The Razorback football program might have never lost more victoriously than it did on October 10 at Auburn.
The controversial way the game ended, with officials whistling an intended clock-stopping dead when it looked for all the world like a backward pass live ball, and with the review officials in the stadium and 100 miles away in an office in Birmingham, Ala., confirming the play as called, set off a nationwide response from writers, broadcasters and fans that proclaimed the Razorbacks were shafted.
Such notables as Clay Travis, who rarely if ever has written or spoken positively about the Hogs, and ESPN’s Paul Finebaum, were up in arms over the way the SEC office treated Arkansas and rewarded Auburn in a 30-28 Tigers win.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, who’s always putting on this “play dumb” act about any situation he’s afraid to talk about, did just that — play dumb — in the post-game about his team’s good fortune in the final 30 seconds.
John McDaid, the former college referee turned first-year SEC coordinator of officials, ultimately cited good, ol’ judgment – bad, in this case, though he didn’t go that far – with the reasoning behind the SEC office’s confirming the call on the field in the review process, as laid out in an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette interview.
Officiating mechanics on the play and all that, important for these former officials now serving as boss over all the crews, got good marks from McDaid. As for the breakdown of the play itself, though, McDaid addressed it like an NTSB official trying to explain what a pilot was thinking just before he crashed the plane.
The referee saw this, did that, probably surmised this, didn’t realize where he was, locked in with spatial disorientation and blew his whistle, which led to his co-pilot officials all blowing their whistles while a couple of players still scrambled for the loose ball in front of a center judge frantically waving his arms to stop the play.
In the SEC’s view, as we know now, nobody recovered it. But the dumbfounded crew, apprised that Razorback football coach Sam Pittman wanted to decline the 10-second runoff that came with Auburn being called for intentional grounding without possession of any timeouts, ran the time off anyway. A field goal from 39 yards, even with the clock starting on the ref’s signal at 0:18, managed to take 11 seconds on the Auburn scoreboard, leaving Arkansas with just 7 seconds to manage anything in response. Weird things happen at Auburn with the clock, with the press box elevators for opposing coaches at halftime, and with replays sent upstairs as we all remember from the wild 2010 game.
With not enough time to complete a deep pass AND kick an answering field goal to win, the Hogs employed a hopeless pass-and-many-laterals attempt to try to cover 75 yards on its final play.
While there were a few writers and broadcasters (including this one) willing to also note that Arkansas did just enough to hurt itself with way-too-early 2-point-conversion attempts and kicking game disasters galore to have had the game come down to a last-second field goal, the multitudes around the country said Arkansas’ record should be 2-1. Some Hog fans who apparently live in fantasyland expected the conference to nullify the decision on the field and proclaim Arkansas the winner.
Nevertheless, in losing, Arkansas appeared to win. Yes, the Hogs are still 1-2. But never has Arkansas gotten this much national appreciation after a loss, at least since joining the SEC.
Had Arkansas won the game on the field 28-27 because Auburn quarterback Bo Nix produced an ESPN-ready Not Top Ten fiasco on third down, we believe most of the talk this week would instead be on Auburn boosters searching for the millions needed to end the Gus Malzahn era once and for all, while Tigers offensive coordinator Chad Morris would be unemployed for the second time in less than a year, and the national media would have focused either on how apropos this all is with Auburn and its annual over-expectations, or how generally stupid Auburn’s fan base is to throw away this much cash on football coaches.
There would not be this much attention on the Razorback football from coast to coast, that is for certain. Sure, Pittman’s incredible job to make the Hogs competitive out of the gate in his first campaign, following up the train wreck he inherited, would be a story. But it would not be talked about the way the last 30 seconds of Saturday’s game have been discussed and how they were handled, both by the officials and by an SEC office that continually appears among national observers to be corrupt in the way it protects the league’s powers.
Referee McDaid can say he’s sorry it all happened, but Arkansas fans don’t have many, if any, recollections of similar calls in such game-defining moments going their way. Rather, it harkens to the 2009 Florida game, when an official crew botched mostly the entire game, including flagging Arkansas for a personal foul that without doubt should have been called on a Florida player.
That travesty assured Tim Tebow and the then-No. 1 Gators stayed unbeaten on a late field, 23-20. Thanks to a national outcry that included even the CBS announcing crew of Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson that day, the league was forced to address the officiating failure, giving that crew a three-week suspension. Referee Marc Curles became persona non grata as far as Razorback fans were concerned on that dark day, though he eventually resurfaced in Hog games when Bret Bielema took over as head coach and has mostly avoided controversy.
Few Razorback fans probably remember that Alabama coaches and their fans screamed to high heaven about the ending of their 1995 game in Tuscaloosa with Arkansas, which was won by the Hogs 20-19 on the final play of the game — a controversial reception by J.J. Meadors on an underthrown toss from Barry Lunney Jr. Two years later, when Arkansas again took a late win, 17-16, over the Tide in Tuscaloosa on a pass from Clint Stoerner to Anthony Eubanks, that particular officiating crew was given an unplanned week off right after, not necessarily for missing a supposed “pick” that let Eubanks run free on the touchdown pass, but for allowing Arkansas to have 12 players unnoticed on a few snaps in the late going.
Lucky for Arkansas fans, the SEC didn’t set a precedent that would have reverberated throughout the sports world by rewarding Alabama those wins after the fact, just for crying foul.
Now, Arkansas has to make sure it avoids the lethargy all coaches fear after such an emotional, heartbreaking loss. Don’t let the Auburn result turn into two losses by forgetting to take care of business against Ole Miss at home this Saturday afternoon.
The Rebels have an amazing offense under first-year coach Lane Kiffen and a sophomore quarterback, Matt Corral, who’s much improved from last year. But, as good as the offense might be, the defense is the complete opposite. The Rebels cannot stop anyone, in the run or the pass.
Arkansas needs only to not stop itself. The Hogs can’t afford to stumble out of the gate the way they did at Auburn, trailing 17-0 before waking up offensively. The defense, while carrying Arkansas so far in three games, must tackle better, but contact work during the week has been negligible, we’re told, because of all the injuries cropping up.
From the point last week when Arkansas trailed 17-0, though, the Razorback kept offensively improving on every possession – except for one silly moment of getting cute again and inserting a freshman quarterback (Malik Hornsby) who’s so far no threat to pass, to try to run wide around a super-fast defense inside the 5-yard line.
Arkansas clearly outplayed Auburn and outscored the Tigers 28-13 when they figured out they were every bit as good, if not better in every area – except the kicking game. That’s an area that must get Pittman’s total attention this week and during the off week that follows.
The Razorback football team has such a small margin of error against this all-SEC schedule. Continuing to lose the kicking game – giving up a touchdown to a blocked punt, dropping PAT snaps, allowing too much return yardage while getting none itself – would pretty much assure Arkansas won’t beat another opponent on its slate.
For a preview of the Arkansas-Ole Miss game, here’s the latest from Pittman:
And here’s more from us: