This was bound to happen at some point.
Arkansas was listless, lethargic, and pathologically unlucky Saturday night in a 30-10 loss to Florida, meaning that the Hogs’ 21-year stretch of win-free futility against the Gators in the SEC era continues. A young team with so many evident cracks in the hull finally just took on water, and didn’t even flail much before sinking.
This was Brandon Allen’s first road start, which is hard to imagine given how much time he’s logged behind center the past two seasons, and it was predictably bad. Arkansas’s glaring paucity of receiving talent shows itself more each week, and while Allen is getting very capable pass protection much of the time, he’s clearly faithless when it comes to whom he’s targeting. It speaks to the larger fear that fans had about reverting back to a run-heavy offense, but when you look at the crop of receivers Bret Bielema’s staff is having to groom, the tarnish on the previous administration (we’re excepting John L. Smith here, for obvious reasons) becomes even more obvious. Did Bobby Petrino really feel like he had the next batch of Childs-Adams-Wright-Hamilton in tow, or on the way?
We’ll never really know how Allen would be faring if he had Mekale Mc-Kay’s length on the edge, or Demetrius Wilson’s field-stretching ability on the opposite side. Those absences are being felt now, and hard, so much so that the return of D’Arthur Cowan from injury — a sophomore, mind you, who had all of three catches last fall — is being hailed as a significant and timely one.
That’s not to pardon Allen for his youthful transgressions, as he’s thrown two ugly pick-sixes the past two weeks, neither of which could be viewed through any kind of positive prism. When Louchiez Purifoy snatched a terrible toss and scooted to the end zone unhindered Saturday, it altered the direction of the Florida game permanently. And that gaffe happened in the second quarter, and gave the Gators a whopping 10-7 lead, so that should adequately convey just how offensively challenged the Hogs were at the Swamp.
This is not an electric team by any means. Even Alex Collins’ boffo start has been more or less a function of his shiftiness through traffic than his straight-line speed in open space. Jonathan Williams has all but fallen silent in the running game as the team struggles with its identity. We knew the rigors of scheduling would catch up to these kids, and that at some point the swoon would set in, but this was not necessarily the game where we might’ve forecast the crumbling.
After all, Florida’s junior quarterback, Tyler Murphy, was making his second start, and being asked to turn a rather anonymous crew of skill players into something dangerous. It’s not hyperbole to state that these Gators were the least dynamic bunch that the Hogs have had the good fortune to face since they became league foes. When the Hogs sustained narrow defeats to Florida in 2003 and again in 2009, Chris Leak and Tim Tebow, respectively, helmed those squads. Murphy sits an appreciable distance behind those two in terms of firepower, even if he does have some better-than-advertised abilities inside and outside the pocket.
So that’s why a flaccid effort stings so much. Arkansas is nowhere near good enough to surmount a comedy of errors, either of their own making or those manufactured by another batch of suspect refs in Gainesville. And for all the dogged effort that the defense is giving, turnovers are still not being generated, certainly not to the degree required for an underdog to mitigate the favorite’s advantage. Will Muschamp may lack the cutthroat savvy of Urban Meyer, but he’s not going to pass up the chance to (a) run his supremely athletic front line directly at a sophomore quarterback or (b) deploy his quickest players (receiver Solomon Patton, specifically) onto the open green. Florida expanded its lead to 17-7 thanks to Patton’s long catch-and-run for six prior to halftime, and all that building optimism from the first hour or so was sucked away in a trice.
The Hogs, therefore, sit on an unbalanced perch at the halfway juncture of the season. They are 3-3, with all the chaff behind and more wheat ahead, and even coming back to Fayetteville isn’t all that inviting when Jadeveon Clowney is staring you down, seemingly eager to put an underwhelming half-season in his personal rear view. South Carolina merits its high ranking but Steve Spurrier, complacent as he may have gotten over time, still seems irritated enough about his Gamecocks’ shoddy effort to date that they’re going to be detecting blood in the water.
The Hogs are bruised right now, teetering near the ropes and still dreading a date in Tuscaloosa, so the prelude at home now assumes the kind of gravity usually found in a late November game. Bielema declared openly in December that he embraced what lay ahead, and his arms are certainly full now.