Saturday's Experience One For The Ages

FAYETTEVILLE--The late, great sportswriter, Orville Henry, once said to me, "There's nothing like covering a championship season. It just builds and builds."

This Arkansas football team, in building to the school's first nine-game winning streak since the 1988 team started 10-0, has already clinched a share of the Southeastern Conference West and is aiming much higher. With each win, fans grow more excited and less fretful of any future opponent. No other team has Darren McFadden, Marcus Monk, Jamaal Anderson, Sam Olajubutu, Casey Dick, Mitch Mustain, Chris Houston, maybe the most solid offensive line in the country, on and on. The season-opening 50-14 loss to Southern California seems like it happened in a different season. Moments after that loss, a longtime UA follower from Memphis grumped to me on the sidelines, "Nothing has changed. It's time to clean house, starting with Frank Broyles at the top." I told him that Arkansas would still win 10 or 11 games, and would look much better with Mustain as the starting quarterback. McFadden's return to health has helped a little, too, wouldn't you say? In three months he's gone from nearly having a toe amputated to being a Heisman Trophy candidate. Dick's reemergence has added rhythm to the offense, along with the requisite controversy at quarterback. Mustain has responded to the competition with zest and maturity. His pre-practice passes have been crisp and focused. He came in briefly while Dick recuperated early against Tennessee. Mustain presided over three running plays that gained 24 yards, doing his usual post-handoff legerdemain. So now you have the quirky stat that says Arkansas is 9-0 when Mustain plays in the first half. If you're worried about Mustain's psyche, consider what a Reynolds Razorback Stadium usher said a couple of hours before Saturday's game: "Mitch is in good spirits, smiling. His mother brought him a big ol' sandwich." Hey, the kid is 18 years old. Wise and insightful way beyond his years, but still 18. There was a bit of pregame buzz in the press box about something former Georgia coach Jim Donnan had said on national radio Saturday morning, reportedly suggesting that Arkansas' offensive play-calling was more of a group effort these days. I'm reminded of the old saying that a group can get a lot accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit. Best I can tell, outwardly at least, Arkansas' coaches are getting along and working well together. Last Tuesday while the players stretched, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn walked along and chatted amiably with Houston Nutt, Danny Nutt and Alex Wood. They appeared to be discussing a play. We're all intrigued by the inner workings — someone may write a book about this season someday — but I care mostly about what happens on the field. It all kicked in for me at about 5:30 p.m. Saturday, on the field, when Arkansas' band marched around playing the fight song, and each band member had the same look of intensity that the football players had. They were all doing something they'd done hundreds of times, but never at a moment quite like this, on a stage quite like this. Then UA honorary captain Lance Alworth walked by, looking as if he could still play at 66, and I was transported back to the early 1960s. Alworth's wife, Laura, noted that Lance had visited his old house near the stadium that day. As a kid, I used to go see him there after our family had Sunday dinner with friends on the same street. One day, he had a (never reported) sprained ankle and couldn't even walk, but he played the next Saturday. Alworth, after making All-America for Arkansas in 1961, spoke to a youth group at First Baptist Church about the danger of alcohol use. When fans discovered Alworth before Saturday's game, some began asking for autographs. He politely signed each one, then talked to a former UA teammate, Brent Shinall, on a cell phone provided by Shinall's son. Even before the game started, I was proud of my alma mater on Saturday. In fact, I had to fight back an unexpected tear or two. It's the reunion aspect, all those red-clad friends, united in common cause. John Adams, a longtime sportswriter friend from Knoxville, smiled as he walked past a TV after the game and said, "Hey, we're in the center of college football today." Orville Henry and Paul Eells would have loved being there. GRANT HALL IS A MORNING NEWS SPORTS WRITER. HIS COLUMN APPEARS EACH MONDAY AND THURSDAY. E-MAIL: GHALL@NWAONLINE.NET

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