Brought to you for the first time in 2017 courtesy of Bob Marley, Tito's Vodka, and the agonizing moment some poor producer at KATV had when he looked into his monitor and saw that the live overhead shot of War Memorial Stadium beaming into his newsroom and slated for transmission throughout The Natural State revealed a stadium that was quite literally more empty than full. 36,055 may have been the final number, but calling it a late arriving crowd might be overly generous.
War Memorial Stadium shouldn't be the story, but in a way, it almost has to be. We're talking about a season opener on a Thursday evening against an FCS opponent. There was no question of who would win the game. There was no question of whether or not it would be competitive. There was no quarterback battle to settle. No flashy new offense. Not even a flashy new uniform. The only question to discuss on the golf course, or during pregame or halftime, or in line at the concession stand, was whether or not this was the last one.
I honestly don't care. Arkansas can play Vanderbilt there next year, or they can buy out the remaining game. It doesn't matter. It won't matter. War Memorial Stadium is dead, and 36,055 watched its fifth or sixth eulogy on Thursday night. The Ironborn tell us that what is dead may never die, but War Memorial Stadium teaches us that what is dying slowly over several seasons of shitty opponents can sustain the wave for at least a couple of rounds early in the second quarter. When she has hosted her last hog call and nothing but memories remain, hopefully her great moments of football regain some of their luster as the contempt in the debate over her relevence fades.
Okay, enough about that. Let's talk a little football. The thing about playing Florida A&M in your season opener is that you can only learn bad things. You may observe the possibility of learning some good things later on during the season, but confirmation must wait for a game has been played against a team that didn't travel 12 hours on a bus for a paycheck.
Last night, we learned that pass protection is likely to once more be a thorn in the side of the Razorback offense. The left side of the offensive line did not have a great evening, despite a talent gap wide enough to disguise its weaknesses. There is no reason that Austin Allen should have hit the ground even one time, and yet, just as it was in the season opener against Louisiana Tech last year, there he was on the ground. Time after time. Arkansas is going to be dealing with this all year.
We learned that the Arkansas offense is a draw running, play-action passing offense, and that attempts to deviate from this usually falter regardless of the quality of competition across the field. Dan Enos started out calling last night's game much like he began calling many games last season, testing and probing the opposing defense for weaknesses instead of focusing on what Arkansas does best, and Arkansas looked stilted and rusty because of it. Once the Hogs fell back to their tried and true, results came much more easily. We should be used to this by now. It seems Arkansas can execute their offense effectively against almost any defense, and conversely struggles to execute any departure from that offense against...almost any defense.
What did we observe last night that we can reasonably allow ourselves to get excited about? It appears that Arkansas may be just fine at the running back position despite the loss of Rawleigh Williams. Devwah Whaley is a proven commodity and did nothing to tarnish his reputation as Arkansas' feature back, but freshman Chase Hayden displayed the vision and quick feet necessary for a running back in the SEC to make a name for himself as a freshman. Though he is a different style of back, Hayden reminded me of Alex Collins in the way that he was able to see openings and begin working his feet to them even as he was taking the handoff. David Williams saw significant time as well, and found yards in several instances where there weren't many to be found. Throw in TJ Hammonds in spot work and there is the potential for this to be a unit to be feared, but we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves.
On the other side of the ball, conclusions become even harder to reach. The new 3-4 scheme seemed to promote more activity pre-snap that we've seen in the past, and the emphasis on tackling that we hear about every preseason appears to have borne more fruit than it typically does. Past that, we'll just have to wait for TCU.
At the end of the day, the season opener against Florida A&M was a perfectly acceptable, perfectly mundane cupcake appetizer heading into a Power 5 matchup. A rattlesnake amuse-bouche with a bargain basement price tag of $750,000 that brought Arkansas one game closer to bowl eligibility and War Memorial Stadium one game closer to a hopefully very nice headstone:
Here she lies, no one knew her worth,
The late, great daughter of Father Frank
I'll see y'all a week from Sunday.