A few happy hours on the ol’ Plains at Jordan-Hare Stadium doesn’t really constitute a fix, but as Pearls dabbles in crude psychobabble, let’s not discount what a 17-point road win in the SEC can mean.
Arkansas had spent an entire month getting pelted by the national media and all of its offshoots and sub-strata, so the tourniquet of beating an atrocious Auburn by a 24-7 tally cannot be understated. It was hardly a work of art, which is to be expected, but things went incredibly well for the Razorbacks most of the day. To wit:
After recording seven sacks in five games, the Hogs erupted for eight sacks, delivering four to Kiehl Frazier in the first half and another four to Clint Moseley in the second. Alabama native Trey Flowers, who had all but disappeared after an encouraging freshman campaign, erupted for 3.5 sacks by himself in a singularly motivated, charged performance that nobody on the defense has come close to exhibiting.
The Hogs’ miserable turnover ratio reversed sharply, though admittedly it wasn’t always a function of the Hogs’ own brilliance. Freshman corner Will Hines made an acrobatic pick of Frazier’s last attempt, a terribly thrown wide receiver fly route at the end of the first half, and also scooped up a fumble. Arkansas was the beneficiary of five turnovers total, and the two that the Hogs committed (a muffed punt return by Keante Minor and fumble by Jonathan Williams) were ultimately inconsequential.
Tyler Wilson looked comfortable, spent most of the day upright, and did a pretty marvelous job of distributing the ball around. Cobi Hamilton was stunted after another solid first half, but Wilson sought out other targets here and there. Mekale McKay and Austin Tate provided some subtle but meaningful assistance, with the latter’s production being especially welcome in view of Chris Gragg’s absence. Demetrius Wilson had one catch, but it was a critical 23-yard grab to set up the first score. For a change, the passing game looked modern, crisp and properly executed, which some were negligently crediting to Paul Petrino’s decision to move into the coaches’ box.
And as a segue from that last point, let’s rein in our wildly unsubstantiated theories about why the offense started clicking. Arkansas actually gained only 372 total yards, which save for the Alabama rout was the lowest yardage output all season and was far from being explosive. Hamilton’s 41-yard catch-and-run on the first play from scrimmage was the longest gain of the day, and but for the creative burst that allowed Brandon Mitchell to chuck a decisive TD to Javontee Herndon in the third quarter, the Hogs still had extended moments of stagnation against an Auburn defense that hardly qualifies as daunting.
The defense’s inspired showing can also be traced to what Paul Haynes, flush with coach-speak after the win, did accurately summarize as simple, better execution. Defensive end Chris Smith, who tacked on a sack-and-a-half, was actually even more impressive than Flowers, springing off the line with timing that Carl Douglas would admire. Coverage was largely improved, as at least a couple of the sacks were created by good blanketing in the secondary.
Of course, even as the sun finally shone on the porcine posterior for an afternoon, it left a burn or two. Alonzo Highsmith is now shelved for good with a foot injury, his all-too-brief career in Fayetteville finished, and Tank Wright may also be checking out prematurely as his return for the last month of a lost season is in doubt. It’s often said on occasions like these that the upside is a gain for young players who might otherwise have assumed their roles next year without much gameday work to draw from. Cynically, though, no one can expect a team to keep a healthy outlook when so many vital pieces have been rendered void.
Fortunately, Arkansas finds itself in a stretch where reclaiming the 2012 season can be a tangible goal. Auburn may have been awful, but this week’s foe, Kentucky, is demonstrably worse because Auburn has at least recruited well enough to give its woefully unqualified head coach a reprieve. Joker Phillips has done nothing in Lexington other than torch whatever respectability Rich Brooks had worked awfully hard to construct.
Historically, though, the Hogs have had an almost incomprehensible struggle against the Wildcats, just as they have fared shockingly well at Auburn. Kentucky has been in last-gasp mode for seemingly ages, and it’s not easy to digest any assertion that Arkansas just suddenly awakened and trudged out of the mire for good. The Hogs need to paste Kentucky, simply put, and go into a bye week before Ole Miss with something closely resembling momentum. It’s not out of the realm of consideration that this team, for all its many warts and its damnable luck, can actually play a cash game around Christmas.