There’s no better soothsayer after Arkansas’s tortured, ulcerous 29-24 win over Ole Miss than Nolan Richardson.
The erstwhile basketball coach was fond of saying, “A raggedy ride is better than a smooth walk,” often using the old saw (hell, I guess it qualifies as a “saw” now) to describe those contests where his team would unearth a win after throwing up bricks or getting killed on the boards all night. He meant it, too, as he seemed to embrace all those shaky performances as teaching implements. You’d assume that Bobby Petrino, being at a minimum every bit the taskmaster Nolan was, will seize the chance to invoke the Richardson teaching method this week as well.
Pretend for a moment that Arkansas-Ole Miss is a game that is unaccompanied by the ancillary melodrama that is known as Houston Dale Nutt Jr. I’ll set the scene:
Arkansas goes on the road for the dreaded pre-noon kickoff, gets burned early and often by an inferior, but motivated opponent and develops no offensive rhythm due to the sheer disparity of time of possession (three-to-one by halftime). The Hogs trail 17-7 at the break, and but for a nifty, timely touchdown by Dennis Johnson, the scoreboard might even be tilted more decisively toward the foe. All told, things could be better … but they could easily be worse.
A month ago, Alabama led the Hogs by the same score. In a bizarre homage of sorts, Nutt and co. mirrored the Nick Saban gameplan, starving Arkansas’s offense by feasting on its porous run defense. Randall Mackey assumed the role of AJ McCarron beautifully, firing short, quick passes to the slot to set up later downfield shots. It was the same low-risk, high-reward approach, and it worked.
Ole Miss, alas, is not Alabama. The Rebels lack depth and discipline — direct indictments of the program’s overseers — and accordingly the wheels spun right off the axle in the third quarter. The Hogs, being pretty savvy at shrugging off slow starts at this point, got it together long enough to string together 22 points over the span of 15 minutes in the third and fourth quarters. Having to sit for extended stretches in the first half made Tyler Wilson atypically erratic, but the junior quarterback continued to endear himself to Arkansas fans by being resilient and unflappable in the second half. Johnson broke through for a career-best 160 rushing yards, demonstrating conclusively that he is ready to shoulder the rushing load going forward.
And Willy Robinson…well, bless his mustache, the guy’s vanilla defensive schemes have as much sex appeal as a Minnie Pearl show, but his players are buckling down every time they have to. Eric Bennett continues to emerge as the most reliable player in a generally disappointing secondary and Trey Flowers has emerged as Jake Bequette’s likely successor at end. To a man, the team is tackling better. Ole Miss’ second-half fizzle was due partially to — wait for it — peculiar playcalling from David Lee (because everyone knows that Lee calls all the plays that don’t work). But Arkansas definitely throttled up on the defensive side as it did against both Texas A&M and Auburn, and the end result was exactly what we all wanted.
It is easily forgotten that last season the Razorbacks opened up a 21-3 first-half lead on Mississippi only to let the Rebels ease back into the game in the third quarter. The game memorably became Knile Davis’ coming-out party, but Jeremiah Masoli also posted the best performance of his one miserable year in Oxford against the Hogs. In fact, the Rebels rolled up over 500 total yards in the 38-24 loss at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, and similarly dominated time of possession in that game (36:11 to 23:49).
So why agonize over this year’s narrow escape? Last year’s game gave us all a modicum of relief because it was the first win against Nutt in three tries. That Ole Miss team was indisputably terrible, as this one allegedly is, and yet some perpetually disgruntled Razorback fans are panicking about the state of the program because we couldn’t manhandle the Rebels in the same way that Alabama did the week before.
The simple truth, my friends: Houston Nutt, given a chance to beat Arkansas, will work his hardest all season to make that happen. He may not do much the other 51 weeks of the year (such as recruit, display accountability or strengthen his pectorals), but he’s gonna chew those nails down to the cuticle to attain what he views as retribution.
For another year, we’re fortunate he didn’t. So it’s off to Nashville we go, a Top 10 program with a 6-1 record and BCS aspirations in play.
Raggedy ride and all.