Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy, Biletnikoff Award and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt was awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2000 and 2015.
MIRACLE ON MARKHAM:
Two flings, one prayer answered
Matt Jones throws a 31-yard touchdown pass to Decori Birmingham with 9 seconds remaining in Arkansas' 21-20 win over LSU in 2002.
FAYETTEVILLE Matt Jones looked like he was having an afternoon bicycle ride in the park on Thanksgiving weekend.
In a way, he was.
Jones was riding a stationary bike on the Arkansas sideline at War Memorial Stadium, located in Little Rock’s War Memorial Park, to stay loose before going back onto the football field for the Razorbacks.
It was 10 years ago — Nov. 29, 2002, to be exact — and the Razorbacks had a long way to go in a short time to beat LSU for the SEC West title and earn a trip to Atlanta for the conference championship game.
The 14th-ranked Tigers, led by Coach Nick Saban, had kicked a field goal to cap a 13-play drive that put LSU ahead 20-14. The drive consumed 5:53, leaving the Razorbacks 34 seconds when they took possession at their 19 after the kickoff return.
Arkansas Coach Houston Nutt approached Jones, a junior quarterback, as he was pedaling away.
“I’ll never forget it,” Nutt said. “We were in a CBS timeout and I came up to Matt as he’s over there riding and I said, ‘Hey, Matt, a little sense of urgency here now. We’ve got a hurry, hurry situation.’
“We were going over the first three plays that I thought could work, and he looked like he’s all nonchalant, like we were up by two touchdowns. I said, ‘Matt, c’mon now, this is the two-minute drill, let’s get this done.’
“His response was: ‘Coach, don’t worry. I got it.’ ”
Jones backed up his words to Nutt in stunning fashion, completing two passes that had the Razorbacks in the LSU end zone 25 seconds later.
David Carlton kicked the extra point, and Brandon Holmes sacked Tigers quarterback Marcus Randall to force a fumble that clinched the Razorbacks’ 21-20 victory that was quickly dubbed the “Miracle on Markham” after the street which runs adjacent to War Memorial Stadium.
With time winding down on a 2012 season full of disappointments, Arkansas fans can celebrate the 10th anniversary of the “Miracle on Markham” as the Razorbacks prepare to play LSU on Friday in Fayetteville.
“It doesn’t seem like 10 years. I must be getting old,” said Jones, who is now co-host of a radio show in Little Rock. “Time really flies.”
Saban, now in his sixth season as Alabama’s coach and with three national titles on his resume, recalled details of the Arkansas-LSU game from 2002 when asked about it last week.
“I remember a lot about that game,” Saban said. “You don’t forget those kind. A lot of it was not good execution by our defense, but it also was a great player making some great plays for them. Matt Jones was a great player.”
‘THEY GAVE US A CHANCE’
It hadn’t been a great game for Jones leading up to Arkansas’ final drive. Far from it.
Jones had completed 2 of 13 passes for 46 yards and thrown an interception in the end zone on the Razorbacks’ first nine possessions.
“Then we made him look like Joe Namath on that last drive,” said Florida Coach Will Muschamp, who was LSU’s defensive coordinator at the time.
Jones laughed when he heard Muschamp compared him to Namath.
“Hey, I’ll take it,” he said.
On first down, Nutt called a play with Richard Smith running a deep clearout route with the idea George Wilson would be open underneath.
“We were just trying to get up to the 50 where we could chunk it to the end zone, but Richard was able to get behind the defense,” Jones said.
With LSU’s defensive backs jumping on the shorter routes, Jones passed to Smith for 50 yards to the LSU 31. Arkansas was out of timeouts, so the Razorbacks hustled to the line of scrimmage. Jones then threw to the end zone for Carlos Ousley, but the ball fell incomplete.
Seventeen seconds remained, enough time for possibly two more plays, but the Razorbacks only needed one.
The call was a “triple post X drag,” with Wilson running over the middle and three other Razorbacks flooding the end zone. Wilson was the primary receiver, but Jones saw DeCori Birmingham find an open spot in the corner.
“It was one of those deals where you see a window, and it doesn’t need to be a very big one, because you’re down and you’re just hoping you get lucky,” Jones said. “DeCori made a heck of a catch.”
Birmingham caught the ball between LSU defensive backs Randall Gay and Travis Daniels, who both became NFL players. Gay played on two Super Bowl championships teams with New England, and Daniels still plays for Kansas City.
“I was responsible for the Miracle on Markham Street, or whatever they call it,” Muschamp said. “I remember it like it was yesterday. We obviously had a busted coverage on their first play and cut a guy loose deep, and then on the touchdown, we were in a two-man deep look and they hit us over the top.
“That drive is something that still sticks with me to this day, but it was a heck of a throw by Jones in the back in the end zone there.”
In the Arkansas radio booth, color analyst Keith Jackson became so excited that he screamed “Touchdown, Arkansas!” almost in unison with playby-play man Paul Eells. As they continued on the air, Jackson mentioned the words “miracle” and “Markham.”
“Matt just caught fire that last drive,” Jackson said last week. “It was so crazy. Beating LSU, you always get excited, but that was really wild.
“When teams allow you to stick around instead of putting you away, that’s what can happen. They gave us a chance, and we took it.”
Birmingham said all he could think about was “touchdown” as he waited for the ball.
“I can’t believe it happened that way and that I was involved in it,” Birmingham told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette the next year. “I was in the right place at the right time.
“It’s hard to remember second by second, but when I watch it on TV I feel like I’m still out there, like I can smell the air.”
Jones’ touchdown pass to Birmingham, though, only tied the score 20-20. The Razorbacks still needed to kick the extra point to go ahead, and that became more challenging when they were penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct because some players ran onto the field to celebrate the touchdown.
