LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — For Razorback fans, the occasional (every 5 to 11 years) trip to Kentucky for an Arkansas matchup with the Wildcats is a terrific Southeastern Conference excursion.
LSU fans can attest, as for years they had every-other-year visits to Lexington and all but demanded the game be scheduled for mid-October. That way, they got to visit Keeneland for its live fall racing meet, see other horse farms and museums that honor the Sport of Kings, and take in the many bourbon tours along the way.
Heck, you can make time to hit the entire Kentucky Bourbon Trail if you want, and bring some classics back home.
For the Razorbacks, that trip hasn’t been great.
At times, it's been heartbreaking, nerve-wracking or just flat-out disappointing. We’re only talking about three trips there for football since Arkansas has been in the Southeastern Conference since 1992, but those three descriptions cover each of the visits
Arkansas was emotionally flat after losing a wild one at Tuscaloosa the week before. Clint Stoerner was really feeling a shoulder separation suffered the week before the 35-28 Alabama loss and 50 passes attempted against the Tide and backup Robby Hampton couldn’t manage a miraculous comeback against a revved-up Wildcats team that sprinted to a 31-6 lead in 1999.
The 31-20 final score looked a lot better than the actual game, which was a blowout on afternoon PAY PER VIEW (we actually had to pay for that show?).
Arkansas, after an incredible first season under Houston Nutt in 1998, wasn’t up for suddenly being a SEC division favorite that year and lost all of its road games and usually badly, even to LSU, which had already fired its head coach.
It took Matt Jones magic in 2003 to rescue a 71-63 seven-overtime win over the Wildcats when the Hogs blew a 24-7 lead in the second half.
That was an Arkansas team that started out 4-0 with wins at Texas and Alabama and reached No. 7 in the polls before Nutt and his offensive staff suddenly started grabbing their throats in the middle of the season.
Nutt’s most talented team he assembled in his 10 years limped home 9-4, but fans still remember the second of Matt Jones’s seven-overtime heroics in two years (and those road wins over Texas and ‘Bama).
Bobby Petrino’s young first team in 2008 had survived a murderers’ row of ‘Bama, Florida and Texas early in the season and began showing signs that this guy could really coach when it jumped on Kentucky in Lexington 17-0 in 2008. It was still 20-7 late in the fourth quarter before a freshman’s turnover for the Hogs and the emergence of WR Randall Cobb as a Matt Jones-like QB for a few plays led UK back, 21-20.
It seemed like two-thirds of the stadium had been vacated before then, and all those fans now out in the fields of cars south of the stadium acted like they’d known the comeback was coming all along as they drunkenly laughed at the mass of departing Razorback fans late that night.
As least great Kentucky bourbon was waiting somewhere for those despondent Hog followers, if they so partook.
SEC scheduling being what it is – bad and favorable mostly to the big shots of the league – it’s taken 11 years for the Hogs and their faithful to finally get back.
There was a lot more reason to follow the Razorbacks such a long distance in those previous three trips than anyone might find now. Arkansas has lost 18 of its last 19 SEC games, including 13 in a row. Since being national ranked No. 3 on Thanksgiving week in 2011, Arkansas is 13-46 in SEC games and has had four head coaches.
Yet, for second-year coach Chad Morris, this is a Saturday night where, if his squad could defeat a team that is physically more on its level than most of its SEC opponents, could show that his program has indeed turned a corner.
Losses to the likes of San Jose State at home tell the fan base the opposite. Getting standing ovations for only losing by 4 to Texas A&M only rankle the older fans who are more frustrated at seeing how far the program has fallen: Now, closes losses are lauded. That’s the stuff for Kansas or Rutgers, surely not Arkansas.
Illustrating those previous three trips to Lexington, though, is supposed to show just how troubling a trip this tends to be, no matter where Arkansas’s program stands. None of those Kentucky teams were historically its better squads – Mark Stoops’ program finally broke through last year with a 10-win season in his sixth year at the helm, a long building process after Kentucky had hit the skids following Rich Brooks’ retirement and Joker Phillips’ attempts at being a head coach. Hal Mumme was hot and cold with star quarterback Tim Couch back in 1999, and Mumme was mostly found out to be a cheat that led to his ouster.
Kentucky just seemed snake bit under Mumme’s replacement, Guy Morriss, and the biggest quarterback in college football, Jared Lorenzen, in the early 2000s. Recall that the year before Arkansas won in seven overtimes, Kentucky snatched defeat from the jaws of victory at home in the final second against LSU, when the Wildcats allowed the Tigers to complete an 70-yard Hail Mary catch, run and touchdown, while Morriss stood soaking from a Gatorade “victory” bath.
So, speaking of Lorenzen – his teammates will reconvene with all the Wildcat fans and anybody else wanting to celebrate his life Saturday night as UK honors the quarterback who succumbed over the summer to health issues. They’ve been pointing to this game for weeks. Players still have to play the game, but sometimes magical nights take place, and inspired players somehow achieve levels that no one thought possible.
These current Wildcats do not want to lose on a night that the university honors a fallen hero.
It may just be that Kentucky and its upper classmen want to win more than Arkansas’s veterans. That’s usually what a game of equal measure boils down to. The Hogs have a lot of talented freshmen who want to win too and wanted to win badly the last time out two weeks ago versus Texas A&M.
But it’s the veteran players than usual make the biggest difference when it comes to handling adversity, driving for a late score, or holding on in the late going on the road when the home team is rallying.
Arkansas hasn’t done that – hold on in a tight game on the road – in a long time, longer than since Chad Morris has been around at the UA. And it’s just hard to see Arkansas being so good offensively that it could gain such a comfortable lead that the fourth quarter wouldn’t matter – not in Lexington.
Bring the bourbon, or have it nearby, if that’s your thing. Or bring a crying towel. It’s highly unlikely this is the week everyone gets firmly behind Morris and crew.
If somehow Arkansas escapes with a victory, though, realize just how big of an accomplishment Morris and the Hogs have accomplished.