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All the spillage of words this week won't change what happened, but it'll damn sure be cathartic.
Saturday, Sept. 8, 2012, was, in this columnist's eyes, the worst day in Razorback football history, excluding those somber occasions that transcend sports altogether (when the Garrett Uekmans, Brandon Burlsworths and Shannon Wrights have left us prematurely). No Citadel, no Knoxville, no Big Shootout can compare, at least if you factor in all relevant context. A purported championship contender simply withered when a Sun Belt program without a winning season in 19 years in the Football Bowl Subdivision up and decided it wasn't going to be pushed around.
Arkansas gave away a game it led by 21 points in the third quarter, and at the risk of being dismissive of the opponent, the ignominy of doing so to the likes of Louisiana-Monroe cannot be understated. Todd Berry coached his Warhawks up and kept them believing for nearly four full hours, and his team undeniably earned this win with a 550-yard outburst and with a cagey quarterback, Kolton Browning, doing the kinds of things that we used to alternately curse and praise Matt Jones for. While Arkansas's offense was faltering (more on that shortly), Browning was fleeing and chucking and flipping and channeling everyone from Brett Favre to Fran Tarkenton. As hard as it may be for Hog fans to stomach, Browning's total output of 481 yards and four touchdowns may well have been the best single-game performance a player has ever had against Arkansas.
It was an excruciating happening, not only because of the timing (the old "tuneup" before Alabama) and the intrinsic damage wrought. Never have any of us borne witness to a spectacle like that which unfolded at War Memorial Stadium: significant and gruesome injuries on the field, an incomprehensible string of wasted offensive drives followed by ULM steadily pushing the ball upfield, coaches looking completely dumbfounded and arguably even detached. By the time Browning reversed field on fourth-and-1 in overtime and scampered toward paydirt and victory from 16 yards out, the Hogs were gassed and outclassed, completely bereft of any kind of leadership to forestall the implosion.
The aftermath of this Citadel for our times — ironic that the prior week against Jack Crowe's Jacksonville State squad was spent reliving the 20-year anniversary of that horror, only to replicate it the next week — is bleak. Tyler Wilson got beat up, sometimes illegally and without ULM being justly flagged, and finally headed to the locker room, depriving the Hogs of a field general who had amassed almost 200 yards passing in the first half alone. Brandon Allen started off hot, then ended the game with a streak of 12 straight incompletions as his atrocious excuse for protection played matador over the final 20 minutes of action or so. With Wilson's well-being to be a hot subtopic all week, Allen may earn his first career start behind that same sieve of a line, against the nation's preeminent defense, which will salivate at the opportunity to imprint his physique into the Reynolds Razorback Stadium turf.
Paul Petrino, targeted for months by fans as the most suitable long-term successor to his brother, may well have coached himself completely out of the crosshairs for a head coaching gig. Anywhere. Allen was a jittery mess in the pocket once ULM began to pin its ears back, and so what did Petrino do? He asked Allen to drop back repeatedly to face the same rush that had already skulled Wilson. All the while, Knile Davis stood idly as a purported safety valve. Davis was often accused by the TV crew of being "tentative" but it was a misapprehension on their part — the junior tailback simply wasn't asked, at any point, to salt the victory away. If you didn't know better, you would swear that the second half was a giant point-shaving exercise, designed to preserve as much clock as possible for ULM to gird itself for the rally.
And what to say of this defense? By a most violent pruning, the bloom has been torn from the Paul Haynes rose. Whatever jolt he was supposed to provide in lieu of Willy Robinson has been conspicuously absent as the Hogs' line is getting worked over, the linebackers are getting drawn out of position and the secondary is still looking as amateurish as it has most of the last decade. Most galling of all, Haynes sat perched in the coaches' box upstairs, giving no semblance of authority at a moment where a few facemasks could've stood yanking.
Meanwhile, John L. Smith, for whom I mounted a fairly vigorous defense upon his hiring, pulled off one hell of a Joe Hazelwood impression, letting the Valdez run aground and smirking as if he had all the authority of the stadium concessionaires. For as much as I defended Jeff Long's decision to employ Smith as a stopgap, there's no question that the "players' coach" vibe that the current athletes gave off can be dangerous. Smith doesn't deserve to be canned for the ULM debacle, but only because his dismissal would serve as a de facto white flag on a season that is not even 20 percent finished. (I won't even broach the subject of Smith's postgame snub of Berry, which he loosely and poorly explained in a Monday media session.)
The players could have certainly performed better, but they were left hung out to dry by a staff that either didn't afford ULM due respect or worse yet, lulled them into thinking that all eggs needed to go squarely in the Alabama basket. Let's not be delusional — the first half alone was proof that Arkansas simply cannot measure up to the Tide, yet again, and the second half was nothing more than an insulting reinforcement of the fact. Even a healthy, upbeat Razorback team was going to be up to its collective necks against Saban's monolith.
It's fruitless and frustrating to revisit what happened in the spring now, and to discern just how much of an impact "The Motorcycle Diaries Redux" had or will have on the program and its beleaguered athletic director. Bikes, bankruptcies and boorish behavior — none of it is relevant now, and Bobby ain't coming back regardless of how many Facebook fans plead for it. The here and now is of consequence, and there's still a team trotting out there every Saturday this fall that has to acquit itself against the longest of odds. Recovery starts this weekend, even if it proves to be one more nasty scar on the season, and the innocent bystanders in this absurd production are still committed to putting their best foot forward and delivering an entire fan base from despair.
Let's hope that these young men are able to hold serve on that commitment, regardless of what the ultimate win-loss record may be. The program they represent has been thrust toward the crossroads. A game, gritty effort against the best team in the country would be of immeasurable value.