Tuesday, November 30, 2010

SPORTS>> Editor still not ready to eat his words over Hogs, yet


Leader sports editor

Less than a year ago, I took a little heat when I wrote in this space that as long as the Arkansas Razorbacks play in the SEC, the best they can hope for is an average 7.5 victories a year and a decent bowl game.

Actually, I took heat because I was defending former coach Houston Nutt against his un-grateful critics. I felt and still feel that, personality and personal baggage aside, Nutt did his utmost for Arkansas and left the program better than when he found it.

The two people who read my column didn’t like what I had to say that much. One declared I would be eating my words after the Razorbacks won a national championship and quarterback Ryan Mallett took the Heisman trophy this year.

Well, those things aren’t happening, but after Saturday’s latest thriller between Arkansas and LSU in Little Rock, I’m still willing to nibble a few syllables. Because as it stands the 10-2 Razorbacks and third-year coach Bobby Petrino have exceeded that 7.5 average and are looking at a REALLY good bowl this year.

At the very least, maybe we can all move on now and forget about Nutt — until his Ole Miss Rebels play the Hogs again next season anyway.

On Saturday, the Razor-backs knocked off the No. 5 Tigers 31-23 in War Memorial Stadium and kept up that tradition (begun under a certain former coach we have agreed to forget) of giving LSU fits when they play in the Capital City.

It wasn’t the 2002 Miracle on Markham, which Matt Jones won with his 31-yard touchdown pass to DeCori Birming-ham with nine seconds left. Nor was it the 2008 Miracle on Markham II, which Casey Dick won with a 24-yard touchdown pass to London Crawford on fourth and one with 22 seconds left.

Last week’s game was mildly less exciting only because Mallett turned in his biggest play, with a huge assist from receiver Cobi Hamilton, at the end of the first half instead of the second.

By the way, what’s up with all these receivers’ names anyway? DeCori, London, Cobi? Did these guys have movie stars for parents or something?

Anyway, Mallett hooked up with Hamilton on the sideline and Hamilton turned it into an 80-yard scoring play with no time left for the 21-14 halftime lead. The play was a companion piece to the 85-yard, Mallett-to-Hamilton scoring completion posted earlier in the second quarter.

It was still a nail-biter for the most part — LSU was within 21-20 at one point — but the scoring ended with a field goal by the Tigers’ Josh Jasper with 4:11 left.

And when the sun rose over the BCS landscape Monday, Arkansas had risen to No. 7, an all-time high, in the composite rankings that sort of help determine the national champion.

Yes, the Razorbacks still have their red pig noses plastered against the glass as they look in on the top four Auburn, Oregon, TCU and Stanford. But, though not in the national championship picture, Arkansas can expect a far better postseason trip than last year’s jaunt down Interstate 40 to Memphis and the Liberty Bowl against East Carolina.

Several people are kicking around the idea of the Sugar Bowl. And why not? The Hogs earned it.

They earned it by finding some defense and a running game to go with the high-powered offense led by Mallett. And they earned it with a six-game winning streak that included

victories over quality, SEC opponents like Mississippi State, South Carolina and LSU.

Arkansas’ two losses were to Alabama, No. 1 at the time, and current No. 1 Auburn, which rallied from 24-0 to beat Alabama 28-27 on Friday in what may be the game of the year.

That victory, by the way, certainly speaks to the quality of the SEC, which seems to hold a bowl game somewhere every week.

It also speaks to Arkansas’ accomplishments and proves if you can win in the SEC you will likely be playing for something special early in the new year.

Unfortunately, the Hogs’ defense was mostly MIA in the 65-43 loss to Auburn even as Mallett was lighting up the scoreboard.

And it was Mallett who can pass the ball 80 yards on a dime yet couldn’t toss it away out of bounds when he threw a critical interception against Alabama.

That play, and an end zone interception in the same game, probably cost Mallett his chance at the Heisman.

It all goes to show just how few mistakes a team can afford each week in the SEC. But I give Arkansas its due credit and I will happily swallow a few words.

It’s a nice change of pace from leftover turkey.