The Sugar Bowl was played last night. My alma mater, the University of Arkansas, came up five points short.
I am reminded of what Adlai Stevenson said in his concession speech on Election Night 1952 (he was actually quoting a story that had been told by Abraham Lincoln about a century earlier): "It hurts too much to laugh, but I'm too old to cry."
In case you didn't see the game, Ohio State raced to a 28–10 halftime lead, then held on as Arkansas closed the deficit to 31–26 before a late interception killed its hopes.
Up to that point, though, it was a marvelous comeback, the kind of thing that no doubt would have achieved legendary status in my home state if it had led to a victory. And who knows? It may yet achieve a kind of mythical status, a sort of a David–vs.–Goliath thing — but without the inspirational underdog–overcomes–all–obstacles theme.
If the Razorbacks had managed to pull off an astonishing comeback, no doubt the folks in Arkansas would have spoken of it in the same hushed tones they reserve for the 1978 Orange Bowl, when Lou Holtz suspended three of his stars only days before a game with already–heavily favored Oklahoma, then went out and beat the Sooners, 31–6, behind a sophomore running back.
Or the 1965 Cotton Bowl, when Frank Broyles led Arkansas to a 10–7 victory over Nebraska and a share of the national championship with Bear Bryant and Alabama. No suspensions in that one, just names of Razorback proteges like Jerry Jones, Jimmy Johnson and Ken Hatfield and assistants like Johnny Majors and Barry Switzer who went on to influence both college and pro ball.
Broyles and Holtz capped 11–win seasons with those victories. Arkansas' current coach, Bobby Petrino, could have become the third coach in school history to win 11 games in a season if the Razorbacks had managed to beat Ohio State.
Even though the Razorbacks did not achieve a comeback for the ages, I think this game will be talked about for awhile.
Less than two weeks before the game was to be played, the NCAA announced it was suspending five Ohio State players for the first five games of the 2011 season.
They were allowed to play in the Sugar Bowl, however — and, between them, they accounted for or made significant contributions to each of Ohio State's four touchdowns.
If Ken Gordon of the Columbus Dispatch is indicative of how garden–variety Buckeye fans feel, though, NCAA violations mean nothing — in January, at least. We'll see how they feel in about eight or nine months.
(We could still find out how they feel before the next football season draws nigh. I wrote last week about the possibility that some or all of the players might choose to declare themselves eligible for the NFL draft and avoid any punishment from the NCAA.
(The Ohio State coach insists that the players all promised they would return for their senior years and serve their suspensions as a condition for being allowed to participate in the Sugar Bowl, but, Coach Pollyanna notwithstanding, I'll withhold judgment until after the draft in the spring, thank you.)
"Whether their next game for Ohio State is in eight months, nine months or never again, the Suspended Five gave their school a tremendous parting gift last night," Gordon wrote. "And one of the most obscure of the group came up with the biggest play."
That would be Solomon Thomas, whose late interception snuffed out Arkansas' last hope of winning the game.
Denied victory by five players who really shouldn't have been permitted to play — and may wind up having the last laugh — the Razorbacks may have to content themselves with the knowledge that they came closer to winning the Sugar Bowl than any losing team since #8 Georgia lost to #11 West Virginia, 38–35, on Jan. 2, 2006.
The Ohio State Five committed no grievous offenses during the game. It was cleanly played and won. There were no bad calls upon which the outcome could be blamed. There were no serious injuries that kept anyone from starting.
Nearly a month ago, I wrote about Arkansas' woeful records in both the Sugar Bowl and against the Big Ten. I wish last night's game had been a reversal of fortune for the Razorbacks. But it wasn't.
It was an entertaining game, although not in the sense that momentum shifted with each possession. Ohio State won the first half. Arkansas won the second, but by a smaller margin. Consequently, Ohio State won.
It would be tempting to suggest that the better team won. And maybe, when one evaluates the talent that each school brought to the Louisiana Superdome last night, that is so.
But it's a matter of opinion whether all the talent on the field was there legitimately. The NCAA will tell you that all of Ohio State's players were, in fact, eligible to be there — and, by existing NCAA rules, that is probably so.
I still think it is wrong, though, for a punishment to be assessed in the next season, and I don't feel the Ohio State Five should have been allowed to play. But they were and they played honorably.
We shall see if they are as honorable about serving their suspensions.