“They completed one fourth down conversion. They’ll have to complete another one. Your ball game in the balance.”
--Play-by-by-announcer Tim Brando, calling the Arkansas at Alabama football game on Jefferson-Pilot on Sept. 16, 1995
Barry Lunney Jr. stepped into his huddle one last time on a beautiful, clear September afternoon in Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium.
The Arkansas senior quarterback didn’t have time to think whether he and his teammates were about to make history with possibly the Hogs’ first-ever win over Alabama after 13 straight losses.
He didn’t have time to ponder the Razorbacks’ struggle the previous three years since joining the Southeastern Conference in 1992, the very season that Alabama won its first national championship since the late 1970s.
He relayed the play in the huddle – a sprint out pass – as called by offensive Rockey Felker, the scoreboard read, No. 13 Alabama 19, Arkansas 13, 10 seconds left to play, fourth-and-goal at the Alabama 3.
“We’d been in close games before, but we never won, we never got over the psychological hump,” Barry says. “We just wanted get on par with Alabama.”
So the left-handed Barry took the snap, rolled to his left while surveying the Alabama defense, lifted his throwing arm and . . .
“Arkansas has always been like the pro team in our state.”
-- Barry Lunney, Jr., September 2011
To this day, Arkansas’ recruitment of Barry, a Fort Smith (Ark.) Southside quarterback, might have been one of the easiest sales pitches in Razorbacks’ history.
His grandfather, who started for Arkansas from 1946-49, had season tickets to the Hogs’ home games. So two or three Saturdays every season, he’d take his favorite grandson to Fayetteville.
They would eat pregame brunch in the athletic dorm, stop in at the Letterman’s Club before settling in their seats. Once there, he’d grab a binoculars and focus intently on the Razorbacks’ quarterbacks du jour.
“I watched those quarterbacks and dreamed of being down than field,” Barry, now offensive coordinator at current Arkansas state champion Bentonville (Ark.) High, working for the man who coached him in high school, his father Barry Sr.
Playing for his father was no picnic, which was to be expected. Dads, as coaches, are naturally tougher on their sons, as if to prove to the rest of the team that no favorites are being played.
Barry went from starting as a sophomore on a 5-5 team in 1989 to leading his squad to a state championship as a senior in 1991. Even though Barry’s dad had concerns that his son didn’t fit Arkansas’ run-oriented offensive system, Barry, who threw for 3,900 yards and 40 touchdowns, was undeterred.
He felt that with then-Arkansas coach Jack Crowe hiring Greg Davis as offensive coordinator that the Razorbacks would throw more as they prepared to join the SEC in his freshman season.
But a strange thing happened after the first game of Barry’s career – his head coach got fired in a move that Barry still believes “set our program a couple of years.”
When the Razorbacks lost their ’92 season opener to Division 1-AA The Citadel, 10-3, then-Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles fired third-year head coach Jack Crowe less than two weeks after giving him a four-year contract extension.
"It built up over time where he (Broyles) didn't trust my judgment with things,” says Crowe, now the coach at Jacksonville (Ala.) State. “When we lost that game, he had things that he thought should be done and should be done right away."
Defensive coordinator Joe Kines stepped in as interim coach. Despite a stunning 25-24 upset of No. 4 Tennessee in Knoxville with Barry making his first college start, things were rocky for the rest of that 3-7-1 season in which the Hogs had fewer than 10 seniors.
And even when the Razorbacks hired former Clemson coach Danny Ford as head coach heading into ’93, things didn’t get better in a hurry. The truth was when Arkansas jumped from the Southwest Conference to the SEC, the gap in talent level was much greater than the Hogs imagined.
“I remember my freshman year, looking down at the other end of the Alabama game and thinking, `This isn’t going to be good, we don’t look like them,’ ” Barry says. “There were a lot of weeks like that our first couple of years. There was a big discrepancy in size and strength. It took until 1995 to change that with a better weight program and some good recruiting classes.”
All the weight programs in the world weren’t going to make JJ Meadors, Barry’s teammate and eventual prime target, any bigger.
Arkansas’ game program listed little No. 1 as 5-6, but honestly he was closer to 5-5. The SEC had rarely seen a player the last couple of decades the size of JJ, who had been a highly recruited receiver out of North Louisiana where his father was on the coaching staff Northwestern State University in Natchitoches before the family moved to Ruston.
“I grew up around football and I saw guys play at a high-level at an early age,” says JJ, now a speed and conditioning coach for Diamond Sports in Bryant, Ark. “When I got to Arkansas, I felt I was ready to play. I got a chance to play the first Saturday I was in school.
“I understood there were some things I’d be at a disadvantage. I just tried to maximize my speed and quickness. And I was a student of the game.”
