The final score of Arkansas’ game against Texas A&M was about what I expected it to be, but how they got there didn’t happen the way I thought it would.
I expected the Razorbacks to have some success moving the ball and scoring some points against the Aggies’ suspect defense. I didn’t expect Arkansas to be able to essentially keep up with A&M throughout the game until late in the fourth quarter. I didn’t think, even with Brandon Allen at quarterback, Arkansas had the offensive firepower to keep up with Johnny Manziel and the Aggies’ explosive offense.
I would have thought that if Arkansas attempted more passing plays (they tried 36) than rushing plays (30), it would be a sign Arkansas wasn’t going to be competitive. And I certainly never expected Allen to throw for more yards than Manziel (even though he completed fewer passes), more touchdowns, and complete the longest pass of the day. I’d have thought if Arkansas was in a situation where they felt the need to throw that many passes, it would be because they found themselves in a big hole they were desperately trying to get out of.
Yet, even though the Razorbacks were behind the entire game, they were never out of it. Arkansas was only down by a full two touchdowns for a span of 5:12 in the second quarter. They were within two scores the entire game, and three times in the second half had possession with the chance to take the lead. It was, without a doubt, the team’s best performance since the opener against Louisiana-Lafayette.
As we all know, the Razorbacks failed to convert those go-ahead opportunities and eventually lost the game. And no one’s trying to gloss the loss. The Hogs made frustrating mistakes. The pick-six just after halftime was brutal. The ill-fated two-point-conversion attempt was questionable at best, and that failure forced Arkansas to go for it on 4th-and-10 from the A&M 16 instead of kicking a field goal to cut the Aggies’ lead to within a single possession. A&M scored 45 points without needing very much magic from Manziel. Eleven of Allen’s 16 completions went to players who don’t play receiver. This isn’t a perfect team by any stretch. There are definitely things the team needs to improve upon.
But understand, optimism after seeing the team making strides in a positive directions is not the same thing as “accepting” or “being happy with” a loss.
Arkansas hasn’t been this competitive against a top 10 team in a loss since 2010 (unless you count the 2012 LSU game, which I don’t because that was a putrid, sloppy, frigid game in which neither team played well and Arkansas only scored 13 points). Facing one of the best offenses in the country with an offense that’s not proven terribly effective even before Brandon Allen was injured, it made sense that this game could have been another in a long series of blowouts against great teams.
But that didn’t happen.
What we saw is a team that faced, head-on, one of the tougher tests in what’s been described for the better part of a year as one of the most difficult stretches of a schedule in all of college football, and gave themselves a chance to win.
Saturday’s performance should give both fans and the team confidence that they have a shot to win the next couple of games against Florida and South Carolina, both of which have fallen out of the top 10. They will be challenges, but it’s not unreasonable to think Arkansas can compete with them. It’s worth noting that Florida is the only SEC team Arkansas has never beaten since joining the conference, but if Bret Bielema is serious in his comments about giving Razorback fans something they haven’t had, a win over Florida would be a great place to start.
It’s not a guarantee that they’ll keep playing this well. There was much similar talk of a breakthrough after nearly knocking off #1 Florida in Gainesville in 2009, but the Hogs laid a giant egg the next week against Ole Miss in Oxford. It’s imperative for the coaches to keep the players hungry and fighting, while working against frustration and complacency.
Yes, games are played to be won. And each time out, either you win or you lose. And what happened against the Aggies stings on that level because there were opportunities to win that just didn’t work out.
But on a deeper, broader level, the goal in college sports (and life, really) is to build and improve the program. That’s why recruiting has blossomed into as big an industry as the games themselves, why good facilities are replaced with better ones, why good coaches are often let go in hope that your school hires the coach who becomes the greatest coach in college football history. The constant, impossible quest for perfection is what everyone strives for.
And when teams take steps in that directions, whether baby steps or giant leaps, it’s okay to feel good about it. Eventually, you do have to win those games to keep climbing the ladder, but for where this Arkansas football program has been, the Texas A&M game was reason for optimism, but as always, there is still more work left to do.