Arkansas News Bureau/Sarah Bentham
Arkansas running back Dennis Johnson fumbles near the goal line as he is squeezed between LSU’s Lamin Barrow, left, and Craig Loston on Friday.
FAYETTEVILLE — It happened for some when Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson’s final pass sailed over Mekale McKay’s head and landed harmlessly on the turf.
For others, it was when they embraced teammates and coaches on the field in the seconds after that final play, which secured No. 8 LSU’s 20-13 win in front of an announced crowd of 71,117 in Razorback Stadium. Or when they began the last slow walk off the field, slipping through the doors of the Broyles Center.
There were several opportunities for Arkansas’ coaches and players to come to grips with the reality Friday: The 2012 season is over and, with it, is the Bobby Petrino era. But Arkansas center Travis Swanson said the finality didn’t hit him, or a few teammates, until they got back behind the closed locker room doors Friday.
“It was very emotional,” Swanson said, describing the scene. “These guys have been here for four, five years and put in so much work. It finally just hit a lot of people.”
Arkansas’ disappointing season — one that began with the Razorbacks in the Top 10 in the Associated Press poll and finished with the first eight-loss season since 1990 — wrapped up when Wilson’s final pass fell incomplete in the end zone.
A 22-man senior class, which included several players who were part of Petrino’s first recruiting class at Arkansas in 2008, said their final good-byes. So, too, did a staff of coaches who stayed on in hopes of keeping the Petrino plan running smoothly after their boss was fired in April.
It included John L. Smith, who remained positive Friday at the conclusion of one-year run as Arkansas’ head coach even though it was dominated by on-the-field issues and personal financial problems.
“I loved every minute of it,” Smith said of the opportunity to lead the Razorbacks. “I loved being with these guys. I tried to do all we could do.”
Everything about the end of an era seemed appropriate in a way Friday, considering the recurring themes that have dominated the season.
Arkansas’ offense shot itself in the foot with mistakes, penalties and missed opportunities much of the game. The defense gave up a big pass play when it absolutely had to have a stop. There were special teams gaffes and coaching staff decisions that raised eyebrows with the game on the line.
Smith said after the game that kicking a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the LSU 1 was the right move for Arkansas, which trailed 17-10 at the time. He felt the same about the decision to punt on fourth-and-4 from the LSU 45, which gave the Tigers the ball back with less than 6 minutes remaining in a 17-13 game.
LSU was able to score three points and eat more than 4 minutes off the clock thanks to a 47-yard pass play on third-and-10. But Arkansas, despite its issues, still had a chance to win the game after reaching the LSU 18 with 6 seconds remaining.
They couldn’t add another dramatic ending to the Battle for the Boot, though.
“It’s sad to be honest with you,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said when asked about the final game. “You work as hard as you can, and it’s just sad for it to come to an end. It’s kind of like how the whole year went. …
“I was proud of the kids, I was proud of the assistant coaches. I was proud of everybody that fought as hard as they could to the end. That’s something we can all look in the mirror and always know that we did. But it’s sad.”
So now the reclamation project begins for an Arkansas program that should have a new coach in place by mid-December.
He’ll take over a program that reached new heights against LSU just two years ago, beating the Tigers to wrap up a Sugar Bowl berth and the school’s first appearance in a Bowl Championship Series game. Arkansas followed it up in 2011 by equaling the school record with 11 wins and a trip to the Cotton Bowl before everything seemingly crashed into a ditch.
Little went right for a program that boasted about its national title hopes in 2012 and the scars were very evident. Take Friday for example, when a chorus of boos rained down from the crowd after some of the sideline decisions.
Wilson was one of several players who said he had no regrets, though.
“As rough in some aspects as this year’s been — and let’s not sugarcoat it, it’s been tough, it’s been a grind to come to work and prepare every single day,” Wilson said. “But you learn so much during it. So I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Wilson was embraced by three offensive linemen after his final pass fell incomplete and said it reinforced his thoughts. Receiver Cobi Hamilton walked slowly around the end zone by himself before eventually getting a hug from strength and conditioning coach Jason Velktamp.
Meanwhile, Arkansas defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell had tears in his eyes as the reality of the situation hit him. The loss to LSU didn’t just end Arkansas’ season for coaches and players.
It also ended an era.
“It didn’t turn out like we wanted it to, but I’ve never been more proud of a team and organization than I am right now,” Swanson said. “Just with all the stuff we’ve been through, dating back to a year ago and just how we’ve handled it.
“A lot of teams would’ve just stopped and rolled over and said, ‘All right we give up.’ But it seemed like every day we just kept fighting and fighting and fighting.”