Forgive the beleaguered, moonlighting Hog columnist if he scratches out this week’s Pearls About Swine in much the same way Bret Bielema rejoiced Saturday night: a smidge teary-eyed and a bit unshaven, and with a robust, impromptu smooch for the wife.
As the kids are fond of saying, I gots to keep it real, y’all.
That outpouring you saw from Bielema, his player, and a goodly collection of well-soused and frozen fans as the seconds of a 17-0 beating of LSU ticked away was genuine catharsis, and the symbolic death of one devil of an albatross. There was a sugary dosage of yin-yang in the score and the adversary: The Hogs had been 0-17 in SEC play since they pummeled a horrid Kentucky team way back in October 2012, and two of the narrowest and most agonizing losses of the bunch came at the hands of those ever-superior but rarely assertive Tigers.
Curious (scratch that, let’s go with “altogether stupid”) decisions by John L. Smith in his last, pitiable act as interim head Hog caused Arkansas to drop the last one in Fayetteville two years back, and last year, LSU freshman Anthony Jennings came on in relief of injured Zach Mettenberger and chucked a 49-yard game-winning score in the last minute to topple the Hogs and send them to their first winless slate in conference play. Yielding the gaudy golden Boot those past two seasons was soul-crushing stuff.
On this night in Fayetteville, 17-0 went the other way. Frankly, the score could have reflected a wider separation between the teams, but for the sake of the aforementioned karmic symmetry we’ll settle comfortably with it as is. Arkansas manhandled LSU and took out a generation’s worth of agony on the Tigers, who were — as predicted here just last week, another sure harbinger of apocalypse — thoroughly deflated by the sure win against Alabama that turned into a stinging loss in Baton Rouge. The Tigers had no offensive play of 15 yards or more, whiffed badly on two field goals, fumbled away their best chance of a comeback, and yet again died by the inaccuracy of the skittish Jennings.
There’s irony in Jennings’ erratic 2014, in that it more or less mirrors what Brandon Allen did in his first year as a starter last fall. There should be commensurate hope for Tiger backers that Jennings will further replicate Allen by growing into a steady leader next year. Hog fans have picked apart the Fayetteville product for a good two and a half years, doubted his toughness and temerity, and all he’s done so far in 2014 is post a sparkling 15-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio, boost his completion percentage by nearly 10 points and average just shy of 200 yards per game in the air, a figure that would doubtless be higher had he been asked to throw more than 17 total passes in the early-season routs of Nicholls State and Texas Tech.
Allen was, to be quite fair, spectacular on Saturday. The Tigers’ line did a pretty commendable job of applying pressure and snuffing out the run for the most part, so the junior signal-caller slipped out of the pocket and completed a whopping five third-down throws, including two huge ones on the Razorbacks’ clinching drive in the fourth quarter. A 14-yard rocket to Keon Hatcher along the sideline was the beaut of the bunch, the sort of ball that a lot of pro arms aren’t capable of consistently delivering on Sundays.
That’s not to suggest Allen is an NFL guy, but in this system he’s not expected to be. Instead, Arkansas will continue to rely on road-grading its way down the field and entrusting Allen to be smart with the ball on downs where the odds are against him. It’s easy to forget, due to the array of bitter losses, how effective the Hogs have actually been in those situations, thanks to Allen being just elusive enough and A.J. Derby, Hunter Henry and Hatcher all being useful safety valves from time to time. Korliss Marshall even came back from suspension to be an unexpected boon in the passing game early.
Robb Smith’s defense, meanwhile, just continues its phenomenal ascent toward dominance. The year-over-year improvement in tackling, maintaining assignments and second-level pass coverage is so remarkable that it should actually have Smith in the conversation for the Broyles Award for a .500 team. Against LSU, it was rather fittingly a brilliant night for senior anchors like Trey Flowers and Martrell Spaight, who have suffered plenty and redirected that misery upon Jennings and Co. with vigor. LSU seemed completely uninterested in dealing with the numbing conditions, and after Arkansas delivered crunching hit after hit early, it was readily apparent this would shape up to be a special November night in the Ozarks.
This now leaves Arkansas soaring instead of reeling, with not only bowl hopes in the crosshairs but the chance to ruin divisional championship bids for both of its final foes. You can bet that Bielema’s broad grin is still there, but now it’s one of foreshadowing. The psychological barrier is gone, and large opportunities for a big finish lay ahead.