Commentary: Stage Fright

Here are the thoughts of HI.com publisher Clay Henry from Saturday's 45-30 loss at Florida. This is a commentary.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Stage fright. Nerves. Jitters. Sweaty-palm time.

Perhaps that is what happened Saturday to inexperienced Arkansas when it hit the road in Ben Griffin Stadium.

It was pure humidity, like nothing that has been seen in the Ozarks in the last two months. It was enough to make you melt and most in the stands wear out their wrists with paper Gator fans.

And it looked like Arkansas was going to melt right into The Swamp in the first 30 minutes. But an interesting thing happened to those young Razorbacks. Some of the youngest of them righted the ship and produced almost enough plays in the second half to give them a chance.

Florida held them off with a touchdown with 1 minute, 46 seconds left after Arkansas wideout Carlos Ousley muffed a pass Matt Jones threw behind him and the resulting interception produced Florida's final score in a 45-30 victory.

Until that interception, the Hogs had made it back from 35-7 at halftime to within 38-30 with two fourth quarter touchdowns and two-point plays after each of them. It looked like another possible road overtime thriller when the youngest of the Hog defenders produced a third straight three-and-out series by the Gators.

The Hogs had the ball back at their own 26 with 5:47 left and everyone in Ben Griffin Stadium was working those fans in front of their faces even faster. Yes, the heat was on the Gators then.

"We had them going and I thought it was going to be overtime," said Randy Kelly, the junior college transfer who stepped in at strong safety with five true freshmen on defense in the second half.

"We had a chance, but the ball bounced a different way this time. We came out strong and played tough. We had to be tough in this situation. That second group with the freshmen, we practice together so it was just same as practice out there in the second half. We did good."

Indeed, they did. But what happened in the first half when Florida scored four touchdowns in the second quarter?

"My guys were nervous," said James Shibest, who coaches the wideouts and coordinates the special teams. "I'll tell you that."

He was talking mainly about his wideouts, but he noted that Jacob Skinner, the Hogs' punter, complained of wet hands when a perfect snap went through his hands and caused one of several poor punts in the first half.

One of the Hogs' best special teams players, Marcus Whitmore, blew two kickoffs in the first half. He ran into return man Cedric Washington while trying to block on the opening kickoff, putting the Hogs' at their 8-yard line for their first possession. And, he blocked in the back on another kickoff. The Hogs had to start at their 11 on that one, but responded for an 89-yard drive for their only first-half touchdown.

"We came back, though," Shibest said. "We fought our hearts out. We just have a lot of inexperienced players. That showed up. But I thought we did a great job in the second half. I'm proud of that effort."

The Hogs were upset about their first-half play and the hole they dug for themselves.

"There are a lot of different variables on how it all came about," said Mike Markuson, the offensive line coach. "The thing is, you can't play like that. It was the whole team in general. But I'll say this, our defense stopped their offense early and we weren't putting points on the board in the early part of the game. Then, in the second quarter we left our defense out there and they got tired in that heat. We can't play like that."

Coming in, the thought was that if Arkansas could somehow get to the fourth quarter within sight of Florida, Jones could produce enough magic to earn a victory. That theory might have been on the money except for the early nerves, stage fright and sweaty palms.


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