The inherent risk of braggadocio is that it can morph so violently into complete humiliation. That transition takes about three hours or so, based on what transpired Saturday afternoon at War Memorial Stadium, where temperatures were mild and tempers were hotter than a soft-willed state senator at a hardware store.
By the time Toledo snuffed out the last futile Arkansas rally and celebrated a 16-12 win, the whole thing felt far more surreal than the other, notable disappointment of this era at the same locale. When the Hogs sauntered into Little Rock in 2012 to face unheralded Louisiana-Monroe, the Warhawks battered the Razorbacks mercilessly even while falling behind 28-7. Tyler Wilson got knocked around so much that Brandon Allen got his first call to extended duty and floundered badly because of miserable play designs and decisions. That was the trigger point for a lost season.
On Saturday, Allen bookended his forgettable career in the capital city with a bipolar showing. He fired it around for a career-best 412 yards, but among his 53 chucks, none went for scores, including a terrible first-half interception that stalled a would-be momentum-shifter of a drive, and then misfired twice at the end trying to connect for a game-winner. It was hardly Allen’s fault, but the senior quarterback’s lifetime ledger in the decrepit old bowl looks like this: ugly mopup effort in a loss to Monroe, uneven showing in a win over Samford, critical mistake in an overtime loss to Mississippi State, last year’s farce of a loss to Georgia, and now … this.
Allen may not have much help going forward, either. Healthy throughout fall camp, the Hogs lost Jonathan Williams — who was sorely missed Saturday for his aggressive and methodical approach to running — and then got waylaid repeatedly by the Rockets. Keon Hatcher is now shelved for weeks. Denver Kirkland, Josh Williams and Eric Hawkins took some vicious blows but may be able to recover in time for the Texas Tech contest Saturday that now looks way more dangerous than it did a few short days ago.
Bruised and battered? That’s one thing. But Arkansas’s mystifying inability to generate explosiveness in the running game, combined with the defense finding itself outside the thin margin of error it’s been cursed with, makes all of Bret Bielema’s swagger no longer tolerable. I appreciate the desire to infuse confidence in the players by vesting it in them, but this week’s Pearls, if nothing else, shall serve as a cease and desist to Coach B. Don’t even talk about other programs, conferences or coaches. Stay centered on what you are here to do, and what we generally believed you were doing quite well until the ship got thrown well off course by a surprisingly resilient Toledo team.
Buoyed by an adept transfer at quarterback, onetime Alabama prospect-in-wait Philip Ely, Toledo had a curious and ultimately unimpeachable strategy. The Rockets were clearly willing to get outgained through the air, but did big things on special teams and within the red zone. Their two touchdown drives were rhythmic and balanced, and more impressive than anything the Hogs mustered. Toledo correctly figured that Arkansas had no deep threat — again, no sign of Dominique Reed or even Jojo Robinson? — and accordingly let the Hogs run drag and out routes all day without permitting additional damage. And they flat-out abused Alex Collins, who looked not only mortal, but altogether uninspired. Collins lacks the gear and ability to shed tackles in the backfield. Arkansas has a lot of size and brawn in its stable of running backs, but suspiciously absent is the Michael Smith, Fred Talley type of waterbug who can energize a crowd rendered disconsolate by a series of stuffed runs by runners who simply aren’t elusive.
Thusly, Cinderella has a lot of scars. The kicking game has all kinds of ills, especially now that Hawkins may be incapacitated as a returner for a bit. There isn’t any pressure being generated by the defensive ends and the linebackers are accordingly left in the lurch. And what of the wideout situation now that Hatcher is off the grid for a bit? Drew Morgan and Cody Hollister did well Saturday, but Hunter Henry is not maximizing his height over the middle and Robinson, Dominique Reed and Jared Cornelius will simply have to present a deep threat.
But for this season to shift direction again, it falls largely on that ballyhooed offensive line to demonstrate ownership of the trenches. To be rather outclassed by a MAC team, even a very good one, is beyond the realm of being tolerable. Bielema’s goodwill is spent, and urgency now reigns. There is precedent for an SEC team to bounce back from a loss of this sort, namely Missouri overcoming an early defeat to Indiana last year to again lay claim to a divisional crown; but make no mistake, those fellas in “Bad Boys” were on point when they observed, “This shit just got real.”