Liberty Bowl: Maddening in Memphis

Three bitter defeats to SEC foes define Arkansas’ history at the Liberty Bowl

By: Bob Holt
Published: Tuesday, December 29, 2009

— Every time Arkansas has played in the Liberty Bowl, the SEC team has won.

It’s a trend the Razorbacks hope continues when they play East Carolina on Saturday in the 51st Liberty Bowl.

The problem for Arkansas in its previous three Liberty Bowl appearances is that it was a Southwest Conference team.

The Razorbacks, who joined the SEC for the 1992 season, have lost in the Liberty Bowl to Tennessee 14-13 in 1971, to Auburn 21-15 in 1984 and to Georgia 20-17 in 1987.

That’s three losses by a combined 10 points.

“We could have won all of those games,” said Tim Horton, Arkansas’ running backs coach who was a receiver and punt returner for the Razorbacks from 1986-1989. “We probably should have won them all.”

The loss to Tennessee is particularly galling for the Razorbacks and their fans because of two controversial calls - both made by SEC official Preston Watts - late in the game.

“I thought about dropping some dynamite down Preston Watts’ chimney,” said Harold Horton, the Razorback Foundation executive director who is Tim Horton’s father and was a defensive assistant for Arkansas from 1968-80.

“What he did to us, I mean, it makes bad thoughts come across your mind, even on Christmas Day.

“I know you’re not supposed to be talking about officials nowadays, but it’s hard to forget what happened to us in that game.”

Arkansas had taken an apparent 16-7 lead with 5:45 to play in the fourth quarter on Bill McClard’s 48-yard field goal. But the field goal was nullified by a holding penalty called on tight end Bobby Nichols.

“It’s very rare that you get a holding call on a field goal protection,” said Frank Broyles, who was Arkansas’ coach from 1958-1976. “It’s probably the only one I ever had in my coaching career.”

Nichols said after the game he was grabbed by a Tennessee player and pulled to the ground.

Brandon Marcello and Wally Hall wrap up the first day of practices and press conferences as Liberty Bowl week begins. East Carolina Coach Skip Holtz shows some personality, while It's all business in Memphis for the Razorbacks.

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Arkansas still led 13-7 when Jon Richardson caught a screen pass from Joe Ferguson and was ruled to have fumbled as he was being tackled.

Arkansas guard Tom Reed came out of a pile with the ball and handed it to Watts, who awarded possession to Tennessee at the Razorbacks 37.

“I got the ball and cradled it in my chest,” Reed told reporters after the game. “Three Tennessee players jumped on top of me, but I still had it.

“Finally, the official came up and put his hands on the ball, so I gave it to him, and he signaled Tennessee’s ball.

“ ‘Are you kidding me?’ I asked him. But he told me to get my hands off the football.”

Tennessee scored the winning touchdown on Curt Watson’s 17-yard run with 1:56 left as George Hunt kicked the extra point.

Arkansas offensive line coach Joe Gibbs, who went on to win three Super Bowls as the Washington Redskins’ coach, chased the officials off the field but couldn’t catch them.

Tennessee defensive tackle Cal Witherspoon, credited with recovering the fumble, told reporters it was “a 50-50 play” which team would be awarded the ball.

“I know I had at least partial possession,” Witherspoon said.

Vols Coach Bill Battle said after the game he “didn’t see anything wrong” with the controversial calls.

“We got some rough calls against us, too, and we could argue about them,” Battle said. “But I’m satisfied.”

Television camera angles were blocked out by Tennessee’s players, so replays proved inconclusive.

Ferguson set Liberty Bowl records with 18 completions in 28 attempts for 200 passing yards and was voted the game MVP. Arkansas cornerback Louis Campbell set a Liberty Bowl record with three interceptions and was voted defensive player of the game.

“You really were more mad rather than depressed that you lost,” said Campbell, a former Arkansas assistant coach and administrator. “You just felt like you had it taken from you.

“As a coach, you’d probably say they were controversial calls. As a player, you’d say we got cheated. It depends on how politically correct you want to be.”

The game was worked by a split crew of three SEC officials and two SWC officials.

Beginning the next year, neutral crews started working bowl games.

“From that time until today, no official has called a game where his conference team is playing, so that was the good that came out of that controversy,” Broyles said. “But it was one year too late.”

Thirty-eight years later, Campbell had no trouble recalling Watts’ name.

