Tailgates popped up around War Memorial Stadium Saturday (Sept. 2) morning before the Razorback matchup with Western Carolina. (photo by Mark Wagner)

Tusk to Tail: Water, shade, and a running game were hard to find at War Memorial

It seems safe to say that the University of Arkansas is not so big on Little Rock. Player safety was the official reason given for moving the Razorbacks’ kickoff time at War Memorial Stadium back three hours to noon Saturday, but the difference in forecasts was a negligible three degrees.

As tailgate tents suddenly sprung up across the former public golf course, someone joked that university officials were probably just too scared to stay in the Capital City after dark.

It’s true, Little Rock tailgates tend to feature more cultural diversity than their Northwest Arkansas counterparts. There are significantly less Texans, for one. Dale said his trip down I-49 was a solid mass of UA students with Lone Star license plates, each heading westward home. I-40 East to Little Rock was by far the road less traveled.

After all, you would have to be some kind of social deviant to spend your holiday weekend traveling to watch the Hogs play the football equivalent of a snuff film inside an aluminum popcorn popper.

Welcome to the 12th season of Tusk to Tail.

Craig is known as the Godfather of Tailgating due to his appetite and tolerance for Razorback football and pregame cocktails. Waiting in line to enter the tailgating grounds as the sun began to rise over Markham and Fair Park, Craig told his brother he was tailgating on this golf course before the lot attendant was even born. He did not need to follow any golf cart to know where he was going.

It’s been the same spot for decades, beneath the big oak tree by the old 18th tee. Jordan and his sidekick Jason used to drive down for games in the Rock, just like most of the other students. You could set up on the golf course on Friday nights back then, and Jordan’s dad Jamey would often stay overnight smoking meats and cigars. Jamey seemed to enjoy tailgating, especially once his younger son Jarod began to invite some of the girls he knew from the Arkansas cheer squad. We’re still there, even when the game involves something called a Catamount or kicks off at the crack of noon.

For all the handwringing over weather forecasts and kickoff times, Saturday morning was probably the most pleasant opening day conditions any of us old heads could recall. Cloudy skies and a steady breeze kept things comfortable as tens of thousands of Hog fans assembled for the enormous outdoor party. Apparently some patients from the nearby hospitals were able to make it out, as wafts of medical cannabis occasionally drifted among the tents.

It wasn’t all that long ago that playing in Little Rock was seen as some kind of honor for the Razorbacks. Local legends like Darren McFadden seemed to play with an extra gear in their hometown. Not only did Houston Damn Nutt go 17-0 at War Memorial, one of the wins came against Nick Saban. Mike Leach said it was the loudest stadium he ever encountered.

WMS tailgating demands the same level of intensity. If you have ever had one drink on that golf course, you have probably had many more than one drink there. The hoity toity Grove at Ole Miss might get all the love, but our little golf course in the hood is peak tailgating to TTT. And it’s not all burning couches, beer pong, and portable hot tubs, even though I’ve seen all that and more.

The family vibe has always been there, but it seemed more evident Saturday. Our younger friends brought their kids while the ones around my age drove their parents to the game. Three generations of Craig’s family were there. Most tailgates had a similar family dynamic, including our neighbors with a dozen or so school age children all attending their first game. Tickets were not hard to come by, and it appeared that several took advantage of the opportunity to introduce their offspring to the glory of SEC football.

Of course having a ticket implies that the scanners could read them. There was concern that the new electronic ticketing system could confuse less tech savvy fans, but it was the technology itself that failed Saturday. Lines backed up hundreds of yards before stadium officials finally just began letting people in on their honor. Frustrated security guards confiscated one man’s cigarettes while allowing another through with a vape pen.

Shortly before game time, the clouds thinned out and the mercury began to rise. The heat we had been expecting beat down with a vengeance. Nearly everyone around me sent someone to the concession stands to buy bottles of water.

A sizable portion of the crowd had moved to the concourse by halftime, either waiting for concessions or taking respite in the shade. As the beer line stretched longer than 45 minutes and other stands ran out of water, Dale and I had seen enough. We had coolers filled with both back at the tailgate.

Razorback Quarterback KJ Jefferson (1). (photo by Mark Wagner)

The Hogs steamrolled the Catamounts 56-13, providing a no sweat cover to those who laid the 35 points. It’s hard to tell much from playing a lower tier program like Western Carolina, but discussing the game back at our tent, it seemed everyone agreed on the following:

• The passing game is in good shape. KJ Jefferson completed his first 12 passes and ultimately 18 of 23 for 246 yards and 3 touchdowns, each to different receivers. Jacolby Criswell completed both attempts and threw a TD, to yet another receiver in mop up duty.

• The newcomers look impressive. The Hogs opened offensively with a 14-yard reception by freshman tight end Luke Hasz, and an astounding five touchdowns were scored by players who were not on the Arkansas starting roster last year. Sophomore receiver Jaedon Wilson had battled through injuries as a Razorback reserve while Isaac TeSlaa and Andrew Armstrong arrived via the transfer portal. Receiver Davion Dozier is a true freshman, as is linebacker Brad Spence, who returned an interception 85 yards for the Hogs’ final TD. Spence was just one of several defenders to make an impact in his first appearance for the Hogs.

• Focusing on a fast start and winning the turnover battle paid off. Arkansas coaches and players said after the game that an emphasis was placed on getting ahead early. After a quick three-and-out by the Razorbacks defense, the Hogs needed just two plays totaling 79 yards to score the first touchdown. Arkansas led 21-3 at the end of the first quarter, and 35-3 at halftime. Likewise, new defensive coordinator Travis Williams reportedly asked his squad for turnovers. The Razorbacks D responded with 4 interceptions and a fumble recovery which led to 28 points for the Hogs.

• Special teams were solid. Cam Little’s kickoffs typically sailed through the endzone for touchbacks and Max Fletcher averaged 49 yards per punt, dropping two inside the 20 yard line.  Isaiah Sategna returned a punt for 39 yards.

• The run game still needs work. Excuses could be made. The offensive line was already considered to be a work in progress before four-year starter Brady Latham’s injury reshuffled the line. The Catamounts did everything possible to hold Rocket Sanders to only 42 yards on 15 carries, and still gave up two scores. Other running backs including AJ Green, Rashod Dubinion, and Isaiah Augustave had a more respectable average. The fact remains that against a team like WCU, Sanders should be able to impose his will.

Editor’s note: Now in its 12th 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.

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