Can’t reel in big one

Fish’s fum­ble low­lights botched SEC ti­tle shot

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS - BOB HOLT

FAYET­TEVILLE — The Ar­kan­sas Ra­zor­backs played in the SEC Cham­pi­onship Game for the third time when they faced Florida on Dec. 2, 2006, in the Ge­or­gia Dome, but this was dif­fer­ent than their pre­vi­ous two ap­pear­ances.

This time the Ra­zor­backs were con­fi­dent they would win.

That doesn’t mean the 1995 and 2002 Univer­sity of Ar­kan­sas, Fayet­teville teams didn’t give it their best shot, but they were big un­der­dogs and got pounded 34-3 by No. 2 Florida and 31-3 by No. 4 Ge­or­gia, re­spec­tively.

Ar­kan­sas went into its 2006 matchup with Florida on equal foot­ing.

The Ga­tors were ranked No. 4 and just a three-point fa­vorite. The Ra­zor­backs were ranked No. 8 after los­ing 31-26 to No. 9 LSU in Lit­tle Rock dur­ing the last game of the reg­u­lar sea­son. The Hogs were ranked No. 5 be­fore that game.

Both teams won their di­vi­sions by go­ing 7-1 in SEC play.

“We knew we could com­pete with Florida and win the game,” said Jonathan Luigs, Ar­kan­sas’ start­ing cen­ter from 2006-2008 and an All-Amer­i­can and Rimington Award win­ner. “They hit us in the mouth early, but we fought back and got the lead.

“What could have been re­ally weighs on your mind.”

Florida ral­lied to win 38-28 after a botched punt re­turn helped the Ga­tors over­come a 21-17 deficit.

“There’s no doubt we should have won the ti­tle,” said Hous­ton Nutt, the Ra­zor­backs coach from 1998-2007. “We had Florida beat.”

Two fourth-down calls by Ga­tors Coach Ur­ban Meyer on the same drive were crit­i­cal.

Ar­kan­sas had scored 21 con­sec­u­tive points on touch­down passes by Casey Dick to Mar­cus Monk and Dar­ren McFad­den to Felix Jones, and de­fen­sive line­man Ant­wain

Robin­son’s 40-yard in­ter­cep­tion re­turn to take a 21-17 lead with 8:33 left in the third quar­ter.

The Ra­zor­backs then had the Ga­tors backed up and fac­ing fourth-and-10 at their own 15. Ar­kan­sas fig­ured to get the ball back around mid­field after a punt and be in good po­si­tion to add to its lead. Only Florida didn’t punt. Meyer called for a fake, and Ja­malle Cor­nelius ran 17 yards for a first down at the Ga­tors’ 32.

“It was a to­tal des­per­a­tion move,” Nutt said. “He knew we were out­play­ing them and he was in se­ri­ous trou­ble.

“We had them on the ropes.”

Florida then faced fourt­hand-1 at its 41.

Meyer called his third and fi­nal time­out of the sec­ond half and said after the game he wanted to go for the first down again, but co-de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Greg Mat­ti­son talked him into punt­ing.

Ar­kan­sas fresh­man Reg­gie Fish — re­turn­ing punts for the in­jured Pey­ton Hil­lis — waited at the Ra­zor­backs’ 20 for punter Eric Wil­bur’s kick.

Wil­bur sailed a 55-yard punt. As Fish drifted back to catch the ball, he lost track of where he was on the field.

Fish tried the catch the ball over his shoul­der at the 4, but he couldn’t hang onto it.

As Fish was swarmed by tack­lers, the ball bounced into the end zone where Wondy Pierre-Louis re­cov­ered it for a touch­down that put the Ga­tors ahead 24-21 with 3:47 left in the third quar­ter.

“If I’ve ever seen mo­men­tum swing in a foot­ball game, that was it,” Luigs said. “We’d worked so hard to get the lead and quiet the Florida fans.”

To Fish’s credit, he made him­self avail­able for postgame in­ter­views in the locker room and an­swered ev­ery ques­tion.

“Just one of those bone­head plays,” Fish told re­porters. “We were do­ing so well. We had such a high, and mo­men­tum was to­tally on our side. For me to drop that punt and let them score, I felt like I let the team down.”

