Why LSU & Arkansas Players Mock the Notion of a True Rivalry Between Them

http://www.hogdb.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/1910-Arkansas-LSU-Program-Edited.jpg

Despite the presence of seed, LSU-Arkansas could never really take root. via HogDB.com

Twenty two years after leaving the Southwest Conference for the SEC, Arkansas still doesn’t have a true conference rival. On paper, it should have been LSU, a perennial conference title contender (like Texas) bordering Arkansas (like Texas) that like Texas once prevented Arkansas from winning a national championship.

  Plus, the annual LSU-Arkansas series has had perks Texas-Arkansas never did: a regular spot on national TV during Thanksgiving weekend, the Bellagio of college football trophies in the 200-pound Golden Boot and no in-state rival like Texas A&M to stir Texas fans’ deepest passions (well, no Aggies for a while, anyway).

 On top of all that, LSU-Arkansas has recently produced games every bit as competitive and entertaining to watch as the great Hog-Longhorn showdowns of the 1960s. And it’s likely this Saturday’s game in Fayetteville, for which Arkansas is a 1 point favorite according to SportsBettingAcumen.com sites, produces yet another thriller.

  “It’s a rivalry game,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema told me in an interview for SB Nation. “The boot represents more than just a victory. It’s a battle between two states, something our fans take a lot of pride in. Obviously with LSU being the last game of the year there’s been a built-up rivalry here that we will hope to continue.”

   Bielema lauds the rivalry aspect of the game in public, just as previous Arkansas and LSU coaches and players have. It’s no secret, though, that the enmity true rivals have for each other has been lacking here.

   Take it from Matt Jones, the former Razorback quarterback responsible for the “Miracle on Markham,” possibly the series’ most memorable moment – a 31-yard Hail Mary pass to DeCori Birmingham with nine seconds left in the 2002 game that sent Arkansas to the SEC Championship game. The year before, Jones was on the opposite side as Arkansas lost a 41-38 contest sending the Tigers to Atlanta. “You knew it was a big game for whatever reason but there never ever seemed like there was a connection between Arkansas and LSU,” he says. “It was almost like it was a little bit forced on you.”

Jones says many of his teammates felt the same, as did LSU foes like running back LaBrandon Toefield. After college, Jones and Toefield were NFL teammates in Jacksonville, Fla. “We always joked” about how the series was played up, Jones says. Many LSU players “didn’t see it as a rivalry at all,” he recalls Toefield saying. “It was something the media put out.”

    Carter Bryant, an Arkansas native and LSU grad, is part of the media. Now a radio host in El Dorado, Ark., he’s covered Tiger football for four years and doesn’t understand why the rivalry hasn’t caught on more. “It means a good deal to people in south Arkansas and north Louisiana because of proximity,” he says.

    “But to the people of south Louisiana, it means little compared to other rivalries with trophies. LSU has pushed the Ole Miss rivalry over the years with the Magnolia Bowl trophy. Alabama with [Nick] Saban history has created a fascinating narrative plus instant classics. Every other team in the SEC West outside of Mississippi State is probably viewed as more heavily anticipated and vitriolic matchup in the minds of LSU fans.” That includes Texas A&M, which has supplanted Arkansas as the Tigers’ season finale. Not coincidentally, annual primetime showdowns with Texas A&M will help generate more profit for the SEC most years than an Arkansas matchup would.

  For now, Arkansas fans are as likely to hate Alabama, or Ole Miss, as LSU. Or even an SEC East program.  “The team that I hated the most was Tennessee,” Jones recalls. Jones, who grew up in Van Buren, points to one experience as the reason. He recalls as a nine-year-old hunting with his father and walking onto a cabin in the woods. Inside, people were watched TV and cheered. On the screen, the unranked Razorbacks were pushing the No. 4 Volunteers to the wire on the road. He’ll never forget the euphoria that followed watching Arkansas kicker Todd Wright’s 41-yard field goal sail through the uprights with two seconds left to give Arkansas its first victory in Knoxville, Tenn.

