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Defeat stings, but not all lost for UA

by Bob Wisener | November 22, 2021 at 3:50 a.m.
Bob Wisener

To hear Razorback fans, the University of Arkansas is the first football team to claim a moral victory after yielding 671 yards.

On the Bryant-Denny Stadium scoreboard, where it counted, Alabama won 42-35, beating Arkansas for the 15th consecutive year. Only one other time in 32 meetings did Arkansas score more in defeat against Alabama, that in a 41-38 game in 2007, Nick Saban's first season in Tuscaloosa and two years before its first of six national championships under TV's Aflac salesman.

Some previous games in this series became unwatchable by halftime. I sat through the 52-0 game in Fayetteville in 2013, Bret Bielema's first season with the Razorbacks, which came on top of a 52-0 loss at Alabama under John L. Smith. The count against Arkansas was 100-10 the last two years, including Sam Pittman's first season.. Razorback fans consoled themselves after last year's 52-3 game in Fayetteville that just possibly, in a pandemic year, Alabama fielded its greatest team.

The team that Arkansas beat Saturday is not one of Alabama's best. This one, although never trailing, could not rest easy until an onside kick sailed out of bounds, letting the Crimson Tide run off the last 1:02.

"We didn't play very good defense, and we had trouble finishing drives in the red zone," Saban said. "I knew they had a good team, and I knew this was going to be a tough game."

"Alabama is having a normal season," said Gary Danielson, CBS' color man, to Brad Nessler, "while Arkansas is having a great season turning this thing around (back-to-back 2-8 before Pittman arrived)."

Alabama, scoring a touchdown before halftime and after the second-half kickoff, built a 31-14 lead. But one sensed that these Razorbacks would make a game of it. Alabama could not supply a knockout punch nor could it repel a team that scored five touchdown on drives of 75-plus yards.

A fumble on the 1-yard line kept it 34-28 with 8:52 left. At that time, during a Nessler promo for play of the game, Danielson said, "I don't think we've seen the play of the game."

Sure enough, with 5:39 left, Bryce Young went deep one last time and found Jameson Williams open for a 40-yard touchdown pas, his fifth of the game. Young, in his first college season, passed for a school-record 559 yards, bettering Scott Hunter's mark for the 1969 Crimson Tide, one of Paul William Bryant's lesser teams and before the coach recruited black players and went to the wishbone offense.

Whether played in a fantasy league or on the field, this game produced stunning numbers. And not just by Alabama, which had two 100-yard receivers and a 100-yard runner.

K.J. Jefferson, magnificent in defeat, completed 22 of 30 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns. Treylon Burks -- better enjoy him while he's still a Razorback, folks -- caught eight passes for 170 yards and two touchdowns. The game turned when, Alabama leading 10-0, Jefferson found Burks three times on a scoring drive that the Warren receiver scored on a 15-yard swing pass. Jefferson once lowered his shoulder and plowed straight ahead while Burks, consistently beating man-to-man coverage, played until getting wiped out on the sideline on the failed onside kick.

Arkansas took a "yes-we-can" approach to a game that many Razorback fans seemed to adopt a "probably not, but maybe so" outlook. That included more Pittman-coached trickery involving Reid Bauer, whose fake punt keyed the previous week's LSU game and whose 32-yard pass to Blake Kern on a fake field goal pulled Arkansas within 34-28 of Alabama.

All of this made the final score more bearable. But it did nothing to quiet fans who see Arkansas as a perennial Southeastern Conference underdog and view men wearing striped shirts at games as allies for the opposition.

On no play was Razorback Nation more incensed than on the touchdown pass, Young to Williams, that made it a two-score game late. Though the ball moved in the receiver's hands, the replay official maintained he secured the ball to the ground, like Gene Steratore, the College Football Committee rules expert in the CBS booth, predicted.

With a favorable call or two, Arkansas might have sneaked away with a victory in a game that it played on its heels defensively.

Preseason concerns that the Hogs' pass rush and secondary might snap against an elite quarterback have manifested themselves. The Heisman Trophy race may be between Young and Ole Miss' Matt Corral, whose running and passing keyed the Rebels' win at Oxford. A since-injured Bo Nix outplayed Jefferson in Auburn's win at Fayetteville, where the Razorbacks, thanks largely to Mississippi State's poor kicking, survived Will Rogers.

Just don't expect the Arkansas media to ask if the Razorbacks' three-man pass rush, like the leisure suit, has become dated. Arkansas might simply need more skilled players on defense, relying this year on three veteran linebackers and sheer determination to make the next play.

The attitude put forth in Tuscaloosa should carry over to the home finale Friday against Missouri, which on Saturday added to Dan Mullen's woes at Florida. Arkansas, reclaiming the Golden Boot from LSU, now goes for the Battle Line Trophy, which Missouri has held since 2015.

"We just almost beat Bama," said linebacker Grant Morgan, team-high 11 tackles against Alabama. "Almost only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades, so we didn't do it and that's that we've got to focus on next week."

Sorry, Arkansas' 8-4 record includes no moral victories.

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