I feel it safe to say that Saturday night's matchup between Arkansas and Louisiana-Monroe will not be considered a War Memorial Stadium classic. Consider that even the 28-27 thriller that the Razorbacks - with senior quarterback Casey Dick, freshman receiver Chris Gragg and then first-year coach Bobby Petrino - managed to pull out in the last minute would still not rate among the fan favorites at the venerable stadium.
Of course, a great game with Arkansas usually figures to include a great team on the other sideline. In most fans' memories, these games were also the ones the Razorbacks' won. These are contests that had major implications, be it on national rankings or determining conference champions.
I mean, for pure thrills, the Hogs' last-second loss to Rice 23-20 in 1972 might have been one of the better contests for the average college football fan with no allegiances to watch, but Razorback fans have long put that and the other heartbreakers (16-14 to Texas, 1987, who can forget?) out of their collective memory. Maybe later in the season we'll visit the Hogs' most disappointing defeats at the stadium, or maybe rank the best individual performances, by Razorbacks or their foes.
But for this week, Steve Sullivan of KATV, Channel 7, asked the question for his Razorback special Thursday night, "What were the 7 best Arkansas games you saw in War Memorial Stadium?" and I answered. Here's my list, working from No. 7 to No. 1 (remember, these are games I actually attended, and while I wish I could say I saw the 1971 Arkansas-Texas "Revenge at the Rock" game, I stayed dry at home instead; parents' choice, not mine):
No. 7: Arkansas 30, Auburn 28, 1995. When another Southeastern Conference team beats both Alabama and Auburn in the same year, it must be special, and Arkansas' shocking win on ESPN a night over Terry Bowden's Tigers was that. Arkansas forced a fumble on the opening kickoff that led to a quick score and a crowd going nuts, and the Barry Lunney Jr.- and Madre Hill-led Hogs were up 27-0 at the half before Bowden's Tigers woke up. Then, it was a frantic few moments of holding on - Danny Ford's Hogs even botched an onside kick recovery as if the Hogs had never seen one before even in practice, and maybe they hadn't - before the Tigers' last-play field goal from 40-plus yards missed. Arkansas went on to win its first SEC West title outright, losing badly to Florida in the SEC Championship Game, and get the SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer booby prize of relegation to the forgettable Carquest Bowl in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
No. 6: Arkansas 41, Baylor 39, 1981. Fullback Jessie Clark would set the Hogs' scoring record with five touchdowns (later eclipsed by Madre Hill in 1995 against South Carolina), and Bruce Lahay kicked a pressure-packed field goal with 18 seconds left to win the game. The many future pros from this game are still heroes around the two schools. The most memorable one play: Baylor safety Vann McElroy knocking tight end Daryl Mason's teeth out on a goal-line hit after Mason's catch. Even from the press box, I remember seeing white specks flying out of Mason's mouth, and everyone up in the box cringing. Baylor was the defending SWC champ, SMU was fast becoming the best team money could buy, Houston had talent galore and Texas was Texas. A&M at least was winning SWC recruiting game every February, even if the coaching messed it up, and Texas Tech was nationally competitive against Southern Cal and the like. That said, Arkansas found a way to lose to TCU that season, the UA's first loss to the Frogs in 23 straight games. While the SWC may not be considered the equal of Southeastern Conference we know today, anyone who thinks Arkansas was playing in a league inferior to the SEC back then is badly mistaken. Co-champ Texas, by the way, beat Bear Bryant's Alabama in the Cotton Bowl after that season 14-12.
No. 5: Arkansas 31, Texas A&M 6, 1975: A&M was 10-0 and ranked No. 2 in the country (No. 1 Ohio State would eventually lose, so in essence the national championship for the Aggies was on the line). Arkansas was 8-2, with losses at Oklahoma State and to annual nemesis Texas at Fayetteville. But a full house in War Memorial Stadium was in a fever pitch the entire game, Arkansas broke through late in the first half with Scott Bull's 28-yard touchdown pass to the "immortal" (Frank Broyles' words) Teddy Barnes, and the Aggies imploded in the second half. The Razorbacks were one of the best teams in the country by Jan. 1, when they ran away from Georgia (of the SEC) 31-10 in the second half of the 1976 Cotton Bowl. A&M Coach Emory Bellard never seemed to recover from that debacle, and Aggies fans ran him off at midseason in 1978 after three more years of perceived choke jobs that ruined A&M title chances.