   Tennessee, though, already had Alabama and Florida as nemeses. Another SEC border state, Mississippi, had two in-state rivals. “Everybody kind of had a rival but us, so we had to manufacture one,” former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt says.

    Enter David Bazzel, an entrepreneur who has found a niche promoting Arkansas college athletics. Bazzel loves gold, and he loves football, and from all that love sprung the idea for this:

lsu-arkansas-the-boot-2012-570x379

Bazzel’s Golden Boot trophy, which depicts the two states’ outlines, debuted in 1996. He hoped its record-setting 4-foot plus height would help the game attract national attention and produce better competition. “It’s about playing for something, whether it be a paper clip, a rubber band or empty Coke can,” he says. In this case, “it just so happens to be a 200-pound trophy.”  He adds: “I wanted it to develop into a fun trophy game, not particularly a rivalry.”

Historically, most trophy games, of course, are based in rivalries. But that’s changing as power conferences create trophies for series involving program with little shared history. Usually these series involve states that don’t share borders,  like Nebraska-Wisconsin or South Carolina-Texas A&M, but the situation with Arkansas’ next SEC-sanctioned rival is different.

That would be Missouri, which replaces LSU as Arkansas’ regular season finale.

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Bret Bielema Embraces the Gecko, Breaks with All Kinds of Convention

Think the modern big time college football coach is entirely beholden to the corporate powers backing him? You best think again.

Think modern big time college football coaches are entirely beholden to the corporate powers backing him? You best think again.

For someone hailing from the breadbasket of America, Illinois native Bret Bielema sure knows how to cut against the grain.  The second-year Arkansas head football coach has most famously eschewed the up-tempo philosophy adopted by so many of his peers to build a fearsome, old-school running game that has transformed the Razorbacks into the nation’s best slow-down* offense, and sixth-best overall.

The question of how good 3-1 Arkansas really is will be answered this Saturday when Hogs, who have cracked CBS Sports’ Top 25, take on undefeated, No. 4 Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas. Buoyed by an unexpectedly strong defense, the Aggies have crushed each of their four opponents including South Carolina on the road. In his third season at Texas A&M, head coach Kevin Sumlin has his up-tempo Aggies clicking on all cylinders, churning out 612.5 yards a game under the direction of quarterback Kenny Hill, as surprising an Heisman Trophy candidate now as Johnny Manziel was almost two years ago.

Arkansas is a 9 point underdog but whether it wins or loses on Saturday, one thing’s for sure: Bielema’s not changing tact any time soon. He’s not falling in line with the Malzahn and Sumlin-ites around him. Indeed, sometimes he’s contrarian without even intending to be. For evidence, look no farther than his post-game press conference after Arkansas’ 52-14 decimation of Northern Illinois last weekend.

In it, Bielema’s does his thing, talking in rapid fire fashion and making reporters chuckle with quick asides, when he starts praising his team’s special teams effort. He lauds kickoff specialist Adam McFain, an unrecruited walk on who’s on the brink of also becoming Arkansas’ long-range field goal kicker. Then, with the signage of Razorback athletics sponsor Farm Bureau Insurance behind him as usual, he describes a couple defensive special teams formations unveiled against the Huskies because “we knew they would take some chances in the kicking game.”

The first is “a punt safe look” he tells the reporters is called “Allstate.” As in Allstate Insurance Company.

Then, with that Farm Bureau signage still behind him, he praises freshman cornerback Henre’ Tolliver for making a clutch tackle of Northern Illinois’ quarterback on a 4th-down running attempt. So what was the defensive formation called on that play?

Geico. Yet another insurance company not named Farm Bureau.

geico

The Hogs used this "Geico" formation to stymie Northern Illinois' fake punt kick attempt.

This Geico formation insures against fake punt success.

Bielema and his staff could have easily labeled one of their formations “Farm Bureau,” but I find the fact they didn’t to be marginally refreshing. Major college football is such big money these days, with so many corporate ties, it’s nice to see that the names of coaches’ plays and formations don’t have sponsorship tie-ins.

