There was something peculiar about the pregame tenor for this humble little thing called the “AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl.” (Rolls off the tongue like drool, huh?)
If you walked the polished floors of Houston’s Galleria or popped into any of the city’s countless upscale eateries, you saw red, and it wasn’t outrage from the credit card slip. Conversely, burnt orange wasn’t all that prevalent, and when you did see that familiar, lamentable hue, the fine people so adorned seemed almost reluctant about it.
Arkansas Razorback fans descended on the South’s most sprawling city with a force and fury that presaged the defensive effort that their beloved team thrust upon the Texas Longhorns. Before a crowd of 71,000-plus that assuredly was the most zealous bunch to ever watch two college teams fight to clear .500, the Hogs simply overwhelmed the 'Horns 31-7 on Dec. 29 at NRG Stadium. In so doing, they created immense buzz for a 2015 season that now, against all odds, portends rather well.
Hog signal caller Brandon Allen was game MVP, perhaps more a credit for season-long stoicism in the face of withering criticism than actual game performance. Don’t be mistaken: The rising senior will be a genuine asset next fall ,and his modest effort against Texas (160 passing yards, two well-thrown first-half touchdowns and zero turnovers) was precisely what was required, but this was a game where defensive coordinator Robb Smith’s unprecedented magic act had its true encore. Texas mustered an FBS season-low 59 total yards and seven first downs, and wouldn’t have pierced the end zone at all but for a woeful kickoff hiccup by the Hogs late in the first half.
It was plainly evident that Charlie Strong’s charge to craft the Longhorns anew is on a far slower track than the one Bret Bielema is overseeing. Arkansas got invigorated by Allen’s strike to Demetrius Wilson in the first quarter — the senior’s first TD reception of a frustrating final year — and then completely seized control when a botched handoff by the Longhorns ended with Taiwan Johnson emerging from a scrum in the end zone with the ball for another touchdown moments later. It was 17-0 on the scoreboard but with the way Smith’s unit was attacking, it might as well have been triple that, especially with Texas being one of the least productive squads in the offensive-minded Big 12.
Bielema spent much of Year Two in Fayetteville steadfastly reminding us that all those agonizing losses were not, in fact, reason to implode the philosophy but rather tough but necessary validation. He was proven correct in November with the Hogs blanking LSU and Ole Miss on consecutive, chilly Saturdays in November, and the season-ending loss at Missouri, though painful, seemed to galvanize the team for its first bowl in three years. Seniors Trey Flowers and Martrell Spaight smelled the lure of professional contracts and wreaked havoc on Texas ball carriers; Darius Philon and Johnson, meanwhile, auditioned for preseason All-SEC consideration with excellent work in the middle.
The Hogs also played clean, as Bielema likes to put it, with no penalties of any kind until the outcome was decided in the fourth quarter and no giveaways. Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins masterfully did the tandem grind work again, amassing 181 combined yards on the ground without really breaking loose for too many highlight-worthy runs. The end calculus was yet again a smothering possession disparity (Arkansas controlled the ball for more than 42 minutes) and that allowed the defense to be fresh even as the final seconds rolled off. The Hogs even eschewed a final scoring opportunity in the interest of civility, kneeling out the clock after pounding it inside the Texas 5-yard line.
The celebration was as beautiful as the circumstances merited. A good 25,000 in red belted out the fight song and alma mater with the other side of the stadium having long since emptied, and Bielema beamed proudly, embracing seemingly anyone who would move within his reach. In the days that followed, Arkansas got something perhaps more reassuring in the form of a bizarre three-day stretch where the meat of the SEC West got summarily tenderized in an 0-5 run that started with LSU frittering away chances in a loss to Notre Dame and ended with Alabama’s Hail Mary against Ohio State falling harmlessly to the ground.
Arkansas is emerging from the grave just as some of the contemporaries are descending back toward Earth. Timing has rarely been on the side of the program, but we’re almost a whole week into 2015 and the year hasn’t offered any sour notes for Razorback fans yet.
These Pearls are strung in memory of a lifelong Hog fan and UA graduate. Jake, my friend, may your new luxury skybox offer you a resplendent view of the seasons ahead. — BW