JJ chose Arkansas over Nebraska when he signed a college scholarship, because he also a sprinter attracted to the Hogs’ national championship winning track and field program. He also thought the Razorbacks’ football coaches would give him a fair shot at playing time.
“There were a lot of schools that wouldn’t sign someone 5-5,” JJ says. “I thought my speed would allow me to play at the Division 1-A level and I wanted to prove all those people wrong. I had a bit of chip on my shoulder.”
It was a formula for success. JJ still ranks seventh on Arkansas all-time career receptions list with 132 (for 1,651 yards and 10 TDs) and he remains the school’s single-season record holder with 62 catches for 584 yards and two scores in 1995.
But no catch was bigger in his career than one he made that ’95 season.
''I'd never beaten those guys. Not as a player, an assistant coach or a head coach (at Mississippi State).''
-- Then-Arkansas quarterbacks coach Rockey Felker, September 1995
The first two years Arkansas played Alabama after moving to the SEC, Alabama won both games by a combined score of 81-14 (38-11 in Little Rock, 43-3 in Tuscaloosa).
“That first year in Little Rock when Alabama won the national championship, they literally killed us,” JJ says. “It was a business trip. They got off the bus. Killed us. Got back on the bus and went home. That was a rude awakening for us. We were a Southwest Conference team getting our tails whipped and learning some lessons our first two years in the league.”
But two years later in Fayetteville, the Tide escaped with a 13-6 victory.
“We closed the gap a bit,” says Barry, who closed his Arkansas career by passing for a then-school record 5,782 yards and 32 touchdowns on 476-of-856 passes. “We were right there in it. We played them physical and tough. We had a humble confidence going into it (the ’95 game).”
The ’95 season hadn’t started smoothly. Barry temporarily lost his starting job to Robert Reed in the opener at SMU. Reed got benched in the second quarter and Barry rallied his team.
In the closing minutes with Arkansas trailing 17-14, Barry drove his team 79 yards, six inches to the SMU 6-inch line. With the clock winding inside the final minute, victory seemed in hand as Barry cleanly took a snap on a quarterback sneak that would make him a him a hero.
Instead, he fumbled, SMU recovered and the hailstorm of criticism often directed Barry’s way during his career rained down on him. The following Monday, Reed quit the team and the Hogs pulled things together with a 51-21 victory in game two over South Carolina.
That set up game three at Alabama, Danny Ford’s alma mater where he was an All-SEC lineman for the legendary Bear Bryant’s in the late 1960s.
“You know when you play Alabama, it’s going to be tough,” Barry says. “And it was a battle in that (’95) game. There was an ebb-and-flow, a back and forth.”
Arkansas scored on its first two drives and led 3-0 and 10-3. Alabama countered with two second-quarter TDs for a 17-10 halftime lead, then added a safety in the third period before walk-on redshirt freshman placekicker Todd Latourette’s second field goal of the day cut the Tide’s lead to six points entering the final quarter.
By that time, Arkansas’ defense of new coordinator Joe Lee Dunn was well on its way to smothering Alabama’s offense. The Tide gained 34 yards and no points in the second half, including just three yards and no first downs in the final quarter.
All the Razorbacks need was one solid drive in the clutch, and they finally got it starting at their own 43 with 3:13 left in the game.
It looked like the possession was dead before it started, but Arkansas recovered from a sack when Barry’s 12-yard pass to running back Madre Hill gave the Hogs a fourth-and-8 at the their own 45. There, Barry spun away from Alabama’s pass rush and found Anthony Lucas for a 31-yard completion to the Alabama 24.
“It had been hot all day, but it had been raining,” Barry recalls. “Just before that last drive, it quit raining and it was still hot. Early in that drive, JJ probably should have caught a deep post pass I threw that would have put us in good field position at about the 15-yard line. I remember thinking, `Man, we about had it right there.’
“The catch by Lucas was big, but I think the play everybody forgets is that third-and-20 pass to Madre, a little checkdown in which he got a lot of yards on his own. Those two plays were huge.”
Five plays later after Lucas’ catch, the Razorbacks were about out of time and down to their last snap of the game, three yards away from ending their 0-for-history record against the SEC’s traditional measuring stick of football greatness.
There was no drama, no speeches in the huddle. Barry called the play, took the snap and rolled left. JJ, flanked the far left, came in short motion toward Barry and turned upfield when the ball was snapped.
He ran straight about six steps and three yards deep in the end zone, planted his right foot and cut left to get separation from Alabama defensive back Cedric Samuel.
Wide-open and waiting. And then Barry underthrew the pass.
“He didn’t catch that ball two inches off the ground. . .that catch has to be the most incredible catch.
