Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Hard to fathom a worse homecoming than the one Arkansas experienced on Saturday. I'll make a short list of flat-out debacles that most people know by score alone:
51-7 Miami, 1987. We all remember this one by the digits alone, because Miami was a powerhouse in every sense of the word, and the Hogs were a Top 10 bunch looking to tug on Superman's cape. The Orlando Sentinel's recap of that game famously stated that the game was so lopsided it resembled "the Chicago Bears vs. the Merritt Island Mustangs."
There was that 70-17 pasting in California back in '05, with the Hogs coming off a home loss to Vanderbilt a little more than a year after Houston Nutt famously complained about the bottom-feeding Commodores not being on the schedule enough to suit him. Top-rated USC greeted the Pigs at the Coliseum the next weekend, and the results were predictably terrible as Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush deconstructed a woeful defense with lightning-quick precision.
Last year, on a sloppy Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, Alabama did the rough equivalent of what USC did, seizing upon the chance to destroy a team in ruin from the week before. The similarities were eerie: Bama was the top dog in the country as USC was, the Hogs were coming off a bad home loss to a lesser foe (ULM in this case), and there was a heavily unsettled quarterbacking situation with Robert Johnson trying to tenuously hold the job eight years ago, and Tyler Wilson injured and leaving Brandon Allen the reins for his first start last fall. Bama responded, 52-0, and the season's downward spiral was essentially complete two months ahead of schedule.
I'll throw another one out there, though, that may have been forgotten, because I think it serves as a more apt comparison to what we all witnessed on Saturday. In 2008, Bobby Petrino's first season as head coach, the Hogs were saddled with a rescheduled game at Texas at the end of September, and went to Austin for what more or less looked the part of a paycheck game. Arkansas was teetering after two shaky nonconference wins to open the year, then a thoroughly gross showing against Alabama at home, so this trip to Texas never had the look of anything other than a Saturday rout. And it was.
Texas did that day what South Carolina did Saturday: expose literally every shallow facet of the Hogs' susceptible defense. Colt McCoy was a paragon of two-way brilliance five years earlier, and Connor Shaw mirrored that, throwing to receivers so open that he might as well have been pitching foam footballs through scoring holes in an arcade game. Arkansas is so terribly thin at linebacker and secondary that every whiffed tackle and every blown assignment avails itself to even novice fans who wouldn't normally diagnose soft coverage unless it literally kicked them directly in the face. And it did on Saturday, repeatedly and with force.
And what about that offense? Well, it was pretty repugnant at Gainesville the week before, but there was hope that Arkansas could effuse something resembling balance against a Gamecocks defense that had given up 53 combined points to perceived lightweights Central Florida and Kentucky. Guess what? Arkansas is that lightweight now. Alex Collins' six-yard TD run on the opening possession capped off a nice starting drive, but regrettably, college football games now have another 55 minutes or so where your players actually have to make smart decisions with and without the football. This memorandum failed to reach a jarringly uninterested bunch, and that set the stage, for South Carolina simply murdered the Hogs the rest of the way with a run of 52 unanswered points that was punctuated by the Cocks converting their fifth fourth down of the day and getting points from a third-string quarterback who may have very well been Steve Taneyhill. (I don't really know who it was, as I was already checking into a hotel in Rogers by the time the Cocks pinned the last points on the scoreboard.)
This was, in short, the bottoming out for 2013. We suffered so much in 2012 that it's practically a feat that Hog fans are still impassioned at all about the proceedings, but if you had a barometer on Saturday around 1 p.m. it probably registered something close to suffocation around the coaching staff and particularly around Allen, whose progress has been stunted so hard and forcefully that you wonder if he will ever gather himself and produce again. He's still not getting help from receivers who run fine routes and then scissorhand easy catches in space, or from offensive linemen who literally lay no hand at all on the on-rushing ends or linebackers.
What looks most disastrous about the loss is that after halftime, when the Hogs were down 24-7 but at least theoretically within striking distance of competing, the team seemed to plant the white flag firmly in the turf. An acrimonious crowd sensed it too. You could hardly hear the PA announcer in the final 20 minutes or so because even the rapidly emptied cavern had all manner of profanity and disdain echoing about. Inarguably, it was one of the worst days in the stadium's long history, and now Alabama sits there again, ready to just decimate this corpse.
Arkansas has five games, but maybe no fuel or motivation, remaining. Petrino seemed to get a pass in 2008 for his team's failings because it sprinkled in a few moments of promise down the stretch and had Ryan Mallett waiting in the wings to take over in 2009. What Bret Bielema has is a less dynamic offense, a far shakier roster on the whole, and not near the fan buoyancy he would hope to have going into the offseason. These Hogs need to play with at least the level of courage they displayed in the loss to Texas A&M, because that was a team that may realistically be good enough to find a couple more victories in the offing. The Hogs that "played" against South Carolina will hopefully not be seen again.
Good analysis, something completely lacking from the daily newspaper's sports reporters/columnists.
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