Brought to you once again courtesy of Bob Marley, Tito’s Vodka, and the unholy bondage of brand management. [HEAD COACH BRET BIELEMA] saw his team with a first down at the Texas A&M 2 yard line THREE TIMES on Saturday night, and THREE TIMES his team was kept out of the end zone because Bielema was shackled to the narrative of what his team should be able to do instead of, you know, what actually works.
Three first downs from the two, and not one single time did Arkansas try to outscheme the Aggies. If only there was a play to fall back on that had been successful in the past. That had come through in big spots of big games in the past. That had been the game-winning call against Ole Miss in 2015 and against TCU just two weeks ago. That would serve to convert 3rd-and-short in the very same game that it was mysteriously absent for on eleven plays in three series which started on the Texas A&M 2. Eleven chances to call that designed QB run from the shotgun, and the Hogs didn’t try it. Not once. Is that play not big and bad and brawny enough? Does it clash too loudly with the smashmouth reputation that [HEAD COACH BRET BIELEMA] carefully cultivates yet curiously fails to deliver?
Those goal line failures are just one snapshot of many, many things that went wrong inside Cowboys Stadium last night, but they defined the game and defined the team and stamped this season’s Arkansas team with the same deficiencies as last year. Razorbacks fans and media alike have spoken of this team avoiding an early-season Toledo moment, but that is exactly what the Texas A&M game was. An offense that at the most critical spot on the field was unsure of whether it should be who it really is or who everyone seems to think it should be. Last season’s doinked pass off the crossbar was this season’s failed jet sweep. Arkansas needs to be who it is, and if fans and color commentators and reality shows on ESPNU get it wrong then that’s on them.
That isn’t to say that two touchdowns on those two possessions would have won the game. Arkansas has depth issues at linebacker, trust issues in the secondary, continuity issues within the offensive line, and no true home run threat in the backfield. Texas A&M also looks like the real deal, much as it pains me to say that. The Aggies are not without flaw, but the talent in their strengths minimizes the vulnerability of their weaknesses. Last night Arkansas faced a bad matchup against a very good team, and while the result was disappointing it was not completely unexpected. What is most troubling to me by far is the crisis of confidence Arkansas displayed at times throughout the game. The defense will look better against other offenses. The offensive line will look better against other defenses. But the Hogs cannot win without the offense putting the ball in the end zone when the opportunity arises. They faced the same issue in September last season, and Dan Enos not only righted the ship, he turned Arkansas into one of the most efficient scoring offenses that I can remember by the end of the season. That serves to simultaneously provide hope for the rest of the season and make the debacle in Jerry World that much more maddening.
Even with all of the disappointment, there is still so much to be excited about with regard to this offense. The receiving corps just keeps getting more impressive. Every player that lines up is a legitimate threat to hurt the opposing defense, and the diversity shown in how they can do it makes 3rd-and-long still a position of attack for Enos. The rushing attack is not as advanced at this point, but I am not ready to give up on it just yet. Rawleigh, Kody, and Devwah are so close to having a breakout game, but for right now they can contribute most by doing exactly what they are doing, and that is keeping play-action effective and not fumbling the football, Rawleigh’s error notwithstanding. I’m hopeful that Enos can establish an effective screen game that may provide a jump start for these guys, and I don’t really understand why we haven’t seen more of that.
Finally, how freaking good was Austin Allen last night? He spent most of the game giving his best impersonation of Glass Joe after an uppercut from Lil’ Mac, except Allen got rid of the ball on time and on target, and got back up off the mat after every single mauling. If Arkansas can keep him healthy, points will come in bunches, because he has the tools for this, he has the mind for this, and he very obviously has the heart for this. Remember when big brother Brandon got into a spat with Enos during the Tennessee game last year and from that point forward played like a completely different quarterback? Austin was full of piss and vinegar against Texas A&M, even with labored breathing and a bruised chest muscle. He’s a damned leader. Let him take us places, coaches.
I really have no idea what to say about the defense. Robb Smith has to figure out some way to defend the read option with the personnel that he has. Find someone to help out Dre Greenlaw and Brooks Ellis, figure out how to get the defense aligned correctly, and keep spread teams from turning the middle of the field into a red carpet leading straight into the end zone. The defensive line is still a strength, and tackling is still better than it has been, an secondary play is still not quite as terrifying as it usually is. The problems are few, and they are fixable, but they are critical in nature. So as I said a few weeks ago, get to work, Robb Smith.
It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. A blowout loss in the first truly big game in quite some time, made to sting even more by opportunities wasted and the ripping off of scabbed over wounds from previous games with the Aggies. It was a poor performance and despondence is a justified emotion for today. But only for today. Before reaching for that arsenic, Hog fans, take a breath and a step back and remember that the SEC is just not the same this year. Alabama and Ole Miss will be tough, yes, but look at the rest of the schedule. Florida gave up 38 consecutive points to Tennessee yesterday. Auburn beat LSU without scoring a touchdown. LSU let Auburn beat them without scoring a touchdown. Mississippi State needed a fourth quarter comeback to beat UMass. Missouri is just not that good. Losing to Texas A&M is deflating, but it will only derail the season if the Hogs let the Aggies beat them more than once, because while the last four hours of Saturday were emotionally eviscerating, the lead up to that game should have given Arkansas fans lots of optimism. We just have to embrace it. Tomorrow.
I’ll see y’all next week.
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 six-year-old into a southpaw ace in the bigs.