The Set Up
The 1977 Arkansas Razorbacks were lightly regarded to open Lou Holtz’s first campaign as Head Hog. That began to change in the second week of the season, after the Hogs took it to the 15th ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys, 28-6. Now ranked, Arkansas continued to hammer down their opponents, only playing three games in which the final result was less than a three touchdown win. Dishearteningly, one of those included a loss to those belt-buckled fops from Austin. Finishing the regular season with a 10-1 mark and a #6 ranking, the Hogs were playing at a high level, ready for the next challenge.
That next challenge was going to come from the Big Eight champion Oklahoma Sooners. Opening the season ranked #1 and led by its devastating run game and its four defensive All-Americans, the Sooners put themselves in a position for a shot at the national championship. The highest scoring offense in college football absolutely ruined everyone it encountered. Except, a week before the Hogs lost to the Texas Longhorns, the Sooners found themselves on the losing end to that same team, falling 13-6 in Dallas. Former Hog Barry Switzer’s Sooners continued on their pace after that, and ended the regular season ranked second in the nation, with a bead on a national title, if things broke their way.
Things appeared to break the Sooners’ way. Initially a 13-point favorite over the Hogs, that only increased (to somewhere between 18 and 21, depending on where one looks) when Holtz announced he had suspended three of his top offensive players, including RB Ben Cowins, the Hogs’ all-time rushing leader up until Darren McFadden surpassed him. Another piece of bad news for the Razorbacks, one that seems to be overshadowed in the lore of this game, saw All-American guard Leotis Harris injure a knee prior to the bowl, causing the senior to miss the game entirely. If that weren’t enough attrition, a few plays into the Orange Bowl, safety Howard Sampson would have to exit the game with a broken forearm. The Hogs were clear-cut underdogs, and nothing seemed to be going right.
One piece of good news for both the Hogs and the Sooners came on the day of January 2, 1978. Before their prime time game, everyone was able to enjoy the Cotton Bowl, in which that previously undefeated #1 Texas team saw their season crumble before them. Notre Dame’s 38-10 demolition of the Horns meant that the Sooners were next in line to take the throne. While the Hogs and Sooners clashed later that night, the Longhorns could only gaze into the abyss, listening to sad country pop and peeling the label off another Lone Star Beer.
With the Texas loss, both teams knew what was at stake. When the team captains came out for the coin toss, the entire Razorback team came out to midfield. As soon as Oklahoma saw what was going on, they too brought their entire team out for the coin toss, as well. (Side note: Let’s please do this for the next big game in which we’re involved. It looks intense and awesome. Hogs were hyped up.)
Oklahoma won the coin toss and watched Steve Little’s kickoff bound into the endzone for a touchback. On the first play from scrimmage, fullback Kenny King ran behind the left guard and was immediately bulldozed by a pack of Razorbacks. King actually lost the ball, but future Heisman winning halfback Billy Simms recovered it quickly. Remember this. There will be callbacks.
On the next play, Sooner quarterback Thomas Lott is dropped by nose tackle Reggie Freeman, who blazed past the center to find Lott holding on to the ball. One thing that was apparent two plays into the game: the Hog defense is so much faster than you can imagine. Faster than any Razorback defense in recent memory, certainly. After a false start sends the Sooners O further backward, Lott attempted to hand off the football to Simms, who lost it in translation. This time, the ball was recovered by the Hogs’ Jimmy Walker, and the good guys were already nine yards away from the endzone and paydirt.
Quickly, quarterback Ron Calcagni took the snap and ran right, getting just short of the goalline. From there, lightly-used sophomore running back Roland Sales took it the remainder of the way, giving the Hogs a sudden, shocking 7-0 lead.
After a 44 yard run up the middle from Elvis Peacock, things appeared to have settled in for the Sooners. But Oklahoma stalled from there, when Reggie Freeman once more got into the Sooner backfield to take down Peacock. A shank from Oklahoma’s delightful kicker, Uwe von Schamann, preserved that Hog touchdown lead.
Behind receptions from Sales and TE Charles Clay, as well as frequent Calcagni keepers, the Razorbacks appeared to be keeping up momentum, steadily driving into the Sooners’ redzone. But just as Calcagni danced his way to the Sooners’ fifteen yard line, the ball squirted out of his arm and into the hands of Sooner safety Darrol Ray.
After a series of runs by Peacock and Lott that took the Sooners into the Razorbacks’ side of the field, Oklahoma was beginning to look like the king-in-waiting they expected to be. Just as quickly, though, the fullback King, who almost coughed the ball up on the first play of the game, finally did lose the ball, fumbling at the Hogs’ 41 yard line. Legendary Hog lineman and future Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Hampton was at the ready to jump at the loose ball, and the Hogs had momentum swing right back in their direction.
The Razorback offense began their own drive, inching their way to around midfield. As Razorback fans in attendance called the Hogs, Roland Sales took a handoff up the middle between the left guard and tackle and sprinted about forty yards down to the Sooner 3 yard line. Two plays later, Ron Calcagni would sneak behind the center into the endzone to add to the Razorback lead, 14-0.
