J.R. and Henry: Coach for life
For any Arkansas Razorback fans who thought this year might be last for head coach Houston Nutt, forget about it. Houston will be the head coach of this team until he chooses not to be. Any doubt of this fact was erased when the Alabama Crimson Tide, ranked 22nd in one poll, came into Reynolds Razorback Stadium, looked for a way to lose and found it, 24-23 in double overtime. And while Alabama was self destructing, Nutt did what he appears to do best when his job is on the line – he motivates his team to make big plays when it counts.
That’s the way it seems to have gone for Nutt since he took over in 1998. Against the great teams, Arkansas normally gets taken to the woodshed. Against the bad teams, Arkansas usually rolls. And against everyone else, fans see a hodge podge of wins and losses that seem to result more by chance than anything else.
The Alabama game is a perfect example. Nutt and his Hogs watch as three field goal attempts by Alabama's Leigh Tiffin, from 37, 33, and 30 yards (any one of which would have provided the Tide a win) and one extra point, sail wide right. This comes on the heels of a road game with Vanderbilt where Arkansas won based on its opponent’s failure to convert a field goal and extra point.
And while it’s cause for great concern that there’s nothing between Arkansas and a 0-2 SEC record but a gust a wind and a freshman kicker’s lack of confidence, we’ll take it because it’s apparent after the first four games that with this coaching staff, wins aren’t going to come from preparedness.
Arkansas has been outplayed in the first half of every game except the Utah State game, and it was close that day. Against Alabama, the offense didn’t mount one sustained drive in the first half, and the defense was likewise dominated. That Alabama had only a 10-3 halftime advantage was a gift.
So, when the game was over, watching a disheveled Houston Nutt scale the concrete wall that separates the field from the fans, run up into the student section, climb a ladder reserved for the band leader and direct the band in the fight song while his team, having finished celebrating, was heading back to the locker room, we decided it could be worse.
First, there is nothing more fun than watching Nutt jump around after a victory. You’d think he had been in the student section the entire time. Name another coach who provides that much comedic relief after a victory. And after a loss, well, the quotes will keep you laughing all through the week.
And second, at least he’s not Alabama head coach Mike Shula. For as many tactical mistakes and failures in recruiting that have led to Nutt’s mediocre record in the Southeastern Conference over his nine-year career at Arkansas, we still wouldn’t trade him for Shula.
Some Alabama fans may have looked at last year’s 10-win season and thought that Shula was the man to lead the Tide back to national prominence. But Shula isn’t that coach because he coaches scared, and you can’t win big games when you try so very hard not lose them.
Take a look at the last three series for Alabama as evidence of this. With the score tied at 17 and the Tide marching into Arkansas territory, a first-and-goal near the Arkansas 10 with less than five minutes to play appeared to spell doom for the Hogs. But Shula took over and robbed his team of the best chance they had to win. Instead of attempting one pass, even on third down after the Razorback defense stuffed the Tide on back to back running plays, Shula again called for a run to set up a field goal for the lead.
Now, had Bama been rolling over the Hogs with their rushing attack and failing with their passing game that might have been the right call. But the opposite was true. Alabama quarterback John Parker Wilson had carved up Arkansas’s secondary all day, while tailback Kenneth Darby had been a nonfactor. Yet Alabama played for a three point lead, and the 30-yard field goal attempt sailed wide by Tiffin, the walk-on freshman kicker.
On the ensuing possession, Nutt, in a demonstration of his own Shula-esque coaching limitations, played for overtime by wasting the last three minutes of the first half despite good field position, and Shula was granted a reprieve. However, after Mitch Mustain was intercepted on third-and-long on Arkansas’s possession in the first overtime, Shula went right back to the same strategy that had failed him on series before: three straight running plays for minimal gains to set up a field goal. Shula opted for another try at a field goal by the same freshman kicker who had missed two field goals earlier in the day from similar distances.
With the game on the line, Shula apparently believed that history meant nothing. This irrational strategy proved costly, as the kick sailed wide again and his freshman kicker’s confidence went from shaky to nonexistent. Something proven conclusively when he missed an extra point in the second overtime after Alabama mixed pass and throw to march quickly for a touchdown during their possession in the second overtime.
The missed extra point set up the heroics of freshman receiver Ben Cleveland and freshman quarterback Mitch Mustain, and the winning score with Jeremy Davis’ extra point. Despite Mustain’s horrible day, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn kept his faith in the young freshman and kept gunning, calling pass plays on second-and-8 and third-and-8 from Alabama’s 11-yard line. Mustain delivered and Arkansas won. Nutt gambled for overtime and was rewarded with victory.
And while the offense sputtered, some credit needs to go to Reggie Herring and his defensive unit. As mentioned above, the defense got pushed around in the first half, but Herring made excellent adjustments at halftime, dialed up the pressure, and forced John Parker Wilson into numerous mistakes in the third quarter, including the forced fumble returned for a touchdown by safety Randy Kelly. By the time Wilson got his composure back in the fourth quarter, Arkansas had a seven-point lead.
Some Alabama fans may point to the statistics and say that Arkansas was lucky and Alabama is the better team. Well, excuses are for losers. We know because we’ve heard them all for the last few years, and we heard plenty after Arkansas’s lone run in with a good team this year. But a team is about more than the 22 men on the field. A team is about execution, it’s about avoiding penalties, and it’s about coaching. Alabama did not deserve to win Saturday, and despite all of the Razorbacks' foibles, they made the plays when it mattered and came away with a much deserved victory.
And with the win Houston Nutt, who has now won back-to-back games due to an opponents’ failure to make an extra point (has that ever happened in Division 1 football?), stamped his ticket for Razorback immortality.
J.R. and Henry blog their sports column on the Little Rocking blog every Monday and Thursday.