Not yet, at least.  As long-time Arkansas sportswriter Nate Allen noted, Razorback athletics have “operated in increasingly corporate fashion since 2008 when Jeff Long replaced longtime athletic director Frank Broyles.” Indeed, the University of Arkansas recently trademarked the “Hog Call,” its sports teams’ nearly century-old cheer.

Such revenue pursuit, of course, follows in line with other major college football programs because every other school – especially in the brutal SEC West – is pouring more and more tens of millions of dollars into its most lucrative sport. But the business logic is sound: With enough winning, those tens of millions of investment can lead to tens of millions of profit. That’s why Texas A&M looms as a pivotal game for a rising Arkansas program. Bielema knows, too. He said last weekend his players have shown “a certain mentality and attitude that has not been here since I’ve been here.”

If that translates into the Hogs’ winning on Saturday by slowing the nation’s most deadly offense**, and in the process shocking pundits around the nations – then the players’ deeds will match their already sky high confidence.  And, so long as SEC wins result, Arkansas’ corporate sponsors should hardly care what’s written on the pages of a playbook.


*Arkansas ranks as far and away the nation’s most deadly methodical offense (which takes into account the team’s % of drives with at least 10 plays), according to the number crunchers at Football Outsiders.

** Texas A&M has the nation’s most efficient offense, when measuring ” its actual drive success against expected drive success based on field position.”

Via Football Outsiders

Want to know what the hell the above abbreviations mean? Here’s some light shed, thanks to Football Outsiders:

  • OFEI: Offensive FEI, the opponent-adjusted efficiency of the given team’s offense.
  • OE: Offensive Efficiency, the raw unadjusted efficiency of the given team’s offense, a measure of its actual drive success against expected drive success based on field position.
  • Ex: Explosive Drives, the percentage of each offense’s drives that average at least 10 yards per play.
  • Me: Methodical Drives, the percentage of each offense’s drives that run 10 or more plays

N.B.  You’ll notice above Arkansas’ record is 2-1, not 3-1. That’s because stats from Arkansas 73-7 win over FCS foe Nicholls State don’t count here.  The numbers above are filtered to eliminate games against FCS opponents, first-half clock-kills and end-of-game garbage drives and scores.


The Hogs Ran A Hurry-Up, No-Huddle Offense 100 Years Ago

“P” could very well also stand for “Pushing the limit.”

Former head Arkansas football coach Hugo Bezdek lived a full and innovative life. He remains the only person to coach an NFL team (Cleveland Rams) and MLB team (Pittsburgh Pirates), as I found out while researching for my new history feature on Sporting Life Arkansas.

But, before all that, he he spent 1907 through 1912 in Fayetteville pioneering in all sorts of ways. He’s credited, for instance, with changing the team name from Cardinals to Razorbacks. Of the two stories regarding this switch, my favorite comes from one of his players –  Phil Huntley – in an interview with longtime columnist Orville Henry:

“We were on a trip in Texas, getting off the train for a stroll — I think in Dallas. Somebody yelled, ‘Here come the hogs.’ See, there were a lot of jokes about Arkansas at that time.

Bezdek stopped and thought a minute. He said, ‘Hmmm, boys, I like that. We’re the Razorbacks from now on.’

Bezdek also led Arkansas to its first undefeated season (and the program’s only undefeated season in its first 70 years of existence).

He spearheaded the first athletic advertising in school history, Huntley added. “He understood importance of placing his program in front of the public. He had cards printed and distributed in towns like Rogers, Springdale, and Fort Smith advertising his home games.”

Lord knows they needed the promotion, given at this time Arkansas’ home facilities consisted of a single wooden grandstand that held about 200 people.

“The field wasn’t too good even though we worked on it, graded it, carried water from the creek to wet it down before every game,” Huntley said in “The  Razorbacks: A Story of Arkansas Football.”

One of the most interesting innovations Bezdek developed was an emphasis on fast play. His teams practiced extremely hard to be fit enough in games to pull this off.

