Jim Harris: Is Brandon Allen Cursed as Game Manager?


Forget whether the Arkansas Razorbacks can finally end a 14-game Southeastern Conference losing streak, or whether head coach Bret Bielema can get his first win in the SEC; the question should be: Can Brandon Allen win in this conference?

Arkansas’ record with Brandon Allen as a starting quarterback is 6-11, but the mark against SEC competition with Allen in command is 0-11. No other Arkansas starting quarterback ever has gone winless this deep into his career in the SEC. No Hog quarterback  ever failed to win at least one SEC start. There are obviously factors outside of Allen’s control that have determined most of that, and eight losses last year were gutty performances by the Fayetteville product playing with a broken shoulder connecting to his throwing arm. Allen has had Arkansas in position to win games (re: LSU last year, perhaps the A&M game two weeks ago) that the defense managed to rip from the jaws of victory.

His run as quarterback has coincided with a low ebb in talent for Arkansas at the same time that the rest of the conference opponents have been at or near their peak. For a good stretch of the Hogs’ 22 years in the SEC, they could count on being better than one or both of the Mississippi schools every season. Obviously the apocalypse must be upon us with Ole Miss and Mississippi State both ranked No. 3 in the nation this week.

So, if they were to put a record next to a quarterback’s name like they do baseball pitchers, Allen is 0-11 against the SEC even with some “quality” starts. When does he get his first win?

Would he have significantly better fortune if he were, say, the game manager for Alabama going up against the likes of Arkansas today? Would it help his record if his ace receiver were someone like Amari Cooper instead of any of his current choices?

We ask that simply because this week, in response to Alabama’s 23-17 loss to Ole Miss last year, former Tide quarterback A.J. McCarron tweeted out comments that took to task the leadership on the Alabama team this year. McCarron led Alabama to national titles in 2011-12 and, if not for Auburn’s miracle finish last year against ’Bama, would have at least been playing for the title yet again last January. A quarterback leading his college team to three consecutive national titles would have been unprecedented.

And, during his time at Alabama, McCarron tended to be judged by outsiders to the Tide program as merely a game manager, making sure everything functioned correctly. It was, of course, a ludicrous assessment, as anyone who saw McCarron pass the Tide to the national title win over LSU could determine.

McCarron made few mistakes, got Alabama out of bad plays, and seemingly always made winning plays. When that failed him in 2012 against Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel at home, with a goal line interception in the final minutes, he didn’t fall back into a shell and just hand off to his ultra-talented running backs; McCarron continued to make plays, all the way through a 42-10 whomping of Notre Dame in the title game.

Yet, this week, former Georgia and NFL quarterback Fran Tarkenton all but told him to shut up and be thankful he was able to play for Alabama or he would have never been heard from anywhere else. ESPN analyst and former Georgia Bulldog David Pollack chimed in likewise in the lead-up to Alabama’s game with Arkansas on Saturday (maybe the former Georgia players should confine their advice for Todd Gurley).

McCarron’s abilities will be appreciated more and more over the next couple of Alabama seasons, we’re certain.

We remember the first big play we saw him make, as a sophomore against Arkansas, when the Tide pulled a fast one on Bobby Petrino in Tuscaloosa and McCarron, as the place holder, deftly pulled off a fake field goal and threw a touchdown pass in the early minutes of the 2011 game that set the tone. Alabama won 38-14 on the way to the first of back-to-back national titles.

He made plays. As a four-star quarterback out of Mobile, Ala., we’re confident in saying he would have made plays for Arkansas had he played in Fayetteville instead of Tuscaloosa.

Will Brandon Allen ever make those kinds of plays, the ones that determine early momentum and rally the team to a big win in the SEC?

We’ve seen him do some impressive things lately. His magical fake handoff to Alex Collins, selling the run to A&M, set up A.J. Derby for a 44-yard touchdown pass against the Aggies in Arlington. After that third-quarter score, Arkansas led 28-14 and Brandon Allen looked like a candidate for All-SEC. It wasn’t his fault that two other big plays, one a touchdown, were wiped out by one offending tackle, and it’s very likely that an Arkansas team with a little more experience would have been blowing out A&M 42-14 at the start of the fourth quarter, the way Mississippi State did last week against the Aggies, and not still trying to hold on.

