FAYETTEVILLE — If the scope of Arkansas’ stumble hadn’t set in while Louisiana-Monroe celebrated its shocking win in War Memorial Stadium, ESPN personalities Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Fowler made it abundantly clear late Saturday night.
ESPN’s College Gameday, the network’s weekly on-location show, had its bags packed for Fayetteville and the Arkansas-Alabama game. Their second trip to Arkansas’ campus was set for the early-season matchup between top 10 teams.
Those plans were abruptly canceled, though, after the Razorbacks squandered a 21-point second-half lead en route to a 34-31 overtime loss to the Warhawks.
“Epic win for the Warhawks,” Fowler said via Twitter. “We’ve seen plot twists before, but ULM rerouting @CollegeGameDay from Ark. Next week is the all-timer!”
So Arkansas (1-1), which entered the season confident about its championship hopes, woke up Sunday morning dealing with the fallout from its loss for the ages.
The national exposure that goes along with being the weekly spot for ESPN’s College Gameday is one thing. A end of a two-year run in The Associated Press top 25 poll on Sunday, a stretch was its fifth-longest streak in the nation, is another. Both pale in comparison to the larger issues facing Arkansas under John L. Smith, though.
This was a team confident its success from the past two seasons would continue in 2012 even though the architect, Bobby Petrino, had been fired after his ill-fated motorcycle ride last April. Petrino may have been watching in disbelief somewhere Saturday night as his former team all but wrecked its title hopes in Little Rock.
It leaves Arkansas sitting at an unexpected crossroads after just two games, preparing for its Southeastern Conference opener against the Crimson Tide (2-0).
“How are we going to respond? What do we do from here?” Arkansas running back Knile Davis said after being asked what Smith told his team in the locker room.
“We’ll have to play it game by game and see what happens.”
A team with a history of playing with unwavering poise and confidence as favorites the past four years looked uncomfortable throughout the second half Saturday.
Arkansas’ tumble began not long after quarterback Tyler Wilson left the game because of a “hit to the head,” according to Smith. The Razorbacks started well without their leader in the second half, building a 28-7 lead, but sputtered the rest of the game offensively and finished with 124 yards in the second half and overtime.
“We came out and did some things the first half, had a nice first drive of the second half, and then we just didn’t do anything worth a darn after that,” offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “That starts with me. We’ve got to get better.”
Things were worse defensively. Arkansas couldn’t contain ULM quarterback Kolton Browning, who kept plays alive with his feet and helped the Warhawks move the chains and say on the field. He finished with 481 total yards (412 passes, 69 rushing) and four touchdowns (three passing, one rushing) to lead ULM to the win.
Arkansas was outgained 550-377. ULM nearly doubled the Razorbacks in time of possession (39:19 to 20:41). The Warhawks also won thanks to its impressive success on third and fourth down (14 of 30), while Arkansas was just 3 of 11.
“We didn’t play well enough in the front. We didn’t protect well enough,” Smith said. “We didn’t catch the ball, we didn’t run the ball, when we had to run the ball. We didn’t tackle when we had to get them off the field. We didn’t cover. …
“We all contributed. Every one of us. Every one of us as coaches and that’s our job to get them better, to pull them together and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Those alarming issues won’t just disappear as Arkansas faces an Alabama team that has dominated the series since coach Nick Saban arrived in 2007.
The Crimson Tide has won five straight against Arkansas, including last year’s 38-14 victory in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama has rolled through its first two games in 2012, too, outscoring Michigan and Western Kentucky by a combined 76-14.
Linebacker Tenarius Wright admitted Arkansas is wounded after the embarrassing loss to ULM. But he believes his teammates will respond against Alabama.
“I’m not going to slip away, but we have some adversity,” Wright said after the game. “We have a choice to make. We can either go down, or we can go forward.”
But nothing can erase what happened in Little Rock on Saturday night.
Arkansas wanted to prove it could carry on despite the offseason coaching change, but suffered one of the worst losses in school history against a program previously winless against ranked teams. It left the Razorbacks in the spotlight with the ‘Bama game looming – although for all the wrong reasons Sunday.
“I really can’t believe it,” Paul Petrino said. “We’ve just got to find out what we’re made of, come back next week and work our butt off and get better.”