Having risen like the proverbial phoenix with those grand shutouts, the football Hogs just couldn't have a true regular-season finale without officiating controversies and lightning-rod personnel issues.
Arkansas lost to Missouri, 21-14, in the first laboratory-created rivalry game, a.k.a. The Battle Line. It was hokey enough on its own but developed a quick edgy veneer after one uneven 60-minute chapter. To wit: Arkansas fans who attended this game reported that Mizzou fans acted boorishly before and after the game, that Faurot Field was like (God help us!) a poor man's War Memorial in terms of comfort and convenience, and that the concessionaires actually ran out of food way early ... unless, of course, you were wearing black and yellow. I am not fabricating that last tidbit, either.
Now, as if that didn't generate a little bit of rancor for next year's game, what happened between the lines most assuredly did. First, Arkansas blazed to a 14-3 lead in a fashion that seemed to answer all conceivable pregame queries. Yes, Brandon Allen could and would throw it with ease (seven tight completions to six different receivers in the first half, two for TDs). Yes, the Arkansas defense could and did maintain its zealous and aggressive approach against an up-tempo offense. Yes, the Hogs could get by without ailing tight end AJ Derby and even overcome a rash of inexcusable procedure penalties at the outset.
Things changed shortly before halftime. Mizzou's Maty Mauk was backed up inside his own 20 and clearly felt the weight of the Hogs' overcharged defensive line smothering him. As he elevated his arm to either throw or pump out of desperation, the ball was knocked loose by Trey Flowers and Taiwan Johnson recovered the called fumble. The problem? It went up for booth review and after several agonizing minutes went by, you got the clear sense that a seismic shift was in the offing. Sure enough, the refs returned, pronounced a reversal without credible video to support the same, and Andrew Baggett wound up drilling his second field goal of 50-plus yards to end the half.
Instead of thundering into the locker room with a 14- or 18-point lead and the stands hushed, Arkansas went in ahead 14-6, marginally less confident. A half that felt dominant looked less so on the only quantifiable plane of consequence. From there, Mizzou did what it has done literally all season long, which is rely on its skill people to overcome Mauk's haphazard play and its defensive line to restrain the opposing backfield. The Tigers started gashing a winded Hog defense by ground in the fourth period, and after Mauk chucked a touchdown pass and two-point conversion to knot the score early in the quarter, the tide had swung fully. Marcus Murphy trotted in easily from the Hog 12 for the winning score, and the Hogs' final attempt to gather themselves was also cruelly ripped away by the review booth.
Whether you believe Alex Collins was down, or that he fumbled and managed to recover before Markus Golden sprinted away from the scrum with the ball in hand, is irrelevant. This world-class officiating crew failed to either blow the play dead or clear the pile quickly, then the booth reported that, of course, the ball was fumbled and Missouri had it. Bewildering nail in a dilapidated coffin, to be sure.
And yet, these decisions weren't, by game's end, solely in the crosshairs of fans. Rather, the overwhelming sentiment on the south side of this so-called battle line was that somebody needed to be strung up and interrogated for Allen remaining in the game. He was already on a day shorter recovery from the midsection injury he sustained against Ole Miss, and after the Tigers got some decidedly hard blows on him in the second period and more thereafter, the junior quarterback's accuracy waned badly. Throws were sailing hopelessly awry.
Bret Bielema stood up for Allen, saying he had confidence that every time he asked his signal-caller how his health was, the answer was terse affirmation that he could continue. Allen's own visible wincing suggested otherwise; this kid's toughness had been called into question numerous times a year earlier, so who could really blame him for wanting to stick it those who cajoled him for a similar injury last year, cried for younger brother Austin's redshirt to come off, and demanded a new starter to emerge in the summer.
Where does the blame ultimately lie? On the guy who called plays that principally place the quarterback in further harm's way, and thereby allowed Missouri to exercise a 5:26 time of possession advantage that spelled 23 more plays and 135 more total yards. For the fifth time in six crushing SEC losses, Arkansas failed to score a fourth-quarter point. A team constructed from the trenches outward is going pro-style in tight games late, and it's clearly not working.
So, with that, the Hogs go bowling, but should do so with someone other than Jim Chaney wearing the OC headset.