Again, not his fault. The fumbled snaps? Now, Allen defenders were quick to blame the two centers and their urge to fire out before exchanging the ball, rather than the signal caller, but those were two momentum crushing plays, like the penalties on the lineman.

It’s also as if dark clouds have followed this kid around since his first real appearance as a Hog quarterback, having to salvage the Louisiana-Monroe game in 2012 after starter Tyler Wilson was knocked out. He looked like Johnny Manziel with his feet on his very first drive to a touchdown and a 24-7 Arkansas lead in the third quarter; then, and perhaps this fell on the play-caller, he could do nothing else and Arkansas lost in a stunner. Alabama the next week threw him around like a rag doll in the Tide’s 52-0 win, Allen’s first game as a starter, when most of the team seemed to rally more around his co-quarterback, Brandon Mitchell. We would barely see Allen again at all in 2012 as the departing coaching staff seemed determined to let Wilson play every snap of a destroyed season.

Then came the dive into the end zone last year in week three, with no need to do it, that separated his throwing shoulder. Arkansas had nobody of SEC ability to back him up. He had to play the last eight games, all against SEC teams, and lose.

Against A&M two weeks ago, Allen — now coached successfully to throw the ball away —threw one so far out of bounds, it plunked starting cornerback Henri Tolliver in the eye and knocked him out of the game. The Hogs could have used Tolliver in the fourth quarter when A&M came roaring back with the passing game.

Really? Isn’t this enough misfortune for one player to endure over the past two years?

Give Jim Chaney credit for bringing Allen along where he doesn’t force the ball (much)  anymore into coverage and will put the ball usually in a place where only his receiver can catch it, on the sideline. But in doing so, Arkansas isn’t chancing anything down the middle or deep into coverage much. Most of the deep throws are solely off play-action fakes, and if the receiver isn’t open, Allen is throwing it away. When Allen is under center with two receivers, Arkansas is running the football anyway — no three-step drops and quick tosses from that look. When he’s in the shotgun, opponents expect him to throw and drop seven into coverage. Witness that offensive two-minute offense Arkansas tried late in the first half against A&M when Allen threw seven straight times against a defense conceding the run, and the Hogs were bailed out only by a fake punt that went for a touchdown.

At this point in his career as a junior, former Hog quarterback Clint Stoerner was adept at getting the team out of bad play calls. We’re not sure what length of leash Allen has on checkoffs at the line, but it doesn’t seem to be near as long as Stoerner had under Houston Nutt. If it were, then Allen would have seen the single safety and 10 men across the front and not run a reverse to slow-footed tight end A.J. Derby to start the second half against A&M, a play that resulted in a 6-yard loss.

When Arkansas is behind the sticks after a first-down failure, success is rare. On third-and-7 or worse situations against A&M, drives were pretty much over but for one possession. However, when Allen and the offense has faced second-and-4 or better, watch the Hogs take off.

So, the point is, Allen has managed the offense for Chaney fairly well since last year’s Ole Miss game. But managing it is not what will win for Arkansas against the likes of Alabama. Allen must make plays. Given the opportunity Saturday, he’ll have to throw vertically down the field and connect — no inconsistency to his throws. If he’s proven one thing in two years, he’s still not the consistent passer that’s called for on this level. Some throws are spectacular; some are still “What was that?!”

Opponents’ defensive game plans will continue to be: “Stop the run, make Allen beat us.”

Allen needs to get the Hogs out of bad calls from the sideline, and he needs to execute better than he has for Arkansas to finally break through in the SEC. We don’t mean just for the Alabama game, either. We’re talking about the remainder of the SEC slate, because Arkansas still is unlikely to be favored in any of those games (except perhaps LSU?). For Arkansas to pull any upsets, it will be due to its quarterback being a winner and making the plays with the talent around him.

Brandon Allen Skepticism Warranted


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