Victory, injury and a new quarterback
It did not take long for Houston Nutt to insert Casey Dick into the line-up against South Carolina. It was on the third play, in fact, after Mitch Mustain’s first and only pass was intercepted.
Once the USC defender came down with the ball Mustain’s 7-0 start, the best ever for a freshman quarterback at Arkansas was quickly forgotten, and the second era of Casey Dick began in Columbia. That’s the real story of Saturday and we cannot ignore it. But before we dissect it further, it’s worth some words about the Gamecocks, generally.
What was with all the hype behind this game?
After all, South Carolina’s five victories have come against Mississippi State, Wofford, Florida Atlantic, Vanderbilt or Kentucky. Their losses were all against Top 25 teams when they played them (Georgia is no longer ranked), so there’s not much to suggest that the Gamecocks are a bad football team.
They’re just not any good against ranked teams.
But when you’re undefeated in conference play in November for the first time eight seasons and when you’re nationally relevant this late in the season for the first time in a long time, every game is perceived to be difficult game, particularly in the world of managed expectations.
Night games in the SEC are always difficult, we suppose. And in Columbia, the Gamecocks pack in more than 80,000 fans consistently. But these are the intangibles. In order for them to make a difference, South Carolina has to be competitive on the field. To listen to the radio or read the message boards, one might think that a 5-3 Carolina team was ripe to play for a national title. But to look at their players and their record, even despite of their coach, is to conclude that this team is mediocre – at best.
And that’s the caliber of team that showed up on Saturday night.
Our point is not to diminish the victory, but to state that it demonstrates nothing near the magic Arkansas’ fans argued that it would. It was a win; a good, comforting, wool cap on winter day kind of win that Arkansas fans should, by now, come to expect.
Now back to this quarterback issue. If you recall, we wrote that demoting Robert Johnson from first string quarterback to eighth string receiver was a poor decision by Nutt, regardless of the circumstances. The same is true with the Mustain demotion. One interception should not a season make. But as a result, Mustain, like Johnson, probably won’t see the field again except in mop up duty.
But we shall not get bogged down in futile debate. After all, this win, while resulting in perhaps a catastrophic decision for the program, came with its share of highlights. Darren McFadden looked strong with a 219 - yard, two-touchdown performance and Marcus Monk had a career day bringing in 8 catches for 192 yards and a touchdown. In addition to these performances, Arkansas received another big break on its road to the SEC West crown: LSU beat Tennessee.
The loss to the Tigers knocked the Volunteers out of the SEC East title hunt. That means that the Volunteers, who are without star quarterback Eric Ainge and Arian Foster (for the first half) are also without motivation. That’s not to say the Vols can’t or won’t step up.
But having to comeback from a gut wrenching loss at home and play a surging Razorback team on national television (with a Gameday crew in attendance) isn’t something we imagine appeals much to Fulmer. After all, a loss to the Hogs could put him right back on the hot seat.
While the Hogs have the momentum leading into the Tennessee, they face significant challenges of their own. Michael Grant appears to be done for the season after tearing his ACL. McFadden, Stephen Parker, and Peyton Hillis all suffered injuries that make their status against Volunteers questionable. That is bad, bad news for the Razorbacks, whose defense did nothing to merit Chris Houston’s constant taunting on the field.
Blake Mitchell torched the Hogs’ secondary and but for a late interception by Darius Vinnett was well on his way to leading South Carolina to a game-changing score. We pointed out that the Hogs secondary was picked apart against Ole Miss and but for Brent Schaffer’s inability to hit the open receiver, that game would have been closer.
So this week it’s a game-saving interception. Kudos to the defense for staying alive, but Tennessee, whether Compton or Ainge is taking the snaps, will be much better than either Ole Miss or South Carolina, particularly with their trio receivers.
The Tennessee game, after all, is the biggest game in Nutt’s tenure at Arkansas since . . . Tennessee in 1998. A win, more than likely, guarantees a SEC West championship and a spot in the title game against Florida. It also keeps Arkansas alive in the national title picture, which may, depending on what happens in the Big East, run right through Atlanta.
But that’s fodder for Thursday’s column.