Another year, another hot, fresh batch of “what-ifs” cooked up by the Razorbacks against Texas A&M in Arlington.
The difference this year is that the game wasn’t an overtime heartbreaker. This one was decided fairly early in the fourth quarter. It was merely disappointing.
Despite losing by three touchdowns, this game is one that many Hog fans will feel like, at the very least, they left a ton of points on the field. Most specifically, on three separate drives Arkansas had a 1st-and-goal and only once scored, and it was a field goal - and on that drive, the Hogs actually had three 1st-and-Goals from inside the five after a pair of Aggie penalties.
It was Arkansas’ very next drive in which Rawleigh Williams fumbled on the one-yard line trying to barge his way into the end zone. And finally, most devastatingly, Arkansas marched 89 yards on 19 plays that lasted for nearly 10 minutes in the third quarter, and failed twice to push Austin Allen across the goal line. On fourth down, the Razorbacks attempted a sweep with Keon Hatcher that was pushed back for a big loss.
Those are the plays fans will remember most strongly, but considering Williams led Arkansas’ rushing with only 79 yards and Austin Allen was drilled in a way that likely reminded many of the shots Tyler Wilson used to take against Alabama, this was not a good showing from the offensive line. And that’s supposed to be Bielema’s calling card.
Many gave Bielema the benefit of the doubt throughout the off-season because his reputation with linemen is so strong, but it’s not paying off this year. The recruiting along the line has been spotty the last couple of years with the Hogs missing on some top prospects and Sam Pittman’s untimely departure, and some of the more highly-rated prospects Arkansas has signed haven’t come along as hoped. The group is struggling.
It made Austin Allen’s performance all the more impressive. Allen’s line was 28-42 for 371 yards and a couple of touchdowns with no interceptions. Arkansas was 9-16 on third downs and many of those were passing conversions on third-and-long. And he got hit pretty hard on more than a few of them. I feel like we can say pretty safely that Austin Allen is really good, and quarterback play isn’t something Razorback fans will have to worry about while he’s in the game.
There were other problems. The Aggies’ only two touchdowns in the first half came on long quarterback runs by Trevor Knight. The second was especially egregious as it came just before halftime in a situation in which it’s hard to fathom why the Hogs weren’t in more of a “safe” alignment. It’s possible that the loss of DeAndre Coley, who was ejected earlier in the quarter on a targeting penalty, may have made that play possible, but who knows.
Coley’s penalty proved costly. In addition to forcing the Razorbacks to play without their starting safety, it happened on a third down incompletion which would have forced a punt. Instead, the Aggies were able to move far enough down the field to kick a long field goal and keep pace with Arkansas in the first half.
That first half will haunt Arkansas fans. You can’t argue the Hogs “should’ve won” the game considering the lopsided final score and, to be fair, A&M had their share of miscues as well (including their own red zone fumble and a punt return fumble that set up Arkansas’ first score).
But Arkansas wasn’t able to keep up after that third quarter goal-line stand. The game was tied then, but the Aggies scored on two plays afterward and scored on their last three drives as well. Arkansas’ defense, despite enjoying plenty of time on the sideline in the third quarter, wasn’t able to stop the Aggies at all. In fact, after the Aggies punted with 9:27 to go in the 2nd quarter, they never punted again. They scored on six of their last seven drives of the game, and the only time Arkansas got a stop was when A&M fumbled a snap inside the 10-yard line. I asked last week how good the Arkansas defense really was, and they didn’t show much against the Aggies.
In the end, there are likely to be complaints about the offensive line, the defense, the playcalling (particularly that receiver sweep on 4th down), and they’re all valid.
But even besides all that, I find myself wondering what type of program Bielema really envisions for Arkansas. He based his reputation on having that big, bruising, power attack, but the Hogs have evolved from that over the last two seasons. The offense was nearly unstoppable last season between Alex Collins rushing for over 100 yards in nearly every game and Brandon Allen becoming an NFL quarterback in the second half of the season. But they still threw the ball more than expected, albeit successfully. Now, the rushing attack was largely held in check and the Hogs had to rely on a quarterback who spent much of the night getting knocked around, albeit successfully completing most of his passes.
It’s not that I want Arkansas to call more rushing plays, it’s that so few of the ones they call are unsuccessful. It’s that they often can’t run the ball. Williams has had some good runs, but not very many, and his fumble tonight was costly. Devwah Whaley was hyped nearly as much as Collins was as a freshman, but he’s been almost completely ineffective so far (although he did have a few nice runs tonight and almost broke one). Kody Walker hasn’t ran as effectively as he did last season, although perhaps the losses on the offensive line have something to do with that.
It will be interesting to see how this team continues to evolve going forward. Once again, the Hogs start SEC play in a hole caused by events in Arlington. The last couple of years they’ve been able to get out of it, but with mixed results. Will this team be able to do it? And what will they look like if they do?