Brought to you once more this week courtesy of Bob Marley, Tito's Vodka, and the realization that, in 2016, I will have spent an entire decade wandering the desert of Razorback fandom, feebly plumbing the depths of my brain to pull out a cobwebbed memory of what it feels like to beat Alabama.
I don't always hate Alabama. I respect them. I envy their success and their support and their facilities. I have never had an ugly encounter with an Alabama fan. I have been to Tuscaloosa and been treated like a king. I have welcomed Alabama fans into my own tailgate and have had cordial and knowledgeable football discussion with them. I generally cheer for Alabama to do well when they are not playing Arkansas.
When I hear their Rammer Jammer chant after they have beaten my team, however, all of that goes out the window. When I hear it, I have to immediately remove myself from whatever situation I am in, because if I do not, my seething, simmering exterior will quickly give way to the frothing, dog-cussing crazy person who is juuuust under the surface and who thinks that breaking things and spewing torrents of profanity into the night are valid coping mechanisms.
I will remove myself from the living room, or the stadium, or the tailgate. Because hearing that chant flips a switch inside me, and hearing it nine consecutive years is just too freaking much. In four of those nine games Arkansas has held a second-half lead, and twice the Hogs have led with less than five minutes left in the game. At some point, though, as long as they keep playing every year, Arkansas is going to beat Alabama. And I am going to be insufferable. I will whoop and holler and point a stubby finger at every Alabama fan I see (who I would generally respect, most of the time) and I will tell them in no uncertain terms that "WE just beat the hell out of YOU". Finally.
That didn't happen last night, though. Last night, Arkansas lost to Alabama. Again. And they did that chant. Again. And I had to remove myself from the living room and walk into the kitchen and crack open a beer and eat about six cookies when they did. Again. Let's talk a little football.
It's remarkable how similarly last night's game played out when compared to last year's contest in Fayetteville. In both games, Alabama began the game giving Arkansas the option to pass the football in order to shut down the Hogs' rushing attack, and finished the game with its secondary capitalizing against a one-dimensional Arkansas offense that was forced to pass. The difference between the two games is that, in 2014, Jim Chaney took the passing opportunities that Alabama was giving his offense, and last night Dan Enos refused to. This is why Arkansas ran only 57 plays last night, when in a very similarly-styled game in 2014 the Hogs ran 79 offensive plays. Arkansas couldn't move the sticks in part because Alabama has an absurdly stout defense, but also because the Hogs seemed to be running the exact offense that Alabama wanted it to run. If what they do best is stop what you do best, and they are better than you, sometimes you have to try to do what you maybe don't do best, and just hope for the best. Or something. Chaney understood this. Enos clearly does not. Or at least he did not last night.
Last night, Dan Enos called his fifth consecutive game where every play was in front of the safeties. Arkansas plays inside a 20-yard box and it is killing what could be a very good offense. Think way back to that UTEP game, and the deep touchdown pass to Keon Hatcher, and the two deep incompletions to Dominique Reed. Unless I have missed a play here or there, those are the last times Arkansas has attempted to pass over the top of the defense. At this point, getting beat deep doesn't even register in an opposing safety's mind. They know that the entire game is going to be played in front of them, and can play in the aggressive manner that comes with that. This shrinks windows for Brandon Allen, and it also compacts running lanes for Alex Collins and Rawleigh Williams. A pro-style play-action offense without a deep ball is easy pickings for a good defense. They just tighten the screws whenever they need to.
As far as individual performances go, I am very hesitant to make much of how anemic the offense looked because the Alabama defense is just so good. Not many teams are going to hold Alex Collins to a long run of five yards. Last year, his long against Alabama was six yards. Brandon Allen didn't have a terrible game. He just didn't have much to work with. The Alabama front seven dominated the line of scrimmage, and Dan Enos called a game that did almost nothing to help Arkansas stop spinning its tires. Because of that, I'm not going to say anybody sucked last night.
If you are looking for positives, the defense really stepped up last night. Robb Smith's unit held Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake to an average of less than four yards per carry. They forced two interceptions of Jake Coker. With just one exception, they limited the big play and made Alabama earn every yard. Up until the dam broke in the fourth quarter, they looked every bit of the top ten defense that finished the 2014 season. Even early on in the game when it seemed the defense just couldn't get off of the field, they were getting Alabama into third down. As the game went on, third-and-short gave way to third-and-medium and third-and-long, and Alabama finished the evening 7-16 on third down. That is how you keep a struggling offense in the game.
There was a moment in the second half where Deatrich Wise sacked Jake Coker and it felt like the Arkansas defense had taken control of the football game. Wise badly beat his man on the way to Coker, and it was evident that the Arkansas defensive line was not just holding their own with Alabama's front. They were bettering them. The same unit that had run roughshod over Georgia the week before was getting outplayed by the Razorbacks. They forced a punt that resulted in the Arkansas possession in which Bert chose not to go for it on 4th-and-1, opting instead to punt. The Arkansas defense held once more, but the next Alabama punt would flip the field. Momentum was gone, Alabama would score on its next possession, and world order was quickly restored. But, man, that feeling when Wise made that sack was a good one.
I cannot believe Bert called that punt fake after he wouldn't go for it on 4th-and-1. It eliminated every good feeling that had been built since the game began. The red zone stops and the interceptions and the Deatrich Wise sack and the Brandon Allen touchdown pass. All of it that had made me believe that somehow Arkansas might win the football game WHEN I SWORE TO MYSELF I WOULD NOT ALLOW MYSELF TO FEEL THAT WAY. All of it was gone in two calls. One that ripped all swagger from his team, followed by one that reeked of his desperation to snatch it back. Both displaying zero confidence whatsoever in the ability of his team to just go out and win the damned football game. It was sickening.
Even with the frustration that comes with losing one more time to Alabama, it does seem that the Razorbacks have gotten themselves back on track. This was never a game that anyone expected to win, and we cannot go back and change the outcome of the three other losses that we expected to go the other way. All we can do is to look at the current team and see that they are playing much, much differently than they were in September. They now get a week off before hosting Auburn, and there is no reason that the Hogs cannot pound them into oblivion. The Hogs have stopped better offenses, and they have bullied better defenses. And you know Bert badly, badly wants to put Gus Malzahn in his place. If the Hogs do what they can do, it sets up to be just as satisfying a win as the Texas Bowl last season.
I'll see y'all in two weeks.
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 five-year-old into a southpaw ace in the bigs.