-- Jefferson-Pilot analyst Dave Rowe
“JJ was very open, it was really not a very good pass to be honest with you,” Barry remembers. “I was rolling left, I got some pressure and fundamentally I wasn’t really great on that play. I didn’t want to overthrow JJ, which was easy to do at times.
“So I underthrew it. At that moment, maybe it was a positive thing that JJ wasn’t the tallest receiver ever to play at Arkansas at that time. He made a great adjustment on the ball.”
JJ says he felt he would be the open receiver.
“I knew they were going to be in a man-to-man defense,” he says. “We knew how they would defend us. It was a piece of cake, so much so that Barry relaxed and just sort of flicked it.”
JJ didn’t have to go far to drop to his knees, lay both hands on the turf and successfully scoop Barry’s sinker. An official on the spot signaled TD, JJ popped up and sprinted to his bench before any Alabama player could dispute the catch.
“I took off running, because I thought the game was over and I was headed to the locker room,” says JJ, who collapsed to his knees once he got to the sidelines where he was mobbed by teammates. “But as I was running, I looked the scoreboard and realized the score was just 19-19. We had to make the extra point.”
Though Latourette had already kicked two field goals and two extra points on the day, there still was anxiety on the Arkansas sideline. On a field goal attempt early in the fourth period, the snap was bad and he chased down the bouncing ball for a 27-yard loss.
As Latourette trotted on the field to kick the game-winning extra point, he later said the only thing running through his mind was “Don’t mess this up.”
Felker, knowing the situation, was out of his hands, was nervous to watch the kick.
“I had confidence in him, but Todd was a freshman,” says Felker, who’s now back at Mississippi State, his alma mater and sole college head coaching spot, as director of player personnel. “I really didn’t look.”
But Felker could tell from the disbelieving roar of the 1,500 Arkansas fans among the sold-out Alabama home crowd of 70,123 that the snap, hold and Latourette’s kick were perfect for a 20-19 lead with six seconds left.
One kickoff later as the final horn sounded, Barry, JJ and crew had made history.
“This is great for the people of the state of Arkansas,” Ford said in his postgame press conference. “And the best thing about this game is we won it in the fourth quarter.”
For a couple of guys who arrived at Arkansas in the same recruiting class, who even had lockers almost side-by-side throughout their career, it was only proper that Barry and JJ received game balls afterward in the jubilant Hogs’ locker room.
“That was our first big win over the typical SEC powerhouses,” says Barry, who completed 15-of-26 passes for 181 yards against the Tide, including 5-of-7 for 66 yards on the game-winning drive. “We hadn’t beaten Auburn or Alabama, the real big dogs, to that point. That was the first time we’d broken through with a quality win.
“People still ask me if I made the catch. I tell them `Never argue with a ref.’ ”
-- JJ Meadors, September 2011
Just last Saturday in Fayetteville at the Razorbacks-Troy game, the ’95 team had a reunion.
Naturally, one of the topics was whether the Barry to JJ game-winner vs. the Crimson Tide would have been ruled a touchdown if college football would have had instant replay back then.
“I don’t think they could have overturned it,” Barry says. “There wasn’t enough evidence to call it an incompletion.”
JJ says he never had a chance to see the catch replayed until the team arrived home in Fayetteville.
“Back then, you didn’t have replay boards in the stadiums,” JJ recalls. “It was six hours later when we got home where I could watch on ESPN SportsCenter a bunch.
“So after the game in the stadium when people kept asking me, `Did you catch the ball?’, I thought those were all stupid questions.’ Once I got home and saw it on ESPN, I realized there was some controversy, that people thought I might not have made the catch.”
The play propelled Arkansas on a streak in which it won eight of its next nine games to win its first Western Division title and advance to its first SEC championship game appearance against No. 2 Florida.
The Razorbacks were no match for the two-time defending SEC champions coached by Steve Spurrier, losing 35-3. But considering the Gators that season averaged 44.5 points and 534.4 yards per game total offense (still a SEC record) and that Hill sustained a serious knee injury on Arkansas’ first offensive series, the disappointment of the loss was washed away by the 8-5 season (6-2 in SEC), especially that day in Tuscaloosa.
“Barry and I forever be linked by that (game-winning) play,” JJ says. “I can’t think of a better guy to be associated with the rest of my life.”
Barry and JJ will be back in Arkansas watching on Saturday when the current No. 14 Razorbacks travel to Alabama in a stadium that seats just more than 100,000. They know the Crimson Tide is favored.
But they also know since they got Arkansas’ first-ever win over Alabama – and there have been six wins over the Tide since then including two on the road – victory is not impossible.
“We’ve got to win and get to the SEC championship game,” JJ says. “In the SEC, if your team is not a factor year in and year out, they don’t care about you. But that’s why you want to be in the SEC. If you’re at or near or top of the SEC, you’re going to be in the discussion for the national championship.”