Razorback fans are absolutely right to be mad, angry, disappointed, frustrated, despondent, and any other adjective you can think of to describe rejecting the Hogs’ performance on Saturday against the South Carolina Gamecocks.
Apoplectic might be a stretch. If you’re reading this, it’s been at least a couple of days since the Hogs’ worst performance since, well, last year – and the world has yet to end. But the smoke and fiery rubble where Razorback Stadium used to be make it more difficult than usual to see any brightness in the future.
There’s not much to really say about the game. It was an absolute failure. The defense couldn’t get off the field, and the offense couldn’t stay on it. That’s all you really need to know, and why there is such a stark contrast in so many statistical categories.
The thing that I have the hardest time coming to terms with is that this was the game they needed to play like it was their game of the year. This was the game that could put them in great shape for a shot to earn a bowl bid. It could balance out the disappointment of the Rutgers collapse. It was, by consensus, the most winnable game during this difficult midseason stretch. And if there was any doubt that was the case, the Vegas oddsmakers made South Carolina a favorite by less than a touchdown, easily the smallest spread since starting SEC play.
The thinking for Texas A&M was that Arkansas couldn’t keep up with the Aggies offensively, and it was ultimately proved correct in the fourth quarter even though the Hogs put up 33 points in the rain and traded punches with them for most of the night. The thinking for the Florida game was that the Gators’ defense was too good for Arkansas’ young and inconsistent offense, and that also proved correct.
But the Gamecocks possessed neither of those elite qualities. They’re just a solid team across the board. Coming into Saturday, they’ve typically done just enough to hold on to decent leads against inferior talent. They’ve hardly been any sort of dominant force, worthy of intimidation or any sort of lackluster effort.
So what happens after a great opening touchdown drive? 52 straight. For the second year in a row, the Hogs gave up 52 straight points in Fayetteville. Only, this wasn’t against the national champions with a backup quarterback the week after arguably the most shocking defeat in program history. This was a chance to prove something, to show progress and prove their record is more of an indication of their schedule and not their quality as a team. Now, that’s in question.
Arkansas’ best two games this year have been the Lousiana-Lafayette and Texas A&M games, which are the two times Brandon Allen was at quarterback for games on campus, so it wasn’t wild to think we were going to be in for another good performance. However, it appears the team may have some serious confidence issues regarding Allen’s interceptions. That was from that point in the game in which nothing worked.
I’ve written that Bret Bielema’s biggest challenge this season would be maintaining the team’s motivation if these midseason games went poorly, and apparently, it’s proving to be quite a challenge. What’s scary is that the team doesn’t seem to understand that they are still well within striking distance of coming back in the game when things begin falling apart. The motivation is dying out before it should be. It feels like all the confidence-building done during the offseason is deteriorating.
“We have a negative play, and then it just cartwheels into everything and is around us in every way. It’s a very difficult thing.” – Bret Bielema
In both of the last two games, Arkansas scored first but lost the lead following interceptions from Allen, and never really appeared to be competitive again. That’s 2012 stuff. Despite everything that went wrong last year, Arkansas was actually a pretty good first quarter team, but would inevitably fall apart whenever something didn’t go their way. The Razorbacks never punched back last year the way they did against Texas A&M a few weeks ago. And Arkansas’ defense continued to fight valiantly through the Florida game, but after the interception, or perhaps it was after the epically bad fake punt, the defense finally gave out as well.
I’d hoped that 2012 junk wouldn’t carry over to this year, but it sure feels like it has. I’m not sure if it’s something the coaches can just fix with motivational tactics. Perhaps they’ll just have to wait until some of the older players move on. If this team doesn’t think it can come back from a 10 point deficit in their own stadium against a good-but-not-amazing team, I’m not sure what can be done to improve the situation.
When you allow 52 straight points, the problems are much deeper than there just being a quarterback issue or a wide receiver issue or a secondary issue (even if the secondary is so bad we should probably refer to them as “elementary” instead) or a Bobby Petrino recruiting issue. It’s a whole team problem. Players, coaches, everybody. Only two Arkansas drives lasted more than four plays against the Gamecocks (only one drive after the opening drive), and only two South Carolina drives failed to score (one of those was a fumbled handoff in the red zone). That’s a team problem. That’s Bielema and his staff failing to make successful adjustments. That’s the players failing to make plays, and, occasionally, boneheaded penalties. That’s everybody.
I’m not suggesting Arkansas should have won the game. They were underdogs for a reason. This team has had issues all year that they won’t be able to fix until a couple of quality recruiting classes come in. But there’s no reason to think 52-7 had to happen. Maybe on the road at Tuscaloosa 52-7 would have happened (and might still) but that effort should not have happened at home against South Carolina with a six point spread in basically a must-win-for-bowl game.
I really do believe this Razorback team is not actually that bad. They’ve been better in every other game this season, so there is still reasonable belief that they could win some of the games in November when they finally stop playing ranked teams every week. They won’t win again if they play like they did this week, but until proven otherwise, I think this was an unfortunate, horribly timed outlier in what’s been an expectedly frustrating season.
The larger concern is that fans want to see the team get better each week, even if they don’t win, and it’s hard to see where that’s happening. Maybe there are confidence issues after losing four in a row. Maybe they’re too banged up after playing seven games in a row without a bye week (only LSU will go longer in the SEC without one this year). But regardless, you can make an argument that this team’s best game was its first game (the only other option is A&M), and that’s not building confidence in the future. That’s only going to build criticism.
We knew October would be tough for the Razorbacks. It didn’t have to be this tough. It can be better, and hopefully it will be soon.