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Waiting on the Hogs 

The late, inimitable Tom Petty memorably penned, then belted out, this refrain in his classic “The Waiting”: “You take it on faith, you take it to the heart/The waiting is the hardest part.”

I miss Tom Petty and his music greatly. I miss Razorback football finishing out games even more so (remember, Pearls gestates from the skewed, jaded perspective of a Hog fan, rather than some detached cynic).

Over the Razorbacks’ last 21 games, they have registered all of five victories. That fact alone is garish enough to cause anyone’s cardinal blood to boil, but here’s the real ugly part: In those 16 losses, Arkansas led or was tied in the second half of exactly half of those, and they also had a chance to knot things up with Texas A&M in the final minutes this season despite trailing the entirety of that game.

Arkansas lost its killer instinct at a precise point in time: the day after Thanksgiving 2016 against lowly Missouri — Black Friday, indeed — and the waiting on the recovery has gotten stale. Bret Bielema and staff were soon excommunicated, although ironically, the Hogs’ one conference win in 2017 came at Ole Miss, and it represented the largest comeback ever for the program in an SEC game. Bielema left with, at least, a 4-1 record against the Rebels, and oddsmakers and fans felt like this momentum Arkansas was slowly building in respectable showings against Auburn, A&M and Alabama was enough to again get past the Rebels, who entered 4-2 overall and 0-2 in the SEC.

After a fast 17-3 start buoyed by Rakeem Boyd’s explosive 69-yard touchdown run and a pretty scoring toss from quarterback Ty Storey to tight end Cheyenne O’Grady, the hard field surface and conditions exacted their toll on a team already bereft of depth. Storey first got drilled on an ill-advised throwback play, sat briefly, and Cole Kelley would come in hot with a 39-yard scoring strike to La’Michael Pettway in the second quarter that stretched the Hogs’ lead back to 24-10 (It would reach 27-10 before the Rebels cut that to 27-17 just seconds before halftime). From there, though, Storey was gimpy and got mauled again on a later, harder hit that left him sidelined the rest of the night. Boyd also sustained a back injury on a hard tackle in the first half, and Devwah Whaley’s return to action ended up being short-lived, too, as he appeared to turn an ankle late in the game.

Even with all that getting dinged up, Arkansas (now 1-6, 0-4) still had Connor Limpert effortlessly knocking through a career-best four field goals, and it appeared that would keep Ole Miss at bay. The Hogs led 33-24 in the fourth quarter after the last of Limpert’s kicks, and that margin would’ve been safe for a healthier, confident team. Instead, Rebel quarterback Jordan Ta’amu, on the way to a 528-total yard explosion, kept exploiting the Hogs’ beleaguered defensive front by dashing through wide lanes and firing quick-strike passes. His 387-yard passing performance was big, but the 141 yards he made on 17 runs were far more damaging to the Hogs in the end. Because John Chavis’ defense could never adequately draw a bead on the shifty Ta’amu until he was yards downfield. Though the Hogs were able to smother dangerous tailback Scottie Phillips, he plunged into the end zone with 42 seconds left to give Ole Miss a comeback win, 37-33, that was made official when Kelley air-mailed a desperation throw for an interception moments later.

This, ostensibly, was the game that could have reversed the course of Arkansas’s seemingly lost season. The second half of the schedule was ripe with possible opportunities to string together a few wins and regain respectability. Instead, after LSU rebounded masterfully from a loss at Florida to thoroughly club Georgia, and Mississippi State has stayed in the rankings despite a couple of stumbles, those games look like sure defeats. Missouri didn’t embarrass itself at Tuscaloosa, either, and Vanderbilt had Florida on the ropes for three quarters before things came unraveled, so really, this is not an easy trip down the final stretch for the Hogs to take.

We saw how demoralized they were after losing at Colorado Springs in week two; the ensuing return to Fayetteville for the North Texas fiasco showed a team ill-prepared to overcome a collapse, particularly one that decimated the Hogs’ personnel so much. Instead of this being a glorious rebirth of conference clashes at War Memorial, it was a rainy, chilly mess of a denouement after a notably good week on the recruiting side of things (Hudson Henry committed on Thursday, and the Hogs’ 2019 class ranking continues to rise to nearly unprecedented levels according to most services).
And so, the waiting remains the hardest part. Even a win over a bad Tulsa team might not be enough salve for the wounds this team has suffered to date.
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