With Arkansas in the midst of what has become the lengthiest losing streak since its native son launched a bid for the presidency, it seems apropos for the Hogs to adopt some Clintonian resiliency to finish this tortured 2013 season. Bielema’s basically undergoing some de facto impeachment proceedings as it is.
Auburn beat the Hogs 35-17 Saturday night at Fayetteville, and here’s the best thing that can be said about the team’s sixth consecutive loss: The Hogs more or less kept pace with the Tigers, and in fact had the proper game plan to neuter the tempo that Gus Malzahn employs. By halftime, Arkansas had outgained Auburn by 75 yards, controlled the clock for more than 70 percent of the frame … and trailed 14-3 going to the locker room.
In a Murphy’s Law kind of season, this was the archetype episode. An onside kick attempt was neither surprising nor successful. A series of wrong-headed playcalls inside the Tiger 5 kept the Hogs from getting their first TD in nearly 10 full quarters and stemmed their building momentum. In the third quarter, a defensive back managed to have a pretty good blanket on a streaking Auburn receiver, only to wind up faltering on tracking the underthrown heave and giving futile chase on what ended up being an 88-yard scoring toss. A.J. Derby saw the field for a handful of snaps while Brandon Allen’s leg was getting stapled together, and managed to turn it over on only half of those!
How bad is it going when TWO offensive pass interference calls for picking — one blatant, one phantasmal — end up nullifying big third-down conversions? How bad is it going when Zach Hocker punches a kickoff out of bounds? How bad is it going when a wide receiver has four catches for 50 yards and it’s being regarded as a breakout game?
It’s remarkable that one program can suffer like this. Penn State went through the most crippling and sordid internal combustion in memory and still has a winning program after being gutted by the NCAA. The Hogs’ head coach skids face-first on a remote highway and two years later the scar tissue won’t even break down.
This has to be exhausting for Bielema. His bravado was both appreciable and admirable early, because he yearned to instill confidence in a shaken bunch, but now he’s in charge of a 3-6 team that clearly wants to play out the string at Malzahn pace. This isn’t an allegation of quitting, but an assertion that young, outclassed teams find it understandably hard to pull themselves up after being broken down for weeks on end.
Here’s the oddity of the Auburn loss, though: for as undesirable as the outcome may have been, there were strange and welcome sprinklings of hope. Allen actually sprang back into action and threw a few nice balls, and did take some shots downfield, errant though they may have been on occasion. Jonathan Williams ran more authoritatively than he had all season, and Keon Hatcher did show flashes of being a primary target. The offense was dogged by its own errors, but at least on this night, there were moments where progress was discernible.
Defensively, we got to see more of Brooks Ellis than we had in prior weeks, and the freshman from Fayetteville was both productive (six tackles and a half-sack) and praiseworthy. If Chris Ash thinks he manned the position well — the defensive coordinator offered that Ellis “did a great job” — then it’s the best middle linebacking news we’ve had in a season where that position has been as deficient as any other. The defensive line gamely battled as well, even if Tre Mason ultimately was able to get in space a bit too often. Look, dog Malzahn all you want for some of his gimmickry and his spit-polished veneer, but his offense is a bear to contain, and often Saturday the Hogs had a reasonable grip on things when the odds were long.
What we did see in the third and fourth quarter was a Razorback team that wasn’t happy about being picked on. The memorable injury fraud engineered by Auburn as the Hogs engaged in a last-ditch effort to regain respectability was transparent, and yet it may have been a completely necessary stick-poke at a whipped Hog. Bielema was suitably incensed, and the fans were too, but perhaps in a few years we’ll all be thanking Malzahn for that laughable chicanery followed by his hollow rebuke later.