It’s a feeling of complete helplessness. It’s especially worse for road games because the crowd, at least the portion that didn’t give up and leave early, becomes as loud as if the stadium is full. The energy on the opposing sideline is at pregame levels. You look at the game clock, begging it to tick faster. Plead for just one player on your team to make a play even though momentum stopped and changed directions like a subway train at the end of its route.
And then, seemingly inevitably, the lead is gone and the team has lost.
Of course that describes the Razorbacks’ game against Rutgers on Saturday. It also describes nearly half of the road games I’ve ever traveled to. I wasn’t in New Jersey for the game, but the feeling was all too familiar. The game it felt closest to, and coincidentally, the season as a whole, is the 2008 Kentucky game.
That game, with a first-year Razorback coach and a not-so-great Hog team, was a toss-up swing game that would likely determine whether or not the Hogs would become bowl eligible. Rehashing that game is still painful, so I’ll just reiterate that it was a game Arkansas led until very late in the fourth quarter, but a meltdown in the final few minutes threw the game away.
Interestingly, another similarity between that 2008 season and this one is that both featured a 4-game gauntlet against highly rated teams. 2008′s was Alabama, at Texas , Florida, and at Auburn. Auburn turned out to be overrated and Arkansas pulled the upset on The Plains, which helped serve notice that the Razorbacks were continuing to improve – even if the next week’s game in Lexington proved that they were still inconsistent.
That same maddening inconsistency seems to be applicable to the current Hogs as well.
How else to explain a defense that was mostly dominant in the second and third quarters, but let the Scarlet Knights move nearly at will in the first and fourth quarters? How does AJ Derby throw so many “juuuuust a bit outside” passes, then throw a gorgeous touch pass to Hunter Henry to keep one of the team’s two decent drives of the whole day? How does the punt coverage team do what the punt coverage team did? How does Jarrett Lake, whom Bielema described in the off-season as one of his favorite players on the team, commit a personal foul penalty to allow Rutgers’ first scoring drive to keep going? What happened to the team I believed would be disciplined enough not to beat itself?
Like in 2008, the team must continue to work toward improving if there is any chance to pull off an upset at some point through the next four weeks. Florida and South Carolina would seem the most likely candidates, although neither will be the 5-7 disappointment that Auburn squad turned out to be. Many of the mistakes Arkansas made against Rutgers are fixable, and in order to be competitive during the next few weeks those mistakes must not happen.
But regardless of all the things Arkansas did wrong in New Jersey and must improve upon, how far can the Hogs expect to go with AJ Derby filling in for Brandon Allen?
I’ve gone back and forth since the game ended, trying to decide what to think of the idea that the Razorbacks would have won with Allen at quarterback regardless of the mistakes that the team made in his absence. I understand that Allen is a much more consistently accurate passer than Derby, and that ability would have made the Rutgers defense pay for stuffing the box against the run, but it feels like too much of an oversimplification to argue that’s all that mattered.
That seems like just as much a “what if” as is punt coverage or the penalties or the three 25-plus-yard passing plays on Rutgers’ 98-yard drive.
I don’t know if Arkansas can keep up with Texas A&M’s offense with Derby at quarterback (or Allen, for that matter), or if they can fight with Florida’s defense. But I do know this, Bret Bielema has awarded six scholarships to walk-ons since arriving in Fayetteville, and AJ Derby is not one of them. That feels like a shame, if for no other reason than the spotlight on him as long as he’s Arkansas’ starter is worthy of being on scholarship.
Stopping negative momentum is not easy, but it can be done. After I witnessed four heartbreaking Arkansas road losses I thought I was about to see a fifth against Georgia in 2010, but the Hogs had grown up and made enough plays to put together a game-winning drive in the final minute. This Razorback team can get back to that point, but it’s never as quick as we’d like to hope.