“I think I was the only one not jumping on the pile,” Carlton told the Democrat-Gazette later. “I was the one trying to break it up.”
The celebration penalty meant Carlton would have to kick a 35-yard extra point.
“I was sick to my stomach, because we put David in a very tough situation,” said Nutt, who now works for the CBS Sports Network. “I started getting ready for overtime.”
Carlton then gave Arkansas its only lead of the game, knocking the ball just inside the left upright after it was blown by the wind.
“Jones to Birmingham to Atlanta,” Nutt said, reciting the Democrat-Gazette’s headline the next day without prompting. “That was a heck of headline.”
Three weeks before the Arkansas-LSU game, the Tigers had won 33-30 at Kentucky in what became known as “The Bluegrass Miracle” on a twice tipped 74-yard touchdown pass on the final play.
“I never will forget going to midfield to see Nick and I said, ‘Nick, can you believe it?’ ” Nutt said. “He said, ‘Hey, we won one just like this at Kentucky. I know how you feel. Congratulations.’ ”
MAKING IT COUNT
Arkansas’ game-winning drive wouldn’t have been possible if Fred Talley hadn’t scored on a 56-yard touchdown play with 6:33 left to pull the Razorbacks within 17-14. It was a draw play on second-and-19 after Jones had been sacked.
“Fred made a PlayStation-type run where he broke about nine tackles,” Jones said. “It was one of the best runs ever in Razorback history if you watch that. I mean, it was an amazing run.”
The Razorbacks caught LSU in a blitz, and Talley was able to cut back and outrun the Tigers to the end zone.
“I kept feeling people hitting my legs and my heels,” Talley said after the game. “But I just dug down and tried not to be denied.”
Safety Tony Bua made another big play for Arkansas after LSU got the ball back when he tackled LaBrandon Toefield for a 1-yard gain on third-and-6 from the Razorbacks’ 13, leading to Saban’s decision to kick a field goal for a sixpoint lead.
Prior to Bua’s stop, Talley was among the offensive players imploring the defense to hold the Tigers.
“I saw Fred run up and say, ‘If you just give us the ball with one second left, we’ll win this game,’ ” Bua said afterward.
Going for the field goal rather than a touchdown on fourth-and-5 seemed like sound strategy by Saban considering Jones’ struggles with passing the ball.
“Matt hadn’t thrown a spiral all day, but when he had to make throws, he could make ’em,” Nutt said. “He was always so cool under pressure. He had ice water in his veins and didn’t ever flinch.”
Jones said he may have appeared relaxed to Nutt when they spoke before the Arkansas’ final possession, but he had plenty of emotion on the inside.
“It was probably one of my worst games as a Hog when you look at the stats,” Jones said. “I was more mad at myself than anything, and I was my worst critic.
“That also was a great LSU team, and any Sabancoached team is going to be tough. They could make anybody look bad.”
Jones said he remained confident in himself and his teammates.
“As a quarterback, you always have to have a short memory,” he said. “As long as we were out there, I knew we had a chance.”
BY THE NUMBERS
2 Passes completed by Matt Jones during first nine possessions for Arkansas
2 Passes completed by Jones during 25 seconds on Arkansas’ final drive
46 Yards passing for Jones before final drive
81 Yards passing by Jones during 25-second drive
14-0 Houston Nutt’s record at War Memorial Stadium after 21-20 victory over LSU
What they said after the game
“We won a game in the last 13 seconds, and today we lost a game in the last 36 seconds. So, Sometimes you say they balance themselves out. Well, I guess we were a victim of that today.” - LSU coach Nick Saban
“It’s just a blessing from the heavens.” - Arkansas Coach Houston Nutt
“You see a little opening, but you’ve just got to give him a chance. You can’t throw it out of bounds. You’ve got to just give him a chance and hope he comes down with it.” - Matt Jones, on his touchdown pass to DeCori Birmingham
“I kept feeling people hitting my legs and my heels. But I just dug down and tried not to be denied.” - Fred Talley, on his 56-yard touchdown run that pulled Arkansas within within 17-14.
What they’re saying today
“I was responsible for the ‘Miracle on Markham Street,’ or whatever they call it. I remember it like it was yesterday. ... That drive is something that still sticks with me to this day. But it was a heck of a throw by Jones in the back in the end zone there.... We made him look like Joe Namath on that last drive.”- Florida Coach Will Muschamp, LSU’s defensive coordinator at the time
“I remember a lot about that game. You don’t forget those kind. A lot of it was not good execution by our defense, but it was a great player making great plays for them. Matt Jones was a great player.” -Nick Saban, now the coach at Alabama, recalling the 2002 game
What they wrote
WALLY HALL Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
As time ran out on the third quarter, Matt Jones came to his feet and raised his arms over his head. Four fingers showed on both hands.
Arkansas trailed 17-7.
Then dozens of other Razorbacks flashed the sign that means, “The final quarter belongs to us.”
Another Miracle on Markham Street and another notch in Houston Nutt’s War Memorial Stadium belt as the Razorbacks got their first lead after 59:51 of play. It was good for a 21-20 victory.
Believe it, Nutt is 14-0 in The Rock.
SCOTT CAIN Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
In a season that has at times defied college football’s laws of nature, Arkansas saved its most powerful miracles for the last ticks of the regular season.
Unable to throw effectively all day, Arkansas struck not with one but two thunderbolts that covered 81 yards in 25 seconds. Quarterback Matt Jones fired both, the second a 31-yard touchdown pass to backup flanker DeCori Birmingham with nine seconds to play, to deliver the Razorbacks from desperation to delirium.
Sports, Pages 27 on 11/22/2012