Tusk to Tail: The non-rivalry rivalry was another ‘bad movie’ in an outdated dump
Following the Hogs should carry a warning like those pill commercials: May cause mood swings, sleeplessness, and anxiety. Look no further than the Battle Line Rivalry, the made up name for Arkansas’ made up rivalry with Missouri.
Saturday’s 50-48 loss to the Tigers felt like a roller coaster ride, but only if you jumped on the ride right after winning the hot dog eating contest. An otherwise pleasant day had its ups and downs, leaving Razorback fans feeling sick, but still a little proud.
First of all, neither side considers this game a rivalry. Despite recent evidence to the contrary, most Arkansas fans consider the Missouri program to be beneath them. Hog pride begins with the great tradition of Arkansas football. The Razorbacks played for Southwest Conference championships and the “Game of the (20th) Century,” before joining the almighty SEC back in 1991. Mizzou was just a basketball school, if that, in the Big Eight before forming the Big Twelve conference with most of the Texas schools Arkansas had left behind. Though neither south nor eastern, the Tigers snuck into the Southeastern Conference when the league expanded to 14 teams in 2012.
Missouri doesn’t consider the annual Arkansas game a rivalry, mostly because the Hogs haven’t put up much of a fight. Since Missouri joined the league, Arkansas was led by John L. Smith, Bret Bielema, Chad Morris, and even Barry Lunney, Jr. That’s not exactly Murderer’s Row, and Mizzou has responded accordingly. The Tigers were 5-1 against the Razorbacks in the SEC heading into Saturday’s matchup with Coach Sam Pittman’s Hogs.
Feeling superior to a team that routinely cleans your clock is not a formula for success. So if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Pittman hired former Missouri head coach Barry Odom as his Defensive Coordinator. Offensive line coach Brad Davis and cornerbacks coach Sam Carter joined Odom from the Tigers’ staff. Each of those assistants have helped turn around an Arkansas program skidding through its lowest point in recent history.
Not to be outdone, the TIgers hired Alma native Eli Drinkwitz as their head coach last December. Drinkwitz was rumored to be ahead of Pittman on the Razorbacks’ short list of coaching candidates before taking the job in Columbia. While both teams seem content with the coach they got, these storylines could help build a rivalry where before there was none. They may also contribute to those mood swings.
Before the December sun started burning, Dale was already yearning to be on his way to the worst SEC stadium by far, Faurot Field. Our master tailgate planner had sat through all the cold and rainy losses at this outdated dump that ranks somewhere between Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium and Quigley Stadium in terms of luxury.
Nice weather was only one draw. Dale’s true motivation was a desire to see the first Arkansas win at Faurot. He’d been able to scratch off the likes of Alabama’s Bryant-Denny, Tennessee’s Neyland, and LSU’s Death Valley off the stadium victory tour through the years, but Mizzou remained elusive. Arkansas was a 3-point underdog, but Tusk to Tail unanimously liked the Hogs’ chances. Until rumors of a rib injury to starting quarterback Feleipe Franks began to surface, that is.
“Just when I thought we had a chance, 2020 puts another boot on my throat,” texted Dale to the TTT group thread.
Redshirt Freshman KJ Jefferson was starting in place of Franks. Jefferson was one of eight quarterbacks to play in Chad Morris’s failed two year regime, but he physically appeared to have the most upside.
“Jefferson has faster, more athletic 3 & outs than Franks,” I said to the group. The young signal caller’s first drive lasted exactly 36 seconds.
“Just like sex,” joked our friend under his Mortimer alias. It was said in response to my armchair analysis that Jefferson should rely on his raw ability rather than overthinking the game plan. It was echoed again when tight end Blake Kerns’ touchdown was described as “ugly, but effective.”
Arkansas was missing other key players in addition to Franks. Senior running back Rakeem Boyd used the COVID exception to opt out of the remainder of the season earlier in the week. Boyd said he will begin preparing for the NFL draft. Redshirt freshman safety Jalen Catalon was forced to sit out the first half, serving a suspension for the LSU game’s controversial targeting penalty.
So the Hogs were seeking a rare SEC road win with an all new backfield of Jefferson and Sophomore transfer running back Trelon Smith. What could possibly go wrong? Things looked pretty bleak when Arkansas fell behind 10-0 after Missouri’s first two possessions. Morris’s teams would have folded like a mom and pop store trying to compete with online mass retailers during a pandemic. (Too soon?)
Pittman, on the other hand, has his Razorbacks believing in themselves. The difference is astounding, as the Hogs fought back for a 27-20 halftime lead. Jefferson’s 68-yard touchdown pass to Sophomore receiver Treylon Burks was among the best pass and catch combos you will see all year. The offensive line played their best game of the season, opening wide holes for Smith, who rushed for 172 yards and 3 touchdowns. Arkansas even had a trick play work, when kick holder Jack Lindsey rushed 20 yards for a first down on a fake field goal attempt. It really seemed like the Razorbacks were living right when Missouri’s best defender, linebacker Nick Bolton, was ejected on a similarly controversial targeting penalty. Each team would be without their best defender for a half.
About the only thing not really working for the Hogs was once again special teams. Whether kick returner Nate Parodi chose to fair catch or return, it seemed like the wrong choice. One extra point was missed, while another was blocked. In light of Vanderbilt soccer goalie Sarah Fuller starting for the Commodore football team, some of TTT wondered whether Coach Colby Hale would allow any of his players to take the gridiron for the Hogs.
It is unfair to blame the kicker or any single player for a loss in a team sport. Pittman and the Razorbacks are doing the best they can with what they got. It’s enough to earn Pittman consideration for SEC’s Coach of the Year. Odom’s defensive turnaround has been particularly impressive, and has contributed to some Arkansas victories. Unfortunately, the Hogs’ lack of defensive depth was not sustainable for a 10-game SEC grind. The dam finally broke to the tune of 50 points and 653 total yards of Tiger offense.
A 14-point lead evaporated as Mizzou scored 21 unanswered. Arkansas wasn’t finished yet, taking the lead with 43 seconds remaining on Mike Woods’ touchdown reception and miraculous 2-point conversion. Wood’s go-ahead catch is the kind of play that usually earns a nickname, like “the Miracle on Markham.” As it turns out, they only do that if you win.
“We’ve all seen this movie before,” Craig wrote as Missouri strolled down the field into field goal range.
“Every Missouri game goes just like this,” his brother agreed as Tigers kicker Harrison Mevis split the uprights from 32 yards. Missouri’s victory improved its record to 6-1 over Arkansas since joining the SEC, 9-3 overall.
While it is sickening to score 48 in a losing effort, I appreciate the direction in which Pittman has his Hogs headed. I feel better about the young quarterback room than I did last week. Sometimes it takes a little kick in the pants to get a rivalry started.
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.