No. 4: Arkansas 22, Southern Cal 7, 1974. In many ways, this was the precursor to the '75 A&M game in War Memorial crowd frenzy and the way the Razorbacks' defense played all game in thwarting No. 4 USC's Pat Haden and Anthony Davis. Davis would run a kickoff back 107 yards to tie the game at 7, but halfback Ike Forte, wishbone quarterback Mark Miller, kicker Steve Little and the Hogs' rampaging defense ruled nearly all the 60 minutes. Arkansas football fans may have seen for their first time the use of the "pooch" kickoff - the short, high, placement kick directed away from a dangerous returner - that night. Well, it's the first night I remember seeing it. Southern Cal would go 10-1-1 and earn a share of the national title (UPI, which was not recognizing on-probation Oklahoma at the time). Broyles' team was up and down all year, coming back the next week to War Memorial to get completely mauled by Oklahoma State, 26-7. The Hogs went 6-4-1. They were more talented than that.
No. 3: Arkansas 17, Texas 14, 1979: Texas was No. 2 and led by "Ham" and "Lam" Jones and all that other talent that Arkansas native Freddy Akers had assembled in Austin. Arkansas had a mix of great seniors, led by quarterback Kevin Scanlon, and great freshmen led by then-noseguard Billy Ray Smith Jr. (defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin played him everywhere, it seemed) and running back Gary Anderson. Anderson, Scanlon and the Hogs led 14-7 at the half after a fast Longhorn start, he biggest game-changer was a seven-minute drive in the second half that Scanlon engineered that led to an Ish Ordonez field goal and the eventual winning difference. Texas got a fluke TD in the fourth quarter off a deflected pass to previous year's Hog killer Lawrence Sampleton, and had a chance to tie (there was no overtime, remember) but failed on a last-play field goal.
No. 2: Arkansas 45, Houston 39, 1989: Andre Ware would go on to win the Heisman Trophy in 1989, but Arkansas quarterback Quinn Grovey won this night, throwing often to his favorite target, Derek Russell, and eventually passing the Hogs to a 14-point lead late before they held on. Coming a week after a shocking loss to Texas, Grovey and the Hogs ran to a second-straight SWC title. Early on during this game (not televised anywhere due to NCAA sanctions levied against the Cougars), though, Houston seemed in control and on the way to taking a double-digit lead before Ken Hatfield's bend-but-don't-break defense baited Ware into an interception near the goal line that turned the momentum.
No. 1: Arkansas 21, LSU 20, 2002: That this game will forever be known as the "Miracle on Markham" helps push it to No. 1 on a list that could have included a handful of other classics. I was not born, and still 12 years removed from seeing my first War Memorial Hog game, when perhaps the first real "Miracle on Markham" occurred - Arkansas upset No. 4 Ole Miss 6-0 in 1954 on Buddy Bob Benson's "Powder River" throw to Preston Carpenter. That win made the Hogs a household name nationally, and Coach Bowden Wyatt took his 25 Little Pigs to the Cotton Bowl and then left for Tennessee. Flash forward 48 years, when Arkansas earned a spot in the SEC Championship Game with Matt Jones' miracle, his exploits from his freshman season coupled with this amazing feat giving him legendary status even though he was just a sophomore. The Hogs had trailed at one point by 17-7 before Fred Talley broke a big scoring run to get them within 3, and the Hog defense held LSU to a field goal as time wound down before Jones found Decori Birmingham for the winning pass on a two-play drive in the final minute. David Carlton made the extra point despite Arkansas' being penalized 15 yards for "excessive celebration." It was a "miracle," dammit; aren't college kids allowed to celebrate a miracle?
I'd add two games for honorable mention status, and a Top 10 list surely would have included them (but Channel 7 wanted SEVEN games).
Arkansas 16, Oklahoma State 3, 1976; and Arkansas 24, Kentucky 20, 1998. The former was perhaps the worst offensive game ever played, but it was Frank Broyles' last "must" win of his career; Okie State, who would beat Oklahoma that year for one of its rare wins over the Sooners, had stolen a few key defensive line recruits out of Central Arkansas and had begun to dominate a series that Arkansas owned nearly forever. Arkansas played defensively in the same fashion as it did against USC '74 and A&M '75.
The 1998 Kentucky game was a huge impetus, following a shocking 42-6 rout in Fayetteville of storied Alabama, for Houston Nutt's first team to go 8-0 and nearly knock off eventual national champ Tennessee. Arkansas ended the year 9-3, its first nine-win season in nine years, with a share of the SEC West for the second time since joining the league. Former Kentucky players and coaches still regularly point to this particular game, in front of a crowd of 54,000, as the loudest they ever experienced at UK.
Coincidentally, the UK quarterback that night, Tim Couch, will be at War Memorial on Saturday as part of the Fox SportsNet television crew. We hope he's not shocked that the crowd this time is maybe not quite as crazy as he remembers it, or that the game is not up to the level of UA-UK in 1998. It's not supposed to be, anyway.