Goodbyes on Black Friday

Record-breaking senior class closes out season of struggles

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Friday, November 23, 2012
Friday's game against LSU will mark the end of Tyler Wilson's tenure at Arkansas and likely the same for John L. Smith.
Photo by Michael Woods
Friday's game against LSU will mark the end of Tyler Wilson's tenure at Arkansas and likely the same for John L. Smith.

— Twenty-two Arkansas seniors will put on their game-day Razorbacks gear for the last time today.

The final game for a class that has compiled a 33-17 record and helped Arkansas achieve national notoriety also will mark the end of a successful era for the program when it wraps up today’s 1:30 p.m. game against BCS No. 7 LSU (9-2, 5-2 SEC) at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

“We’ve got one game left and you know this is it, so why not go out there and light it up one more time?” Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said.

Arkansas (4-7, 2-5) will take on the Tigers on campus for the first time since the Razorbacks’ first year in the SEC in 1992, when interim Coach Joe Kines led the Razorbacks to a 30-6 rout.

There has been no formal announcement that interim Coach John L. Smith and his staff will not return, but everyone understands the reality. Along with national standouts like Wilson, Cobi Hamilton, Dennis Johnson and Chris Gragg, Razorbacks fans will be saying their final on-field goodbyes to most, if not all, of the coaches.

“I’m thankful for the fans,” Coach John L. Smith said in a wistful Monday news conference. “These fans are the best I’ve ever seen.”

It also marks the official end of the Bobby Petrino era. Even though Petrino hasn’t been a part of this season after his firing in April, the rehiring of Smith assured that his staff and schemes would remain in place to the delight of the players, who were confident they could be among the top teams in college football.

“Adversity, it just came,” said Hamilton, who can become Arkansas’ all-time receptions leader with four catches today. “We kind of struggled to get over it.”

LSU Coach Les Miles, who has a 4-3 record against Arkansas, including 1-2 on the road, said he understands what his team faces.

“I know it’s a very emotional day,” he said. “I know there’ll be tears. ... They’ve certainly been very successful. They’ll be wanting to play well. You look at the film and it’s very easy to respect our opponent here.”

One year ago marked the apex of the era.

Arkansas jumped to No. 3 in the BCS standings the day after trouncing Mississippi State 44-17 in Little Rock, meaning the Razorbacks’ game at No.1 LSU would hold national title implications. The same day the rankings came out, Razorbacks tight end Garrett Uekman died suddenly of complications from an enlarged heart.

Petrino and the Razorbacks did not talk to members of the media that week and didn’t play well at the end of it, falling 41-17 in Baton Rouge. After their quick handshake at midfield, Miles reached out and clutched Petrino’s arm as if to tell him something else and Petrino pulled away angrily.

The Razorbacks went on to claim the program’s first 11-victory season in 34 years by thumping Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl, but the euphoria didn’t last. Petrino took a fateful April 1 ride on his Harley-Davidson with a 25-year-old female staff member, and the ensuing scandal cost him his job.

Injuries, inexperience on defense and a drop in offensive production have been interweaving themes in the Razorbacks’ fall from their No. 8 ranking to open the season.

Arkansas is hoping to conjure up one more impressive performance today.

“Hopefully there’s all kinds of excitement with the fans and we have a definite home field advantage,” offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said.

LSU has played the foil to underdog Arkansas teams before. Bobby Petrino’s first team pulled off the second“Miracle on Markham” victory in 2008 on Casey Dick’s fourth-down, 24-yard touchdown pass to London Crawford with 21 seconds left in a 31-30 victory.

Two years ago in Little Rock, Hamilton caught touchdown passes of 85 and 80 yards in a 31-23 victory over the Tigers that propelled Arkansas to the Sugar Bowl in what is the crowning achievement of the era.

“We came out to win,” Hamilton said. “That was a game that we wanted to win two years ago, that we needed to win.

“This is a game that us seniors, we’re taking it in the same point. This is our last game together, so you want to take that and pull out a win and try to make it a big deal.”

The Razorbacks, who dined together at a Wednesday night function and remembered Uekman’s legacy, said their preparation has been good through a trying week.

“It’s emotional, knowing again it’s going to be my last time in this stadium with these seniors,” first-year defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said.

The Razorbacks have struggled to sustain fast starts much of the year. They have held early leads in every game but one since their 52-0 loss to No. 1 Alabama.

“We’ve got to keep playing good throughout the game, get everybody into it and get excited,” Paul Petrino said. “Just staying in the game gives us a chance to win it in the fourth quarter. I think that’s the key.”

Arkansas moved the venue of its traditional day-after-Thanksgiving game from Little Rock to Fayetteville to keep from traveling for its last three games.

“Little Rock’s great and it’s been a tradition to be there, for sure, but not being able to go to a bowl game at this point, to wrap up my career here in Fayetteville, this is a perfect ending,” Wilson said.

“Our mind-set is go out to win the football game,” defensive tackle Alfred Davis said. “Win the Boot. Bring it back here.”

Sports, Pages 20 on 11/23/2012