As Orville Henry and Jim Bailey wrote in “The  Razorbacks”: “Bezdek coached [Arkansas QB Steve] Creekmore to call plays as rapidly as possible — nobody ever huddled then — and so the Razorbacks would run a play, chase the ball, put it in play immediately when it was downed, and drive as far as they could as quickly as they could.

“I guess it was the forerunner of Oklahoma’s hurry-up style in the split-T days under Bud Wilkinson,” Steve Creekmore told an interviewer in 1960. “I know we’d often run four or five plays and then find the official had penalized us back down field for the first one. He’d catch up, and we’d have to go back. The LSU coach protested our system, but it was legal.”

Of course, nowadays, this style of play isn’t unique. College football coaches such as Gus Malzahn, Hugh Freeze and Chip Kelly have taken the concept to the next level to bring unprecedented scoring to the game.

Kelly, in particular, has gotten a lion’s share of credit for innovating a frenetic, no-huddle approach on the major college football level. By 2011, his tactics had fueled the University of Oregon’s first appearance in a national championship.

To date, this is the biggest splash on the national football scene the Ducks have made. Their first splash? Signs point to around 1917, when Oregon made – and won – its first Rose Bowl appearance.

Their coach was none other than Hugo Bezdek.

For more on his career, check this.


The Big What If

Imagining a World Where the Big, Bad Wolves Take on the State’s Top Hogs: Image courtesy of Sync magazine

Rivalry week gripped the college football world last Saturday.

In states with populations or areas similar to Arkansas – Oklahoma, Mississippi and South Carolina – longtime intrastate foes squared off for annual bragging rights.

The University of Arkansas doesn’t schedule in-state competition, so nothing like Ole Miss-Mississippi State or Clemson-South Carolina erupts here. It’s widely believed the state’s other FBS program, Arkansas State, couldn’t beat Arkansas often enough for an authentic rivalry to flourish. The numbers support this: since 2001, UA and ASU have played the same opponent 21 times within the same season. Only four times did ASU lose to that opponent by an equal or smaller margin.

And not until this season did ASU beat an opponent that had, or would, defeat Arkansas. In September, Louisiana-Monroe beat Arkansas 34-31 in Little Rock. In November, ULM lost to ASU 45-23 in Jonesboro.

Breathe easy, Hog fan. I won’t indulge in wonky transitive property logic. I know that with enough if-thens, even an insane argument like Arkansas Baptist College-Is-Better-Than- Texas A&M looks rational.

Besides, injuries affected both games. Arkansas lost quarterback Tyler Wilson for the second half of the ULM loss. Then, three of ULM’s defensive starters missed the ASU game, along with four offensive starters – including star quarterback Kolton Browning. “I’m not making excuses,” says ULM head coach Todd Berry. But “obviously that affected our game plan. We still threw the ball around decent and moved the ball, but there was that extra dimension they didn’t have to prepare for.”

ASU’s ULM win, along with ranking ahead of Arkansas in national polls, don’t necessarily prove ASU is better than Arkansas this season. Instead, these events simply make speculating about a hypothetical showdown all the more fun.

Especially if it happened at War Memorial Stadium. “I think it would be great for the state,” ASU head coach Gus Malzahn said last week. “I think it would create a lot of excitement.”

Below is a prediction of how the game would have transpired if these programs played last week, with staffs and injury statuses as they were at season’s end.

UA Offense vs. ASU Defense

Tyler Wilson picks apart the Red Wolves with pinpoint passing. His main target is Cobi Hamilton, who has a field day against smaller ASU defensive backs like Chaz Scales and Don Jones, who plays only half the game because of a suspension.

ASU starts off blitzing Wilson often but slows down after it is shredded a few times on short slants with Hamilton and wheel routes with Knile Davis. The Hogs’ offensive linemen, who average 303 pounds, consistently open holes against ASU defensive linemen who average about 280 pounds. Hog running back Dennis Johnson uses these to get to the defense’s second line, where the stout senior has a few epic collisions with ace linebacker Nathan Herrold.

