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College football — Week 13 (Bayou Bengals visit)

I’ve come to love this tradition of Arkansas playing LSU at historic War Memorial Stadium every other year on the Friday or Saturday after Thanksgiving.

Following a morning duck hunt with my father near Arkadelphia (yes, there are a few ducks in that part of the state if you know where to go), I made the drive to Little Rock on the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 1994. I was joined by my brother-in-law and nephew. We watched LSU beat Arkansas 30-12. We then drove back to Arkadelphia for a supper of leftover turkey and dressing. If only I could hunt ducks with my father one more time. Those were special days.

Two years later, after a similar duck hunt with my dad, my brother-in-law and nephew joined me on the drive to Little Rock to watch LSU defeat the Hogs 17-7 in the rain.

Those were the dreadful Danny Ford years.

By the start of the Houston Nutt era in 1998, I was visiting my in-laws in south Texas for Thanksgiving. But as my boys (ages 5 and 1 at the time) played on the afternoon of Friday, Nov. 27, at Cole Park overlooking Corpus Christi Bay, I sat in the car with the radio on. I could pick up WWL-AM out of New Orleans. I listened as Arkansas defeated LSU to move to 9-2.

I was back in Corpus Christi for Thanksgiving in 2000. I watched CBS in my room at the Holiday Inn overlooking the bay that Friday afternoon as a mediocre Arkansas team defeated LSU 14-3.

Fortunately, I was in the stands with my wife and oldest son (the youngest son — age 5 at the time — elected to give up his ticket and go bowling instead with an older cousin) in 2002 as the Hogs scored with nine seconds left to win Miracle On Markham I by a score of 21-20.

Sitting on the top row of the east side, I could see the thousands of fans leaving the stadium after LSU hit a late field goal to go up 20-14 on an Arkansas team that had not moved the ball all day. When Matt Jones completed a long pass following the kickoff to put Arkansas in LSU territory, many of those fans turned around and began running back into the stadium. Some didn’t make it in time for the touchdown. It’s an image that will stay with me the rest of my life.

Like others in the stadium that day, we stayed in the stands for a full 15 minutes after the game to cheer. It’s a special memory.

I recall walking up Van Buren Street to my car, listening to joyous fans blow their car horns in all directions. The parties lasted late into the evening that Friday.

We were in the stands again on Nov. 26, 2004, as Houston Nutt lost for the first time in Little Rock, 43-14.

We were back in the stands four years ago as two Top 10 teams squared off. Arkansas was 10-1 coming in, LSU was 9-2. The Tigers won, 31-26. Prior to the game, I had watched LSU fans shell out $500 in cash for tickets. They had driven to Little Rock with no tickets, willing to pay whatever was necessary to see this big game.

Two years ago, we were there for Miracle On Markham II. Evan chose football over bowling and was glad he did. Arkansas scored with 21 sconds remaining to win by a score of 31-30. We were sitting right behind the LSU bench as Arkansas fans yelled at Les Miles: “You blew it, Lester.”

I plan to be there again Saturday. Will it be another classic?

It’s 10-1 LSU against 9-2 Arkansas. If Auburn takes care of business the day before in the Iron Bowl, the winner of the Arkansas-LSU game could be headed to the Sugar Bowl.

Hopefully, the weather forecast holds up — clear and cool (highs only in the 50s). In other words, perfect for college football.

The goal last Saturday night in Starkanistan is what it always is — simply to escape with a victory.

Arkansas did that, 38-31, in two overtimes. Don’t worry about style points. Get the win and get home.

In fact, Bobby Petrino did exactly what I would have done in the first overtime after the Bulldogs had come up empty on their possession — run the ball up middle three times and then call on freshman kicker Zach Hocker, who has been almost perfect this fall.

Hocker’s miss made us hold our breaths a bit longer, but indeed the Razorbacks escaped as Knile Davis ran for a career-high 187 yards and Ryan “Vanilla Ice” Mallett threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns. Mallett now has 229 completions on the season, breaking the school record of 225 completions that he set last year.

Arkansas is now an amazing 9-2 in overtime games. The Razorbacks could be 11-0 if not for short missed fields goals that should have been made in losses at Knoxville and Baton Rouge. Fortunately, Hocker’s miss wasn’t one of those “misses we’ll long remember.”

Even more impressive is the fact that eight of the nine overtime victories have come outside the state of Arkasas. The Hogs are 3-0 in overtime games at Starkville with wins of 16-13 in 1996, 17-10 in 2000 and 38-31 in 2010.

The Bulldogs, a solid team in their second year under Dan Mullen, did exactly what they wanted to do offensively — keep the ball away from Mallett and Co. by controlling the line of scrimmage against Arkansas’ often suspect defense.  Mississippi State led in time of possession, 37:24 to 22:36. Quarterback Chris Relf was a solid competitor, completing 20 of his 34 passes for 224 yards and rushing for another 103 yards.

Total yardage for the game was almost even — 488 for Arkansas and 486 for Mississippi State. But the teams went about it in different ways. Arkansas had 183 yards on the ground and 305 yards through the air. Mississippi State had 262 yards on the ground and 224 yards through the air.

Mallett has now thrown for a touchdown and had a completion of at least 25 yards in 23 of his 24 games as a Razorback. I’m confident Arkansas can score some points on LSU’s stellar defense.

Can the Arkansas defense, in turn, stop an LSU offense that struggles at times? Sad to say, I still lack confidence in this defense.

I went 3-1 on the picks for last weekend, making the record 66-25 heading into the final week of picks.

On to this week’s games:

Florida International 34, Arkansas State 28 — The Red Wolves fell to 4-7 following a 35-19 loss Saturday to a good Navy team. Red Wolf sophomore quarterback Ryan Aplin broke the school record for passing yards in a single season with 2,813 yards. The old record of 2,721 yards had been set by Cleo Lemon in 1998. Aplin should be fun to watch the next two seasons. Navy is 8-3, having posted its eighth consecutive season with at least eight victories. It was the first time this season for the Red Wolves to be held to fewer than 24 points. A frustrating season ends Saturday with a trip to Florida International. The Panthers began the season 0-4, losing by scores of 19-14 to Rutgers, 27-20 to Texas A&M, 42-28 to Maryland and 44-17 to Pitt. But they’ve come alive in conference play. FIU is 5-1 in the Sun Belt Conference with victories over Western Kentucky, North Texas, Louisiana-Monroe, Troy and Louisiana-Lafayette. The only conference loss has been to Florida Atlantic.

Arkansas 31, LSU 29 — Let’s be specific: Zach Hocker will hit a 52-yard field goal as time expires as the Razorbacks win Miracle On Markham III. Thousands of people will hurl sugar cubes onto the field. Arkansas wasn’t the only team that struggled last Saturday. Houston Dale almost pulled off an upset in Baton Rouge. LSU trailed Ole Miss, 36-35, with 4:57 left. But Patrick Peterson returned a kickoff 34 yards to midfield. Stevan Ridley scored the winning touchdown with 44 seconds left, and the ol’ grass eater Les Miles survived after having lost to Nutt’s Rebels the previous two seasons, 31-13 two years ago in Baton Rouge and 25-23 last fall in Oxford. It’s time for LSU to run out of miracles, and where better to come up empty than the aging gridiron on Markham Street?

I have so many memories of watching games from the stands there, covering games as a sportwriter there, broadcasting games there and even playing there when I was a center in high school.

Perhaps there will be some more special memories created as the sun sets and a game that began in the sunlight ends under the lights Saturday.

Happy Thanksgiving and go Hogs.

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