When Auburn clanked a field goal attempt off the upright going into halftime, Bret Bielema’s fist plunged skyward and Arkansas headed to halftime all square at 21. The game plan was working. Gashed early, the defense was settling in to make some stops here and there, and the offensive machine was humming.
About four hours later, courtesy of an extended lightning delay, Auburn had a 45-21 win and Arkansas had the first double-digit losing streak in program history. How the hell did that happen?!
Armchair quarterbacks like myself can posit any theory possible, from the sublime (bewildering abandonment of the running game) to the obtuse (half of the Arkansas staff got stuck in Jordan-Hare’s pressbox elevator), and none of it really matters much. The Hogs were a sieve against Jeremy Johnson’s throws in the first half and helpless to thwart Nick Marshall’s operation of the read option after the break. It was another defensive showing like the ones we’ve seen for quite a while now: commendable effort now and then, but bad technique and gaping holes marred it in the end.
Most frustrating of all? Brandon Allen looked confident and steady, but the game once again turned on a pick-six. This one wasn’t his fault, to be sure, but when the junior quarterback got decked in his windup by Robenson Therezie and the ball fluttered right into Jermaine Whitehead’s waiting arms, the margin ballooned to 35-21 in the third quarter and the Tigers’ already-burgeoning momentum simply exploded from there.
Months earlier, we made the base observation that Arkansas could not afford crippling mistakes or substantial time-of-possession deficits, least of all against teams like Auburn. The Tigers beat the Hogs by a good five-and-a-half minutes in the latter category, and a big part of that was wrought from a spectacular third-down conversion ratio (9 of 14, compared to a paltry 2 of 11 by Arkansas). Gus Malzahn got what he needed from Johnson, starting thanks to Marshall’s suspension for a summer arrest, and then it was curtains after halftime when Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant started consuming turf.
When the Whitehead pick happened, the old scabs started getting picked, too. Penalties, dropped passes, generally playing behind the chains, as they say. It was a far more familiar scene than, say, the one where Bielema was triumphantly pumping his fist after the Hogs had weathered an early 14-point deficit.
The Southland Conference gives the Hogs immediate hope. First, there’s a bout with lightweight Nicholls State for a home opener this Saturday, and those Colonels got plowed by 28 by Air Force thanks to the Falcons amassing 539 rushing yards. That bodes well for the trio of Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and Korliss Marshall, which went mute against the Tigers after a big aggregate output in the first half.
Perhaps the more compelling result for Arkansas’s sake, though, was Central Arkansas pushing Texas Tech to the brink of a disastrous loss in Lubbock, Texas. The Bears fought gamely for all four quarters of a 42-35 loss, pinning a nine-point deficit on the Red Raiders early and never trailing by more than two scores. Considering that this was the first game of the Steve Campbell coaching era, in hostile territory, and with a new starting quarterback at the helm, it was a gutsy and noble showing.
Of course, the Red Raiders also rolled up their fairly standard 600-plus yards and picked the Bears’ secondary apart, which is exactly why Hog fans dread this one. Auburn’s two quarterbacks shredded the flaccid underbelly of the Arkansas defense and it remains to be seen whether Robb Smith will try to institute immediate personnel changes in anticipation of Kliff Kingsbury’s system in two weeks. That is the storyline to take note of this weekend against the Colonels as Arkansas is heavily favored to finally snuff out nearly a full year’s worth of losing. The last time the Hogs had a genuine opening-game challenge, in 2006, USC hammered them 50-14 in Fayetteville and Arkansas quietly and deliberately set forth from there with a 10-game winning streak and an SEC West championship. We’ll not expect a repetition of history in that regard, but there’s clearly something to be gained from an early humbling.