The entire second quarter was a punt fest between both teams, as each team had to settle for two punts apiece by Little and von Schamann. While Oklahoma’s rushing attack would earn a handful of first downs, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s side would never break. Kiffin’s teams for decades, whether college or professional, were known for creating havok and trying to force as many turnovers as they could find. They were also typically smaller, giving up size for speed. Having previously coached at Oklahoma’s archfoe, Nebraska, also seemed to give Kiffin’s team an advantage. They weren’t going to be surprised.
After halftime, the Razorbacks received the ball and began a long, steady drive forward. The passing game began to open up a little bit, with first down catches by freshman receiver Gary Stiggers and Sales, who to this point has already had a career night. A 39-yard reverse by Stiggers caught the aggressive Sooners defense by surprise, and the Hogs were again inside the 10 yard line of Oklahoma. The drive would stall there, and Steve Little’s field goal widened the lead for Arkansas, 17-0.
Oklahoma’s first drive after halftime stalled quickly after a single first down, when Reggie Freeman again chased down Thomas Lott. After Arkansas got the ball back, Roland Sales began what was almost a one-man drive. On third down and the Oklahoma blitz on, Ron Calcagni managed to just got the ball away into Sales’s hands, who sprinted down the right sideline for a first down. A couple of plays later, he would again give the Hogs a first down into Sooner territory, this time on a dive up the middle. The next play, the ball was back in Sales’s hands, as he sprinted 38 yards to get the Hogs to the Oklahoma four yard line. Finally, Sales was rewarded on the next play with a touchdown run.
Roland Sales, the sophomore from Fort Worth, was the third team running back for Arkansas. His previous season high for yards was 71. On this night in Miami, he looked like a first team All-American, and when he eventually ended his night with 205 yards, he held the Orange Bowl rushing record that would stand for twenty years.
Getting back to Oklahoma’s night of mishaps, though: on the first play of their next drive, Lott’s jump pass to receiver Bobby Kimball appeared to give the Sooners some life and a first down. But wouldn’t you know it? Kimball fumbled the ball into the waiting arms of Arkansas linebacker William Hampton. At some point, you have to feel bad that their season was crashing down in comically inept fashion. That point certainly hasn’t arrived yet, over forty years later.
After Calcagni gave the ball back to Oklahoma with an interception, the Sooners had to make a decision down twenty four points. While the rushing attact was still moving the ball, time was beginning to run short, and the Sooners would have to try putting the ball in the air. On the first play of the fourth quarter, throwing quarterback Dean Blevins would get the ball over to tight end Victor Hicks, putting the Sooners on the board. Peacock’s attempt for two points would come up short, and the Hogs were holding on a 24-6 lead early in the final quarter.
Oklahoma had another opportunity after the Hog’s next stalled drive gave the Sooners an opportunity on Arkansas’s side of the field. But a stand on fourth down at the 10 yard line ensured that the Razorback lead wouldn’t shrink.
Sweetly, once the coaching staff learned that Roland Sales was twenty yards away from the Orange Bowl rushing record, and knowing that time was too short for an Oklahoma comeback, Holtz made the decision to give their running back all the opportunity he could want to break that record. And he took advantage. Second string quarterback Houston Nutt spent the next drive handing the ball to Sales, who got his record on a forty yard run down the left sideline.
Immediately after, the second string offense came in and finished the job, as running back Barnabas White followed the hole made by the left side of the offensive line into the endzone, putting the capper on an amazing night in Miami.
#6 Arkansas dominated #2 Oklahoma, 31-6. Before the game, most people would’ve believed that score, if the numbers had been reversed in the Sooners’ favor. But the game’s pattern was established early, as Arkansas could do nothing wrong, and Oklahoma couldn’t find it in itself to do anything right. Arkansas finished the season ranked #3, Oklahoma fell to #6/7, and Notre Dame claimed the national title.
Hey, here’s a fun fact! Arkansas has an unclaimed share of the national title for 1977. The Rothman FACT computer rankings established in 1968, and later used as one of the BCS computer rankings, awarded a split national championship to Arkansas, Notre Dame, and Texas. All national championships are mythical, and I say we print the t-shirts and put it on the stadium. Have you seen some of the ones that are claimed by Alabama?
Roland Sales: 22 rushes, 205 rushing yards, 52 receiving yards, two touchdowns, offensive MVP
Reggie Freeman: 6 sacks, defensive MVP
After Further Review
The 1978 Orange Bowl set the tone for the greatest two-year period in Arkansas Razorbacks sports history. A couple of months after the victory, Eddie Sutton and the Triplets took Arkansas to its first Final Four in over thirty years. John McDonnell, hired a few years prior as the cross country coach, took over the entire men’s track and field program, beginning his run as one of the greatest college coaches of any sport. The baseball team in 1978 would finish second in the SWC that year but would lay the foundation for the next year’s runner-up finish in the College World Series.
Anticipation for 1978’s football season couldn’t be more intense. The shellacking that the Hogs put on Oklahoma raised eyebrows across the country, and when Sports Illustrated printed their 1978 college football preview, Lou Holtz and company were on the cover. Expectations were high, and tickets to the season opener against Vanderbilt were just about impossible to find (source: my dad).
The 1977 Razorbacks offered promise that the football program would continue thriving after Frank Broyles’ retirement from coaching. New coach Lou Holtz, for all his eccentricities, proved to be one of the great coaches of the era. His greatest display with the Hogs, the 1978 Orange Bowl, is one of the all-time great moments in Razorback football history.