The Set Up
Entering November 2007 with a 5-3 record had to be a mild disappointment for the Arkansas Razorbacks. With the previous year’s Heisman runner-up and a preseason top 20 ranking, the Hogs had visions of glory far beyond bowl-eligibility.
Following an opening weekend tune-up against Troy, the Razorbacks took their #16 ranking to Tuscaloosa to play Nick Saban’s first and basically only mere-mediocre Crimson Tide team. A fourth-quarter comeback behind Darren McFadden wasn’t enough for the Hogs, who took the 41-38 loss back to Fayetteville. The next week, Arkansas would lose at home to Kentucky (remember: this is 2007, and the Wildcats would find themselves in the top 10 in a couple of weeks). The tone for the first part of the season was set for the Hogs, who would lose every game to decent teams and beat all of the scrubbiest of scrub teams (good morning, Ole Miss!).
Two weeks prior to their game against the Razorbacks, the South Carolina Gamecocks looked to be in the midst of a special, program-defining year. Steve Spurrier’s third Gamecock team got off to a 6-1 start to the year, reaching as high as #6 in the rankings before a Homecoming stumble to Vanderbilt. A loss immediately after to Tennessee left South Carolina with an urgency to right the ship before the once-special season sank further into the abyss.
The night of November 3rd began with a momentous change for the playing field at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The field was being christened, for the first time, as Frank Broyles Field, honoring the outgoing long-time athletic director and former head coach/Arkansas football architect. On hand to commemorate Coach Broyles was his former broadcasting partner and College Football Voice of God, Keith Jackson. The 70,742 spectators could feel an electricity in the stadium beyond expectation, and the game was still minutes from starting.
Behind stellar runs from Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, and Michael Smith, the Razorbacks took the opening drive all the way into the endzone with QB Casey Dick hitting Marcus Monk on a quick fade just inside the goalline. Deeper into the first quarter, after Ryan Succop got Carolina on the scoreboard with a 37-yard field goal, Felix Jones made a pair of quick cuts and showed off his speed with a forty-yard sprint to the house, increasing the Arkansas lead to 14-3. Then, after a quick stop by the Hog defense, Jones found his way back into the endzone, taking an end-around 72 yards to the house.
If you were a Hog fan in the stands on this night, basking in the glow of a 21-3 lead against a ranked opponent, you had to be feeling like you were witnessing a special night from one of the great Razorback running backs to ever put on the helmet. Here was Felix Jones, so often overshadowed by his classmate in the backfield, the Barney Rubble to Darren McFadden’s Fred Flintstone, leading the way on 119 yards in the opening quarter with two highlight-reel touchdown runs. Years from now, people would have to refer to this as THE Felix Jones game. Well.
The second quarter began with a stalled Arkansas drive, leading to what would end up being the Hogs’ only punt of the night. South Carolina would take that punt, driving 76 yards, finished off by QB Blake Mitchell sneaking past the goalline and cutting the Razorbacks’ lead to a more manageable 21-10.
Arkansas, however, was not ready to give up the momentum they had built. Felix Jones put the Razorbacks in great field position with a 49-yard kick return. A couple of plays later, the Arkansas coaching staff drew up a play that must have been followed with giggles. With Darren McFadden taking the snap in the Wild Hog formation, Felix Jones took D-Mac’s handoff, pitched it to Casey Dick, lined out wide, who found a no-one-within-ten-yards-kind-of-open Lucas Miller for the touchdown. In any other game, this would have been the highlight, for sure.
Carolina’s punt with just under three minutes gave the Hogs one more opportunity to push their lead into unreachable territory. However, for Coach Houston Nutt, this presumably seemed like the perfect time to rouse anger from the many Hog fans who were growing tired of the “run-first, -second, and -third” mentality. The Hogs took their sweet time, running the ball for the next eight plays, throwing an incomplete pass for fun, then giving McFadden the rock with five seconds left. While his 19 yards didn’t add to the scoreboard, it gave him 107 yards in the first half. This was the quiet half for Darren McFadden.