As always, lack of consistent focus and turnovers plague Arkansas. RB Jonathan Williams makes a spectacular 36-yard run on a promising drive at the end of the first quarter, only to cough it up at the end. In the third quarter, Arkansas’ Mekale McKay catches a 40-yard pass and appears headed for the endzone when safety Sterling Young strips him on a blindside hit.

Read the rest of this entry »


If Derek Fisher had played for the Razorbacks

This was closer to happening than you think. Illustration by Ferris Williams

There aren’t many blank spots on longtime NBA player Derek Fisher’s resume: five world titles, an AAU National Championship, a high school state championship, six years as National Basketball Players Association President. On every big stage the Little Rock native has played, he has left his mark.

Yet there’s the stage he never played on.

It doesn’t matter how many big-time events Fisher has been a part of in his 16-year pro career. Nothing will erase the memory of how close he got as a college senior to making his sport’s most dramatic competition: the NCAA Tournament. His University of Arkansas at Little Rock Trojans were up 56-55 in the 1996 Sun Belt Conference Championship game with four seconds left.

The University of New Orleans had the ball. Fisher closed out quickly on the opposing guard with the ball, but he spun past Fisher’s outstretched arms and drove to the basket, lofting a teardrop shot that resulted in an upset win.

Despite a 23-6 record, UALR would be left out on the doorstep on Selection Sunday. Fisher’s final shot at the Big Dance was gone.

It could have been much, much different.

What if instead of leading UALR, Fish had helped steer the Razorbacks? “I think he could have played at Arkansas, but coming out of high school, he just wasn’t ready,” said Razorback All-American Corliss Williamson, also one of Fisher’s best friends. There’s a strong chance Fisher was ready for Arkansas halfway through his college career, though, and he was closer to making that jump than many people realize.

See the rest of the story at Sync magazine.

PS – This concludes what has apparently become my blog’s  Of(Fish)al Derek Fisher Week.


How Trey Biddy, Richard Davenport, Otis Kirk & Dudley Dawson became Arkansas’ recruiting news gatekeepers

Day in and day out, they glean stats from the next Hog stars. It's time the script was flipped, for once.

With signing day on Wednesday, recruiting news is bigger than ever – especially in DGB-crazed Arkansas. But who are the men bringing us all this nonstop recruiting info? What draws them to this recruiting news niche? And why has the field grow so fast? Finally, how do the recruits and their families under the microscope feel about the process? I spoke with the father of Razorback commit Deatrich Wise,  Jr. and found some of his statements remarkably candid (for more, read “The Recruit” section below) Get all this background and more from the following piece, originally published in the September issue of Arkansas Life:
Next fall, like all falls, our Saturdays become smorgasbords of flying leather, clashing plastic, arms thrust skyward – the roar of millions, the groans of millions more.Americans scream themselves hoarse more for college football than nearly any other sport. That passion has spilled into a 24/7 news cycle where all manner of info and opinion regarding the biggest programs is printed, churned through online message boards and discussed on airwaves before the next batch is served.

One of the fastest growing sports news beats is recruiting, where millions of fans want to know what hundreds of top high school athletes have to say about their favorite program. In Arkansas, the prime gatekeepers of this information power some of the state’s biggest sports sites. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s recruiting blog had 700,000 views in a month. Hawgsports.com, which covers all aspects of Razorbacks sports with a focus on recruiting, topped five million page views in January 2010, the month before National Signing Day on February 3rd.

These recruiting gurus constantly interview the athletes and churn out articles hitting on basics – weight, height, bench press, vertical jumps, 40-yard dash, schools visited, impressions made by coaches. Eight times out of ten, it seems, you can bank on a kid giving props to the UA business school and/or football team’s weight room.

The content may seem redundant, but there’s more at play. This is a trade built on dreams. When the recruit picks up the phone, he hopes his words bring a scholarship, a degree and career.

