linebacker position for the first time in several years. The Hogs signed a total of seven at the position, including Jonesboro’s Jashaud Stewart and Catrell Wallace from Bryant. Arkansas signed three mammoth offensive linemen in Ray Curry Jr, Marcus Henderson, and Jalen St. John, and added another five stout young men on the defensive line. Four defensive backs, led by safety Myles Slusher, round out that side of the ball. The Razorbacks picked up a quality wide receiver, running back, and tight end, but perhaps the most excitement comes with the two new quarterbacks. Florida graduate transfer Feleipe Franks enters the Arkansas QB room with the most SEC experience, and many expect Malik Hornsby to be a future star.
Pittman closed with a lot of momentum, and was rewarded with a respectable national ranking. But the class is ranked 11th in the SEC. That is a better ranking than Lane Kiffin and Eli Drinkwitz, two coaches Arkansas pursued before hiring Pittman, achieved at Ole Miss and Missouri, respectively, but highlights that the Hogs still have a long way to go.
For now, we will settle for another moral victory.
Editor’s note: Now in its eighth 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. Tusk to Tail sponsors are the Arkansas Lottery Scholarship program and Turn Key Construction Management. The diehards may also be followed on their Facebook page. Or follow the crew on Twitter and Instagram, all @TuskToTail.