The Bielema Bandwagon pit crew has done some hellacious work getting the wheels road-worthy again. Now it may take the installation of a governor under the hood to keep everyone rational after two historic, emotionally gratifying games have pushed expectations toward the stratosphere for the rest of the season and years beyond.
A week after the Hogs patiently, cautiously and properly disposed of onetime SEC West contender LSU in a 17-0 win that was worse than the score indicated, Arkansas assured everyone that the encore would be validation of the program’s total resurgence rather than a cold-weather anomaly. As the rains hammered Reynolds Razorback Stadium, the spirit in the seats and on the field wasn’t dampened, and the Hogs steamrolled No. 8 Ole Miss 30-0, a thumping so sound that Arkansas didn’t bother to bring back its gimpy starting quarterback in the second half. Brandon Allen’s sitdown was geared toward preservation for a big spoiler game ahead against Missouri; he winced and stretched his torso uncomfortably as he pushed off the turf in the second quarter, and brother Austin started loosening up.
Meanwhile, Bo Wallace — so much braggadocio for so little consistency! — took a few serious licks early, sat briefly, then returned to be even more insecure with the football. His four combined turnovers offset his occasional rhythmic moments in the Hugh Freeze get-up-and-go. The last gasp was a crippling and atrocious lob to the end zone that Rohan Gaines snared and raced pylon to pylon with for a 100-yard scoring return that made it 27-0, and more impressively made a whole lot of uncoordinated middle-aged people in the stands begin impromptu auditions for “Dance Fever” that would’ve made Adrian Zmed flash his porcelain veneers. Much is made nationally about “Bad Bo” and “Good Bo,” but you can bet that Ole Miss will have more offensive stability when their signal-caller changes next fall. He’s not a natural scrambler, misses reads and is just not capable of making decisions under duress.
Of course, this defensive renaissance might well swallow up any quaterback. Alabama’s Blake Sims was shaky. The Hogs were the first to place chinks in Texas A&M’s Kenny Hill’s armor. Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott was erratic. Thanks to well-timed pressure and exceptionally improved coverage techniques, Arkansas is getting extended mileage out of a pass rush even when the heat from Trey Flowers and Darius Philon doesn’t make it all the way to the backfield. Wallace was simply the latest in a string of competent SEC quarterbacks who had encountered brutal sledding in the suddenly imposing confines at Razorback Road and Maple Street.
All the ink being splashed around in praise of these unprecedented consecutive blankings is totally warranted, but what’s hardly being mentioned is how player progress and conditioning — two factors that have long bedeviled the program — are finally materializing. Martrell Spaight’s improvement over the span of a year is going to enhance his pro credentials. A.J. Derby has become a similarly inspired reclamation project, and Trey Flowers only justified his decision to return with an energetic and committed senior campaign. This was what energized the wet souls in the stands on Saturday: Senior Day was the perfunctory video montage and walk-out, spiced with the poignancy of a sweet sendoff to the late Garrett Uekman and punctuated with Bielema and Flowers having one last bear hug before the latter started terrorizing Wallace for the next few hours.
With Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams continuing to take blows without fumbling and scrapping for hard yards, Ole Miss had no conceivable means of rejoinder. What the Hogs lacked in big plays they made up for with excellent field position; all of Ole Miss’ possessions started inside its own 35, and when the Rebels did sustain something for a few plays, it fizzled quickly by way of a turnover.
Bowl eligibility and the revenue and recruiting attention it generates is really not the point. Now that the Hogs have burst into the national scene again for the right reasons, Bielema sees an 8-5 team that might well blast its way into the final Top 20 polls with wins over Missouri and a likely inferior bowl opponent. The Tigers are in a win-and-in SEC championship game posture but notoriously weak at home, and as well as the coaching staff seems to be connecting with the players at this juncture, it’s Missouri that arrives home with the more burdensome charge. A scalding opponent with lower stakes and soaring long-term visions is never what any rational coach would consider an ideal final-game foe.