It took two whole months, but Arkansas's tank finally ran dry.
After leaving Tuscaloosa in September, bruised and abused, the Razorbacks were forced into season-saving mode early. The trek back toward respectability was both ennobling and draining: there were three come-from-behind wins (Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt), a couple of out-and-out wallopings (Tennessee and Mississippi State), and two impressive home victories over ranked foes (Auburn and South Carolina). As has become custom in this age of ESPN gibberish and abstruse computerized qualifiers, Arkansas scaled from the valley while others faltered, finally cresting at No. 3 in those eminently penetrable BCS rankings.
It put Arkansas in the enviable position of an upstart, the third wheel trying to implode a title date between SEC powerhouses. A teammate's death provided a clarion call for a team that assuredly did not need a 19-year-old man to die to be further galvanized. It was one terribly disheartening moment after weeks of heartening performance.
Trouble is, LSU did Friday what No. 1 teams are expected to do. The Tigers are serially protective of their turf, having won 17 consecutive at Tiger Stadium. They are not mistake-free, but they are determined to make your errors hurt worse. And in much the same way that Alabama does, the Tigers boldly take liberties with their pass coverage, overwhelmingly confident of their ability to control the line of scrimmage.
For these reasons, Arkansas left with its second loss of the season, by the same 24-point margin that Alabama forged in its dismantling of the Hogs. This game was distinctive in that the Razorbacks' progress from that first loss was, as hoped, plainly evident. Arkansas won field position masterfully at the outset, broke LSU's will briefly with a steady march toward an early touchdown, then followed with a defensive score on Alonzo Highsmith's 47-yard fumble return. It was 14-0 and the boisterous Tiger Stadium crowd was in a lull — and LSU simply paid no mind.
The momentum tilt was a mere trickle at first, with Highsmith being flagged on a face-mask penalty that allowed LSU to continue its first scoring drive. Tyrann Matthieu followed that with a long punt return, then Dennis Johnson fumbled in Tiger territory before halftime. Arkansas trailed at the half, 21-14, and CBS' sideline reporter seized upon an opportunity to query Bobby Petrino about his team's purported fragility. Petrino curtly deflected the implication, and the third quarter seemed to validate him: the Hogs snuffed out LSU's bid to stretch the lead on Tramain Thomas' interception, followed with a field goal, then buckled down inside the five-yard line to hold the Tigers to a three-pointer. It seems almost desperate in retrospect to categorize it this way, but Arkansas was very much in a dogfight by the time the fourth quarter began.
It was only then that the Razorbacks began to collapse under the weight of the previous week. That fourth quarter — where the great genuinely do separate from the good — perhaps predictably became Arkansas's worst of the year. LSU amassed 127 of its 286 rushing yards in the quarter, owned possession for nearly 12 minutes, and waltzed toward the SEC championship game with a 41-17 win.
The finish obviously frustrated Petrino, who visibly cursed LSU coach Les Miles from across the field as things went awry, then exchanged a midfield handshake with his counterpart that could conservatively be called "brusque." Frankly, Petrino appeared on edge all day, which can be explained — not excused, however — by the tumult of the days before. To be clear, while Petrino's conduct was arguably petulant, it's also refreshing to see an Arkansas coach project something other than pitiful resignation after a loss. He's driven these Razorbacks to new heights in his short time here, yet he is exasperated that we have not yet reached the ultimate apogee.
(A sidebar on that point: we are quick to lament the apparent death of maturity and character in our sporting world. It's a fair, if futile, gripe. Yet this columnist's jaded observation is that if LSU can freely ride the right arm of a quarterback that earlier this year had him on the receiving end of felony assault charges, Arkansas's head coach is afforded a little creative license with his in-game diction. Let's just call our stadiums no-morals zones, with half-assed apologies to Bill O'Reilly.)
Arkansas now likely heads to Dallas to presumably and hopefully clash with one of the Oklahoma schools on the first Friday night of 2012. Whatever the bowl match up, Arkansas will be seeking its first 11-win season since 1977, a worthy enough claim for a team that did well just to immerse itself in the national championship conversation.