“You’ll never forget Preston Watts,” he said. “That’s an infamous name in Arkansas football lore.”

1984

AUBURN 21, ARKANSAS 15

Arkansas returned to the Liberty Bowl 13 years later as an underdog to Auburn, which opened the season ranked No. 1 and featured running back Bo Jackson, who won the Heisman Trophy a year later.

Auburn, like Arkansas, ran the Wishbone, and the Tigers were loaded with three future NFL running backs - Jackson, Brent Fullwood and Tommie Agee.

“If it was just based on talent, we probably shouldn’t have been able to stay on the field with them,” said Arkansas linebacker David Bazzel, who despite playing with a broken left hand finished with 15 tackles. “But we were well coached and real quick, and we knew how to play the Wishbone because we practiced against it all the time.

“We flew around like a bunch of bumble bees out there.”

The Razorbacks held Auburn to a season-low 252 yards, including 168 rushing, but Jackson broke loose for a 39-yard touchdown run to give the Tigers a 21-9 lead with 5:29 left.

“We had Bo bottled up pretty well, except for that one play,” Bazzel said. “That’s where he really showed his speed. I remember at the end, he turned around and waved.”

Arkansas pulled within 21-15 on Brad Taylor’s 25-yard touchdown pass to James Shibest with 3:10 left, but Auburn was able to run out all but the final eight seconds and hold on to win.

A critical play came midway through the fourth quarter, with Arkansas facing fourth-and-1 at its 45 trailing 14-9. Instead of running an option play as expected, Taylor threw to running back Bobby Joe Edmonds, who was wide open on a wheel route and looked ready to score and put the Razorbacks ahead.

But Edmonds, who finished with a Liberty Bowl-record 10 catches for 68 yards, dropped the ball.

“We wouldn’t have been there in the Liberty Bowl without Bobby Joe, because he’d made great plays for us all year,” said Ken Hatfield, Arkansas’ coach from 1984-89. “It was a great throw by Brad, and Bobby Joe just couldn’t hold onto it.”

1987

GEORGIA 20, ARKANSAS 17

It looked like Arkansas finally would get its first Liberty Bowl victory in 1987. The Razorbacks were tied with Georgia 17-17 when they drove inside the Bulldogs’ 10 with less than two minutes left.

A holding call on Freddie Childress pushed Arkansas back to the 18, and Kendall Trainor - an All-American the next season - missed a 35-yard field-goal attempt.

The Razorbacks forced Georgia to punt and got the ball back at their 39 with 56 seconds left. This was before college added overtime rules.

“You don’t get much out of tying in a bowl game,” Hatfield said. “So we wanted to go for the win.

“Even though it didn’t work out, I think it was the right call to take a shot.”

Arkansas quarterback Greg Thomas, voted the game’s MVP with a combined 165 yards rushing and passing, threw on first down. The pass was tipped and intercepted by Carver Russaw, who returned it to the Arkansas 43.

The Bulldogs gained 16 yards on a pass from James Jackson to Robert Sadowski and won on the game’s last play when freshman John Kasay kicked a 39-yard field goal.

Kasay, now 41, is still kicking in the NFL for the Carolina Panthers.

“That Liberty Bowl gave him the confidence to keep on kicking for a long time,” Hatfield said. “It was a tough way for us to lose, but I think that game really was the catalyst for our Southwest Conference championship teams in 1988 and ’89, because we knew how close we’d come to having a great year.

“I remember telling them in the locker room after the Liberty Bowl, ‘If you don’t want to work for a championship and do all the little things, don’t come back, because we’re going to get our butt to work and be a great team in ‘88.’ ”

Chris Bequette, a senior starting offensive tackle for the 1987 Razorbacks, said it was frustrating to lose on the game’s final play.

“But to this day, I’m so proud of Coach Hatfield for going for the win and giving Greg a shot to throw it,” Bequette said. “It was just a tough break for us.

“I wish we could have played overtime back then.”

Bequette was a backup defensive tackle as a freshman in 1984, so he played on Arkansas teams that lost twice in the Liberty Bowl.

His nephew, Jake Bequette, is a sophomore defensive end for the Razorbacks.

“This will be the third Liberty Bowl a Bequette has played in,” Chris Bequette said. “The third time needs to be the charm.”

Sports, Pages 19 on 12/29/2009

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