The third quarter opened with everything going the way of the Rooster, as another Ryan Succop field goal, followed by a successful surprise onside kick, gave South Carolina a chance to cut the Arkansas lead to one-possession. And with future Pro Bowler TE Jared Cook’s 21 yard touchdown reception, that is just what happened.
This would be the point Darren McFadden decided to find yet another gear. After a pair of runs up the middle that added 13 and 16 yards to that yard total that was just getting grander, McFadden looked to be taking another run, this time on a pitch outside. The pitch from Casey Dick went off McFadden’s hands onto the ground, but he quickly gathered it back up, taking the edge. Instead of running upfield, he hoisted the football into the air, where WR Robert Johnson beat the Carolina corner for it in the endzone. His arm was never as graceful as his legs (unless you count that glorious, glorious stiff-arm), but every passing touchdown couldn’t help but elicit awe.
A short field gave South Carolina an opportunity to quickly cash in, this time on a Mitchell pass to Dion Lecorn. The Ol’ Ball Coach tried to sneak another onside kick past the Hogs, unsuccessfully. Everyone was too excited to see what McFadden was going to do next.
McFadden quickly drove the Hogs down their own short field, highlighted by his 35-yard run up the middle out of the Wild Hog formation. Once inside the 10 yard line, McFadden graciously offered up the ball to his compatriot Jones, who took the handoff on another end-around, scoring to push the Hog lead to 42-27.
A goal line stand by the Hog defense unfortunately gave way to a safety for the Hog offense. The resultant kick back to the Gamecocks would lead to a touchdown, this time a 1 yard run by RB Cory Boyd. Let’s wave all this information away, dismissively. Not relevant.
The Hogs were only up six at this point, when the offense took the field once more. On the first play of the drive, the offensive line gave Darren McFadden all the room he could want at the line of scrimmage, running right off-tackle. Sailing past every single white jersey, McFadden continued on for eighty yards, completely untouched. Just like the Road Runner in the cartoons, #5 would only leave a Darren McFadden-shaped cloud for Gamecock defenders to grasp at. Cory Boyd forever looks on in disgust.
A three-and-out by South Carolina gave Arkansas the ball with over six minutes to play in the game, holding on to a twelve point lead. Over these six minutes, the Razorbacks ran the ball twelve times, eating, eating, eating into the clock. Of the twelve runs, six went to McFadden, who popped off quick runs of 12, 5, 7, 4, 3, and 18 yards. That last one put him at 321 yards, tying the single-game SEC rushing mark shared by Vanderbilt’s Frank Mordica. The numbers back up what the eye tells you: Darren McFadden is an all-timer.
Arkansas beat South Carolina that night, 48-36. The fact that the Razorbacks won by only twelve points has always felt surprising, given how dominating Darren McFadden’s play was. The game never really seemed in doubt, even when the Hogs’ lead was down to a single possession, because the entire South Carolina team could never overcome the absolute force-of-will that was Run-DMC on that night.
Coronate him. He is the people’s Heisman winner.
Darren McFadden: 34 rushes, 321 yards, 1 rushing touchdown, 1 passing touchdown
Felix Jones: 13 rushes, 166 yards, 3 touchdowns
After Further Review
This game, along with the 2006 Tennessee game and the LSU game that followed this one a few weeks later, represents what Razorback fans came to know for three years: Darren McFadden is one of the greatest running backs in college football history. Bar none. Heisman or not. How many others can you name who had his combination of agility, speed, and strength? Not to mention, the part he played in the Wildhog formation absolutely changed the college game (and very briefly, the professional one, as well). You don’t even have to squint to see the beginnings of the run-pass option that still has a hold on the game today. While the 2007 South Carolina game didn’t mean much in terms of SEC standings, it was a legacy-builder for Darren McFadden. Absolutely unforgettable.