Let’s dispense with the torturous weekly reliving of hell this week, OK? I for one don’t think the garish details of another fourth-quarter collapse make for delicious column material. It was gut-wrenching, nasty, horrifying, predictable, etc.
After the Hogs’ 28-21 overtime collapse in Arlington against Texas A&M, we should instead develop a first-trimester diagnosis for 2015, because after three consecutive losses in a season that this columnist stupidly predicted would end with that many defeats, there’s an unexpected urgency here. What needs to be fixed, and what actually is working, demand that assessment.
Thesis 1: Brandon Allen is not the problem. I’ve been an ardent defender of the embattled senior quarterback. It is not easy to maintain that posture … unless the Fayetteville product averages just shy of 300 passing yards and posts a robust 70 percent completion rate after the first quartet of games. Does Allen bear the blame for a few bad throws, untimely gaffes and perhaps even a bit of a dispassionate approach to the game? Sure. The kid is batting about .400 for his career, much worse in conference, but he’s also steadily improved and managed to post stellar numbers while his entire supporting cast crumbles around him. Allen has put the Hogs in the position to win these games when they might normally be well out of contention by halftime, then carries himself in a dignified manner in those excruciating postgame interviews.
Thesis 2: Arkansas’s defense is getting better, but it’s incremental this time around, and still suffers from a paucity of leadership. The missed tackles and utter confusion that reigned in the Texas Tech debacle steadily dissipated Saturday in a half-hostile environment, but by the time that dreaded last 15 minutes came around, it was evident Dan Enos was going to call any and all plays he could to keep the same unit off the field. There was a clear message sent: Run this clock out in the most agonizingly slow fashion possible, so those softies on the other side don’t come out here and torch the whole works. And guess what? The Arkansas offense turned stupidly conservative, a la Jim Chaney, and the defense got exposed because the eight-point lead was every bit as tenuous as every other one-possession lead the Hogs have crafted and lost the past three seasons.
Thesis 3: Drew Morgan’s coming-out party has season-saving potential. It’s no secret that the Greenwood product is sure-handed, quick and durable. Therefore, it defies all common sense and logic for him to have waited this long to get the opportunities he received Saturday, when he caught eight balls for a career-high 155 yards and one touchdown. Nonetheless, Allen developed an obvious rhythm and cohesion with a receiver for the first time since, well, probably high school. If this team has to rely on yards after the catch for big passing plays, Morgan has made the authoritative declaration that Hunter Henry simply refuses to make: He’s open, trustworthy, tough and speedy enough to create separation. And now he’ll get an opportunity to show that against a Tennessee defense that has mirrored the Razorbacks’ penchant for late-game wilting.
Thesis 4: Arkansas cannot get out of its own way. The penalties on Saturday were about 70 percent stupid, and 30 percent nonexistent. Regardless of whether the team is flagged five times or 15, though, the majority of the targeted offenses are simply too inexcusable to bear for a program that ostensibly is built on a premise of game-day steadiness. And yet again, it’s an offensive line, so ballyhooed for its dimensions, that draws much of the attention. The blocking was greatly improved against the Aggies, but it went for naught because the zealousness in the trenches translated into one or two too many stray grabs or flinches.
Thesis 5: Tennessee is the best possible opponent for the Hogs, and at the best possible time. That is said with full knowledge that Arkansas has not won at Neyland Stadium since a fluky 1992 upset of the Vols, and that subsequent appearances there have ranged from no-shows (2000 and 2007) to outright crotch-shots (1998 and 2002 need no reintroduction). This Volunteer team was the East’s mirror image of the Hogs in the preseason but has been anchored by their expectations, and completely unable to extract wins from a relatively forgiving early schedule. Yes, they had to play Oklahoma rather than Toledo, but it’s hard to argue that at this juncture, Arkansas has been a marginally better .250 team than Tennessee’s 2-2, even in view of that. Butch Jones is embattled, frustrated and seemingly lost, and his charges have accordingly faltered against the Sooners and did so at Gainesville with a far-less-potent Gators offense on the field as contrasted with the A&M group the Hogs tussled with.