For the ever-hopeful Arkansas fan, though, these words can evoke something far more visceral: visions of an entire state wrapped in cardinal red,  the last seconds of a dream season ticking away, all those goose-bumped arms slowly rising, falling, while one “Woo Pig Sooie” atop another cascades across the Ozarks, ringing into the night.

Read the rest of this entry »

Kenoy Kennedy lays into Cotton Bowl, home life, Tim Tebow and proper form tackling

The term "decleat" was created for guys like Kenoy.

The last time Razorback fans saw safety Kenoy Kennedy in an Arkansas uniform, he was camping out in the Texas Longhorns’ backfield during the 2000 Cotton Bowl, clearing out the sinuses of anything wearing orange.

In that game, Kennedy led a defense which racked up eight sacks while holding Texas to minus-27 yards, an all-time low. Both Longhorn quarterbacks – Major Applewhite and Chris Sims – were injured.

It was one of the finest defensive performances in Cotton Bowl history.

On Thursday, the good folks from “The Zone” at Buzz 103.7 sat down with Dallas native Kennedy, who was drafted in the second round of the 2000 NFL Draft and played seven years in total with the Denver Broncos and Detroit Lions.

He’s going to attend the Cotton Bowl: “I’m kind of fired up about it. I was online and somehow my mouse got to clicking and I ended up on a Kansas State blog. And man, they talk so bad about us. I was in my office just sweating. My fists was balled up. I had to remind myself these are only words. I had to shut my computer down and had to walk out.”

Here are other highlights from that interview:

1. PROPER TACKLING IN NFL: Kenoy says it’s near impossible to practice proper form tackling. “Guys are so big and strong and when they’re running that fast and the ball’s coming in as fast as they are, you just try to put whatever you can on the guy. You can teach proper form, but when everything’s happening so fast, no body hardly makes the perfect tackle. You try to get the guy on the ground anyway you can or you won’t be able to play long.”

2. KIDDING AROUND: His wife attended U of Texas. “We’re not going to hold that against her,” Kenoy says. They have two sons, ages six and three. The children haven’t been playing pee-wee football, but the oldest one does play soccer. “He’s got to get his footwork right,” Kenoy says.

3. AFTER HE WAS RELEASED FOUR YEARS AGO: “Once I was done, I was done. I stopped playing Madden games. I didn’t want none of it.” Slowly, his love of NFL football is returning, though. He plays fantasy football, and is trying to watch more.

4. NO OFFENSE TAKEN: Texas A&M, Kansas and Baylor were some of the schools recruiting him as an offensive player out of high school. Only Arkansas wanted him to play defense.

5. WILL TIM TEBOW GET BACK HIS MOJO?: “It’s gonna be hard to win on a constant basis, especially when you get to the playoffs. You have to be able to throw the ball, and throwing the ball for 50-60 yards a game, that’s not gonna win in the playoffs.

Listen to The Zone’s interview with Kennedy in its entirety here. At 20 min., Kennedy’s anectode about a ferocious hit he made in college is hilarious.

Later, in the NFL, he’d get in trouble for such hits:

October, 2002 - Denver Broncos safety Kenoy Kennedy (Arkansas Razorbacks) was suspended without pay for one game for a helmet-to- helmet hit that left Miami Dolphins receiver Chris Chambers with a concussion. 
    Chambers was hurt in the second quarter of the Dolphins’ 24- 22 victory Sunday, when he reached for a pass from quarterback Jay Fiedler and was hit in the head by Kennedy
    Kennedy receives $430,000 in base salary and will lose one game check, equivalent to $26,875. 
    Kennedy was called for a personal foul. Chambers lay on the ground for several minutes and needed help leaving the field. 
    It wasn’t the first time Kennedy was disciplined by the league this season.The Broncos’ strong safety was fined $7,500 for a hit on the St. Louis Rams’ Isaac Bruce on Sept. 8 and another $10,000 last week for a hit on San Diego Chargers running back Fred McCrary. The league warned Kennedy that future hits similar to the one on McCrary could lead to a suspension. – from Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Press Services


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