Well, THAT happened.
What the hell?!? Where did it come from? Will it stick around? Is this real life? WE WON A GAME!
Throughout the week, whenever asked for my thoughts on the Auburn game, I quickly conceded the victory and attempted to steer the conversation to all of the other games I would be watching. All of the ranked matchups and divisional clashes. After watching the Razorbacks play five games, I was convinced that this team didn't have one ounce of "game" in them, to borrow a horse racing term. That they could only relinquish ground. That they were incapable of drawing that line in the sand.
I have never been so happy to be wrong in my life.
This team has a long way to go before I can even call them mediocre, but the Razorbacks showed on Saturday that they can play with passion and impose their will some, too, instead of withering under pressure at every opportunity. And it felt damned great to see that. It felt damned great to win.
So let's get to it.
The reason Arkansas won was that the Hogs finally found a team that they were able to push around at the line of scrimmage. That's the beginning and the end of it. It was evident early that Arkansas was bigger and stronger, but I refuse to believe that Auburn was the first team since Jacksonville State that the Razorbacks were bigger than. I'm praying that differences in attitude and coaching also played a significant role as well. If so, Arkansas has a legitimate chance to turn things around, as much as they can. If not, I guess we just chalk it up to the "Early Game at Auburn" phenomenon and thank Fred Talley, wherever he is, for the ritual sacrifice he must have made.
Offensively, I think there were a lot of changes to be excited about, despite the feeling that we were kind of treading water during the middle two quarters of the game. I did get to see some of the things that I have been asking about for the past few weeks, but unfortunately it seems that they came at the expense of other things which had been working to a degree. Bobby Petrino was the master of finding that balance, and that's why we lit up the scoreboard with him. Paul seemed MUCH more in control of play calling yesterday, but still had stretches where it seemed he was running in sand.
I've pontificated about the necessity of a fullback for our power running game to have success for years, and yesterday was further proof of that. Morgan Linton had a great game, and the progress he has made since the injuries to Kiero Small and Kody Walker was on display. The Razorbacks had not one but TWO short-yardage touchdown runs, and Linton had key blocks on both. Despite the Razorbacks being 3-12 on third down conversions, Linton's improvement is something that will keep drives alive later this season, and could very well be responsible for a win or two.
Last week, I wondered if there was any way to allow Wilson to use his legs more, and yesterday my wish was granted. Paul Petrino mixed things up and rolled Wilson out from time to time, which I think took a lot of pressure off of the offensive line. Wilson also seemed much more attuned to any pressure coming from Auburn, and allowed the flight instinct to take over more often. This is not a bad thing, although by the end of the game I was wondering...
Is something wrong with Tyler? With the exception of his first pass of the game to Cobi Hamilton, I felt like I was not really watching the Tyler Wilson I have gotten accustomed to watching over the past three seasons. He has stubbornly worked the middle of the field throughout this season, and yesterday, with just a few exceptions, he seemed reluctant to pull the trigger, checking down sooner and with more frequency that usual. And once or twice when he DID go for the big throw, his usual accuracy was not there. Certainly not trying to be overly critical because I think he did a terrific job of managing the game yesterday, but I couldn't escape the feeling that something seemed... off. I know, I know, the absence of Chris Gragg played a huge role in where Wilson chose to go with the football, but still this nagging uneasiness remains.
Jonathan Williams is starting to look like a huge get. I love the patience he exhibits when running with the football. Always looking for gaps to hit without shying away from contact, and it seems like he might have big-play capability as well. Very excited to watch this young man for the next few years.
I remember when, as freshmen in mop-up duty, Brandon Mitchell threw a beautiful pass in the corner of the endzone that was a sure touchdown if only Javontee Herndon hadn't dropped it. I called it the best pass of the game on that evening. Very reminiscent of the pass that Mitchell and Herndon hooked up on yesterday, only yesterday's completion came with much higher stakes and a much happier result. That was the loudest I've yelled all season.
Defensively, I would really love to say that this team turned a corner, but that would be foolish at this point. Turnovers are a fickle beast and sometimes you do all the right things and come up empty, but that wasn't the reason the Hogs went 14 quarters without causing one. We weren't doing the right things and just being unlucky, we were NOT DOING THE RIGHT THINGS. Yesterday was different. Players were where they were supposed to be. We had a defender turn around and find the football to make an interception. Let me repeat that. We had a player find the football and make an interception. Yesterday was just different. The Hogs were aggressive.
For all of the mistakes he's made through the first half of the season, Paul Haynes did a good job with his schemes yesterday. The delayed blitzes he dialed up were effective. The breakdowns in coverage were minimal. Players generally seemed to be in the right spots most of the time, and prepared to make a tackle. The attitude was different, but again, it looks as though the preparation was as well.
Still... this was by far the worst offense the Razorbacks have seen this season, and yards and points were there for the Tigers if they had been smarter about it. Overpursuit has been a problem at Arkansas as long as I can remember, and yesterday was just another chapter in that story. They could have countered us to death if they'd wanted to, but for whatever reason they just didn't. We were still vulnerable to big plays time after time after time, only Auburn simply did not take advantage.
One thing I did notice is that the Razorbacks defensive line was lightning fast off the line of scrimmage. That played a huge role our domination of Auburn in the trenches. Chris Smith in particular seemed to have a knack for guessing the snap count, but he wasn't the only one. There were several occasions where I thought we'd get flagged for being offsides that ended up being big, negative-yardage plays for the defense. It goes back to the aggressive attitude showed yesterday that we haven't seen all year. It really gives me hope, and I thought I had written off hope about three weeks ago.
With a conference win under their belt and three winnable games staring them in the face, the season is no longer a lost cause for the Razorbacks. Not yet. There is still a bowl game to play for. The Razorbacks find themselves in a position much like 2008, Bobby Petrino's first season. That year, a victory on the plains against Auburn gave the Razorbacks their first conference win, and also gave meaning to the last half of the season. Losses to Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State ultimately sealed that team's fate, but the victory against Auburn at least gave us all a reason to watch. Here's hoping the 2012 victory at Auburn serves as the same catalyst, only with a more satisfying conclusion.
A trip to Shreveport has never been so coveted.
Trent Wooldridge will be that guy with enough bourbon. He loves the S-E-C chant and honks because he hates Texas. He puts honey on his pizza, demands aisle seats, and sees quitting golf as more of a hobby than actually playing golf. Follow @twooldridge and track his quest to transform his two-year-old into a southpaw ace in the bigs.