The third iteration of the Southwest Classic was less football game, more exhibit.
For the Razorbacks, the first hour-plus was a harrowing sampling of dark art. Penalty flags sailed, linebackers flailed and Aggie running backs roamed free. The imagery was unsettling stuff, a brand of viscera that only vacates the consciousness when $9 lagers are applied liberally (thanks to Jerry's largess, this is one game where therapy is available).
The funny thing about this show, though, is that the transition to the Renaissance wing was almost casual, barely perceptible. Texas A&M went three-and-out to start the second half and Zach Hocker knocked home a quick field goal, but after Arkansas yielded five rushing touchdowns before the break, a three-pointer seemed almost insulting. What good is a feeble kick when A&M is sure to respond with another belly-punch, right?
At this point I mused to my brother that the game resembled the Sugar Bowl of nine months prior, spicing this throwaway comment with further demonstrative descriptors. It was so achingly similar: flat first half leads to 18-point deficit, with the defense appearing utterly outclassed. I hoped we could actually finish this turnaround because the Aggies...well, they weren't the Buckeyes.
This is not where the columnist pounds his sternum in celebration of clairvoyance. Rather, this very jaded Razorback fan stood anxiously among compatriots and wondered whether a lowly athletic department staffer had already been charged with putting Willy Robinson's office furniture on Craigslist.
Willy's beleaguered boys rolled out of the locker room with purpose. Why, you might even invoke Saint Houston, that patron of platitudes, and say that the defense firmly clutched that ridiculous rope he was always blathering about. The Aggies would get a first down or two but mysteriously stall somewhere just shy of field-goal range. Tyler Wilson, playing with an almost absurd level of confidence, kept chomping up yardage. Mike Reppond's 40-year-old single-game receiving record had become Jarius Wright's by halftime; Ryan Mallett's year-old passing mark went by the boards before the fourth quarter began. Arkansas drew even early in the fourth quarter, held the Aggies to a field goal with a gutsy stand inside the 10, then cemented the first true comeback of the Bobby Petrino era on a Broderick Green (yes, BRODERICK GREEN!) touchdown plunge with 1:41 to play.
But this 42-38 victory wasn't built entirely on the gaudy production of Wilson or Wright. The little things became transcendent, even sublime.
Green ran with uncharacteristic determination in his return from a springtime ACL tear, Lonnie Gosha filled in well at defensive end and made some important contributions, and Tevin Mitchel took an injured Darius Winston's spot and proved more than competent. With the Aggie defense reeling and gasping, Dennis Johnson took firm possession of the feature back role by blasting through holes and slipping tackles on short throws from Wilson. Hocker and the coverage units ensured that A&M gradually ceded the field position battle. JUCO product Jason Peacock helped steady a once-teetering offensive line.
Contributions to this win came from far and wide, from veterans on down. The Hogs were buoyed by the partisan crowd, which naturally relished the chance to apprise the Aggies of the three-letter torture chamber they're entering next fall. The proceedings were so satisfying that Petrino's staid visage broke into a wide grin that seemed even larger when it was flashed on the large, wood-paneled Curtis Mathes console TV suspended from the ceiling at Cowboys Stadium.
Mind you, this was a non-conference game and A&M wound up with one-third of a mile of total yardage. And Auburn (4-1) comes calling with a signature win of its own, taking down South Carolina in a garish affair that showed neither team at its best. Auburn is getting sloppy quarterback play from Barrett Trotter and the Tigers' defense is, yet again, not being asked to do anything more than hold serve until Malzahn's spread machine resumes possession. Meanwhile, the Razorbacks not only are ailing (Joe Adams and Robert Thomas also went out with injuries against the Aggies), but are also making far too many penalties along the offensive line, a plague that theoretically should wane as the season progresses.
This will be a matchup of ranked teams, though both are inescapably flawed. Either could wind up outside the Top 25 in a matter of weeks if their respective trends persist. But if you put stock in the intangibles — momentum, turning points, etc. — you can't help but think that what transpired in Dallas augurs well for the Razorbacks for this game and those beyond.