Brought to you one final time this year courtesy of Bob Marley, Tito's Vodka, and those savage beasts with insatiable bloodlust that Bert talked (cried!) about yesterday in his postgame press conference. Yesterday our Razorbacks got a little taste of blood in their mouths as well. Honest mistake. Apparently they thought it was Hawaiian Punch, and spent the fourth quarter drinking Ipecac and puking until the familiar pangs of defeat and heartbreak returned. Still, a little too close for comfort. Bret Bielema and his team almost slipped up and won a conference game.
I promised myself that I wouldn't become invested in this game. I was prepared to handle a blowout loss. I was prepared to handle a close game early in which LSU pulled away in the second half. I was wholly unprepared to have the lead with LSU needing to go 99 yards with their backup quarterback in order to win. Well played, football gods. Peaking at the right time, as always. The ironic bonus kick-in-the-balls of your season ending with every Arkansas fan screaming "WHY DIDN'T YOU THROW IT OUT OF BOUNDS!??!!?!" was a particularly nice touch. Assholes.
For the last time this season, let's talk a bit about the game.
Bert has told us throughout this losing streak how close the Hogs have been to putting everything together, and most everyone, myself included, has wondered what in the hell he has been watching. Yesterday was proof enough for me that he hasn't been entirely off base. Things weren't THAT different yesterday. A couple of things that haven't seemed to go our way all season finally did, and damned if it didn't result in having a solid LSU team on the ropes in its own stadium.
The play calling was just a little more balanced. 34 rushing attempts to 29 passing attempts, and by my count two called pass plays never came to fruition. That would mean Jim Chaney called 32 rushing plays and 31 passing plays. Which is just about exactly what the goal is in Bielema's offense, right? Brandon Allen completed 19 of the 29 passes he got off, in large part because of the higher percentage passes he was making, which his receivers were hauling in and not dropping. Mix in some creativity (not desperate trickeration) on third down such as the toss to Herndon that gained 42 and you were able to see an offense that looked at the very least respectable. An offense to have confidence in. Even including our three wins, I'm not sure I've felt that all season long.
Many of the same problems remained, of course, and presumably will return next season. Brandon Allen doesn't have the arm strength to stretch a defense, and unless he is still dealing with that shoulder injury, I don't see how things will be all that much better next year. Allen has developed a nice chemistry with Hatcher, but seeing all of our other returners sit the bench or be nonfactors makes it hard to believe that yesterday's improvement is anything more than an anomaly.
For all the things Chaney did right yesterday, it's still easy to point out a few missteps that killed the Hogs' chances of putting the game on ice. First among them has to be the third down call to run Kiero Small on the goal line during the final drive of the first half. It had worked once already, which is once more than it had worked all season. If you want to run that formation, putting Williams back there with an option to pass seems much more difficult to defend. And it turns out we really, really needed the four points we missed out on there.
We are all infatuated with Korliss Marshall and his explosive speed out of the backfield, but what if he had been playing safety yesterday? Does his presence in the secondary keep Eric Bennett off the field and keep LSU out of the endzone? Everyone is anticipating a huge battle between the offensive and defensive coaches for Marshall over the offseason, but why does there have to be a battle at all? He's a situational player on offense. He got three carries yesterday. Is there any reason he couldn't play safety AND get those three carries? Or four or five or six?
Defensively, I just don't have that much to talk about. Outside of the last drive, the defense seemed to play better. The liabilities on the back seven were exposed during critical times, as always, but at least the unit as a whole showed fight during most of the game. When the Hogs bowed up for that fourth-down stop, it was easily the proudest I've been of that squad all year. If we can hang onto Flowers and Brooks Ellis can continue to improve and we can pick up a little JUCO help at linebacker, things may be salvageable in 2014.
In the grand scheme of things, there is not on iota's difference between 3-9 and 4-8 IF your last game of the season is your best performance of the year. Historic losing streaks make for good talk radio and message boarding, but they aren't death sentences. Not the losses themselves. What really kills a program is the loss of hope. Watching the way Arkansas played yesterday gave me hope for next year. Seeing those young guys not give up makes me believe that they have bought in, and doing so during this disaster of a season gives me a reason to believe in what Bert is trying to do with this program.
I started watching the game yesterday just because it's what I do. I was completely ready to just get the season over with. Almost detached from my allegiance. Of course I got sucked in, and by the time Allen fumbled that ball I cussed him to the moon and back. After that, all I felt was the desire for one more game. Finally, at long last, it feels like the Hogs are ready to win. It sucks that they don't get another chance, but I'm going to trust Bret Bielema to foster that readiness throughout the offseason. To sharpen that desire to win and desire to work. I'm going to trust him to have us ready at the beginning of next season, not just the end.
I'll see y'all next year.
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 three-year-old into a southpaw ace in the bigs.