Sportswriters spend a lot of time trying to help keep fans from jumping off the ledge. Explaining that it’s not as bad as it might feel. Provide a bit of perspective. And while there have been moments over the previous two games to which fans can point and understand there is hope for the future, I just feel like it needs to be said:
It’s OK for Razorback fans to be angry.
Yes, most fans knew in August that this would be a tough season. That doesn’t make it any easier to swallow when it’s happening. Especially when games like South Carolina take place.
Corliss McFadden Harper is due to be born next month. If my wife screams while in labor, do you think I’m going to say, “Why are you upset? You knew this was going to happen. This was all expected. Relax. You’re stressing me out.”
No. I’m kind of excited about this year’s Arkansas basketball team, and I’d like to be physically capable of writing about them this winter.
Las Vegas set the wins over/under for this Razorback football team at 5.5. They’re now guaranteed to hit the under, and it’s not a stretch to imagine they’ll finish a full one or two games below that mediocre-at-best standard.
The anger doesn’t have to just be limited to this team. It’s still OK to be upset with Bobby Petrino and his staff. They’re the ones responsible for approximately 75% of the roster. If you don’t like the fact that there isn’t much talent at safety or linebacker or cornerback or, somehow, receiver, that would be on the Petrino staff (anybody else notice Dorial Green-Beckham scoring four touchdowns this week?)
But Petrino’s staff isn’t responsible for everything going on. They’re not responsible for making South Carolina looking like Alabama. They’re not completely responsible for a passing offense ranked easily the worst in the SEC at less than 150 yards per game (over 23 yards below the next-worst). Most people expected Arkansas’ defense to struggle, but Brandon Allen isn’t even on the SEC’s top 15 list in passing efficiency. Kentucky has two quarterbacks on the list.
But to give Allen credit, the Ole Miss game was by far his best performance since the A&M game. It was the first time he completed a majority of his passes since Samford. If it’s true that lingering effects from his shoulder injury have prevented him from operating at full capacity until very recently, hopefully he can continue that upward trajectory over the last two games. At the very least, it’s a positive sign going forward, but also an indiction of just how awful Arkansas’ passing game has been.
The worst thing about Allen’s shoulder injury this season is that it came at the absolute worst possible time. The outcome of any game other than Rutgers is likely unchanged if he misses it, but there’s a reasonable chance Arkansas wins that game if Allen plays. It was truly unfortunate. It’s worth a muttering cussing at the football overlords.
It’s been a frustrating season of worst-case scenarios in that regard. Quarterbacks Gary Nova, Connor Shaw, and Nick Marshall were all at one point listed as questionable for playing against Arkansas. All played. Alabama safety Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix was suspended by the Crimson Tide, but was reinstated the day before they played Arkansas (not that his absence would have given Arkansas a much better shot at winning that game, but still). Ole Miss freshman Robert Nkemdiche was injured, came back against Arkansas, and tackled AJ Derby on that infamous third down attempt.
And speaking of that play, it was really indefensible. Fans have every right to question it. I understand the notion of putting in a new wrinkle, something Ole Miss hadn’t seen on film, but no.
I don’t know who came up with the idea for that play, but the conversation in the coaches’ offices should have gone something like this:
“Hey, I have an idea. Let’s put in Derby-”
“No. Absolutely not. Wait, you mean if Allen gets hurt?”
“Well, more as a new thing to throw off-”
“No. And just the fact that you brought that up will be put on your post season evaluation.”
That should have been the end of that. And to do it on a third-and-five? When in Derby’s collective appearances in three games this season he’s netted four rushing yards? When Arkansas is driving in Ole Miss territory? Before Alex Collins had even had his first carry?
You wouldn’t think to run that play if you were playing a video game with your kid brother and trying to let him win.
Arkansas may not have converted the first down with Allen at quarterback – the team wasn’t very good at 3rd down conversions the entire day – but it’s hard to understand how Derby gave Arkansas a better chance. It’s like taking a knee before halftime with 45 seconds on the clock when you’ve got two timeouts and a kicker who’d already made a 51-yard field goal. Why not give yourself a shot? What does the team have to lose at this point?
Bielema recognizes, or at least he’s stated it in press conferences, that it’s the coaches’ responsibility to put the players in the best positions for they and the team to succeed. Plays like that raise questions. Is it really the best use of Jonathan Williams to have him throw any passes? Is it the best use of Alex Collins to only give him 10 carries against Ole Miss?
The calling card for Bielema and his staff is player development. He wasn’t hired because of his highly rated recruiting classes, he was hired because his record shows he can bring out the best in players. It didn’t look like his Badger teams had a lot of talent in terms of recruiting star power, but they still performed on the field. Why is Tevin Mitchel, a 4* recruit who’s played most of these last three seasons, struggling at tackling? Where’s his development? Granted, Mitchel, like all the upper-classmen save for the few jucos Bielema signed last year, were not Bielema recruits so who knows what kind of issues there may or may not be.
And, yes, there has been development in many of the younger players on the team. Many of whom are players Bielema did recruit, and may be why Bielema says four of the top six or seven offensive players on the team are freshmen.
Relying on young, inexperienced players often causes problems; it’s especially difficult when the coaches have to deal with some older players who may not be giving full effort. It’s OK to be frustrated. It’s an agonizing situation. Bielema has staked his professional career on turning this program around. He’s surely just as anxious to win as anybody else. And there are ways you can see his positive impact on the program, but probably because of the roster he inherited, he can only go so far with.
For instance, Bielema and his staff have delivered on the promise to make Arkansas one of the least-penalized teams in the SEC. The Hogs are tied for the league lead with just 4.4 penalties per game, over a 25% improvement from averaging 6 penalties per game the last couple of years. That’s an awesome stat, one for which the coaches deserve tons of credit. However, the penalties Arkansas does incur tend to be big dumb personal foul and holding penalties. As a result, despite leading the SEC in penalties per game, the Hogs are sixth in the SEC in penalty yards per game. They’re getting a little something, you know, for the effort, I guess.
I believe the only time I’ve ever seen a personal foul penalty on a kickoff touchback has been these Razorbacks, who’ve managed the feat not once, but twice this season. This seems completely incomprehensible. At some point in the game, if you were watching closely, you might have seen Bielema burying his face in his playcard. He’s clearly trying hard, but if he’s frustrated, surely the fans should be as well.
The most important positive takeaway from the Ole Miss game is that the team hasn’t given up. They’re still playing hard for their coach. And when last year’s Hogs went on the road at this time of year, they most certainly were not playing hard for very long.
The team is fighting, and growing, and it’s upsetting to see them so close, but then make a few mistakes that wind up costing them a game. It’s healthy and correct to be upset by that happening. If Arkansas was still giving up 52 points per game, the anger would quickly turn to apathy, which is the worst thing for a fan base to have.
The good news is this isn’t the end of the story.
Hopefully, it gets better.