Fish was down in the end zone for sev­eral sec­onds be­fore team­mates helped him to his feet.

“Truly, I’ve never been in a sit­u­a­tion where I feel like I made the team lose,” he said. “It’s hard even talk­ing about it, but life goes on.

“I’m go­ing to wake up to­mor­row and hope­fully still be breath­ing.”

Luigs said Fish shouldn’t be blamed for the loss.

“That play was a turn­ing point, but we still had time to come back and win,” Luigs said. “You can’t put the loss on Reg­gie.

“It was just a very tough play for all of us.”

Fish’s botched re­turn was one of two touch­downs in which the Ga­tors spe­cial teams played a huge role, along with Jarred Fayson block­ing a Ja­cob Skin­ner punt in the sec­ond

quar­ter that gave Florida pos­ses­sion at the Ar­kan­sas 8.

Nutt of­fered en­cour­ag­ing words to Fish on the side­line after his fum­ble, and more than 10 years later said he still feels bad for his for­mer player.

“We all hurt with Reg­gie,” Nutt said. “I know no one hated what hap­pened more than he did. It was just a tough fresh­man mis­take, but I have a lot of re­spect for Reg­gie.”

After Florida re­ceiver Percy Harvin scored on a 67-yard touch­down run to push the Ga­tors’ lead to 31-21, Ar­kan­sas pulled within 31-28 on re­ceiver Cedric Wash­ing­ton’s 29-yard touch­down pass to Jones with 12:29 left in the fourth quar­ter.

Florida re­sponded with a re­ceiver touch­down pass of its own, with An­dre Cald­well hit­ting tight end Tate Casey on a 5-yard score at the 9:04 mark to make it 38-28.

The Ra­zor­backs fi­nally were done when Dick’s pass from the Florida 29 was in­ter­cepted by cor­ner­back Ryan Smith in the end zone with 3:15 left.

“I am beat to death right now,” Meyer said after the game. “I can’t move.

“I think you saw us shoot ev­ery­thing we had.”

Harvin, who also caught a 37-yard touch­down pass, had a com­bined 167 yards rush­ing and re­ceiv­ing and was voted by me­dia as the game’s MVP.

McFad­den, the Ra­zor­backs’ All-Amer­i­can sopho­more run­ning back, was slowed by an an­kle in­jury in the first half, but he fin­ished with 21 car­ries for 73 yards and 2 catches for 27 yards in ad­di­tion to his touch­down pass.

“Dar­ren wasn’t the same from the first quar­ter on,” Nutt said after the game. “He got his an­kle rolled up, and he wasn’t full speed, wasn’t him­self.”

Florida, thanks to UCLA beat­ing No. 2 South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and Ohio State beat­ing No. 3 Michi­gan, moved up to the sec­ond spot in the Bowl Cham­pi­onship Se­ries rank­ings and beat the Buck­eyes in the Fi­esta Bowl to win the na­tional cham­pi­onship.

Ar­kan­sas played in the Cap­i­tal One Bowl, where the Ra­zor­backs lost to Wis­con­sin — and cur­rent Ar­kan­sas Coach Bret Bielema — 17-14.

“That Florida game is a tough one to look back on for sure,” Luigs said. “Not to make ex­cuses, but we’d like to have been able to get that game back and play them again.”

Demo­crat-Gazette file photo

Ar­kan­sas’ Reg­gie Fish dropped a punt in­side the 5-yard line, which Florida re­cov­ered for a touch­down in the sec­ond half of the 2006 SEC Cham­pi­onship Game. “I’m go­ing to wake up to­mor­row and hope­fully still be breath­ing,” Fish told re­porters after the game.

Demo­crat-Gazette file photo

Ar­kan­sas run­ning back Dar­ren McFad­den (right) walks off the field at the Ge­or­gia Dome after the loss. “We had Florida beat,” then Ra­zor­backs Coach Hous­ton Nutt said.

Demo­crat-Gazette file photo

Ar­kan­sas’ Ant­wain Robin­son re­turned an in­ter­cep­tion 40 yards for a touch­down to give the Ra­zor­backs a 21-17 lead in the third quar­ter of the 2006 SEC Cham­pi­onship Game.

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