LITTLE ROCK — Fans attending Arkansas football games at Little Rock’s War Memorial Stadium have seen some of the Razorbacks’ most-exciting games — and as of late, some pretty embarrassing losses.
Toledo upset the No. 18 Razorbacks 16-12 on Saturday, giving Arkansas its fifth loss in its last six games in central Arkansas, with its only victory since 2012 coming against Samford.
“I’m embarrassed for our fans and the people that traveled today — all the people here in Little Rock that this game means a lot to,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. “It means a lot to us, and to not play well here for the second year in a row is very frustrating and something that I know that we are going to have to correct.”
Three years ago, Louisiana-Monroe beat Arkansas 34-31 in overtime as the Razorbacks program hit a skid that eventually brought Bielema to the state. Hardly anyone thought Toledo had a chance against a team from the Southeastern Conference’s West Division.
But Toledo quarterback Phillip Ely, a former backup at Alabama, threw for 237 yards.
“I don’t think people expected us to come down here and, No. 1, even compete, 21-point underdogs,” Toledo coach Matt Campbell said. “I think our kids believed the entire time that we had a chance.”
Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen threw his first interception since last Nov. 1 — after 134 attempts. He misfired on two passes from the Toledo 16 in the final 6 seconds, moments after hitting the crossbar on a fourth-and-goal from the Toledo 4 to kill another drive.
“I guess this isn’t their normal spot,” Ely said. “It’s different for both teams to kind of get in a place where you don’t normally play. Fun to be in the atmosphere.”
This is where Arkansas beat No. 5 Southern California in 1974 and No. 18 LSU in 2002 on a last-minute touchdown.
Playing in their home-away-from-home — perhaps as an 83-year tradition rolls toward an end — the Razorbacks (1-1) suffered through key penalties that wiped out one punt return for a touchdown and made the end zone seem far, far away. One impressive drive — 73 yards in 21 plays — took 10:39 off the clock but ended in a field goal with 9:30 left in the game.
Toledo (1-0) trailed in time of possession, yardage and first downs, but Arkansas had 85 yards in penalties.
After Eric Hawkins held the punter — the punter! — to clear Jared Cornelius’ path to the end zone in the third quarter, Allen threw his first interception since Nov. 1. Toledo drove the length of the field to complete what was essentially a 14-point turnaround.
“Obviously, nothing was more critical than that punt return. We held the punter. It just doesn’t make sense,” Bielema said.
Ely had seen Arkansas once before, completing 2 of 3 passes for 15 yards off the bench in the Crimson Tide’s 52-0 victory at Fayetteville three years ago. He transferred to the Mid-American Conference school in 2013 and Saturday led the Rockets to their first victory over a Southeastern Conference team.
He completed 21 of 38 passes without an interception and was effective when his team needed it most. Four of his first five third-down passes resulted in first downs as Toledo took a 6-0 lead in the first quarter, on a short drive set up by a blocked punt.
“Anytime you give up some yards and some plays, like we did on some third and extra-long, you can’t just pinpoint it on one thing,” Bielema said. “Pass defense a lot of times is effected by pass rush. Pass rush a lot of times is effected by pass defense.”
Allen started the game completing his first seven passes, but the Razorbacks netted only seven points by halftime despite reaching Toledo territory on each of their first-half drives. He finished with 412 yards on 32-of-53 passing, all career highs. Tyler Wilson twice threw for more in a single game.
Arkansas has played a game at least one game at Little Rock each year since 1932. A current contract to play at War Memorial Stadium is due to expire in 2018 and might not be renewed. Under terms of the pact, only one game remaining here must be against an SEC opponent; last year, the Hogs lost to Georgia.
The university has said it can make more money at its larger, on-campus stadium, and the three-hour trip from Fayetteville to Little Rock makes the home game seem like a road trip.