The only reason the second half of Arkansas’s annual, futile tussle with Alabama was so disheartening was because the first half had afforded our beloved little underdogs so many favorable oddities.
Bama had a productive half on the surface but two bad interceptions, a slew of penalties that were finally, correctly called, and two shanked field goals by another one of those unsteady Crimson Tide kickers left the eighth-ranked hosts with only three points at the break. And the Razorbacks actually made Alabama pay for all those mistakes, albeit only in one short burst. Brandon Allen’s short touchdown pass to Drew Morgan on a well-designed goal line play after the second pick had the Hogs up 7-3, feeling peppy, with 30 minutes left at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
The second half was, in truth, a virtual mirror image statistically but the Tide cleaned up all the errors quickly, and accordingly ended up outscoring Arkansas 24-7 after halftime, winning 27-14 thanks to an 81-yard touchdown throw from Jacob Coker to Calvin Ridley late in the third period and two subsequent scores that were largely facilitated by what we’ll simply call “Razorgaffes.” Allen threw one interception that probably rated as his worst toss all season — back foot, double coverage, so on and so forth — but the air really went out of the tires when Bret Bielema either panicked or got inexcusably cute with a poorly designed fake punt. Both led to short fields for a foe that scarcely needs them, and that essentially squelched the momentum Arkansas had gained by putting the Tide in tough starting field position much of the night.
It wasn’t an “#uncommon” Arkansas-Alabama game, to be truthful, inasmuch as it may have still beaten the bejesus out of those 52-0 losses suffered in 2012-13. The Hogs had no semblance of a rushing attack. The Tide shifted momentum with a big play. Once the gravity of the game changed, Arkansas was helpless to try recovering it. This has been, with occasional exception, the script for this annual rivalry game, which is neither a true rivalry nor very much of a game in most years. Nick Saban is, I can only surmise, still supremely pissed off about the Miracle on Markham, and had I known what he was going to do to us after that 2002 fluke (he’s a combined 11-0 against Arkansas in his latest two seasons at LSU and nine thus far in Tuscaloosa), I would probably have never drunk that much bourbon in the River Market after Matt Jones hit Decori Birmingham in the corner of War Memorial Stadium’s south end zone.
Bama is utterly flawed, too. This Crimson Tide defense is quick, instinctive and deep, but the quarterback play is undeniably average and even Derrick Henry is capable of being hemmed in. The kicking game is terribly suspect. Ridley looks like a star in the making, but he’s not surrounded by a terrific receiving cadre so he may be getting heavy double coverage come November.
But Alabama’s warts hardly compare to Arkansas’s tumors. This Hog team fought valiantly again, as it did last year, but really got unsettled when Coker’s score started coursing electricity back through the 101,000-plus in the seats. And without receivers or speed to the edge, Allen couldn’t muster a lot until he hit Dominique Reed for a sharp touchdown strike late in the fourth quarter. Here is a senior quarterback who gets a reasonable amount of protection — the line struggles badly to run-block, but fares better at creating a pocket — having mediocre completion percentages because his alleged top-tier tight end disappears in big games and because his running backs aren’t even asked to be involved in the passing game.
Dan Enos may share Jim Chaney’s desire for balance, but he’s also resembling his predecessor in another way that is far from desirable. The offense lacks pizzazz and relies upon power even when that power is negated. Alex Collins and Rawleigh Williams III went from a combined 254 rushing yards against Tennessee to only 36 on 17 total carries, not one of which went for more than five yards, and how could they be expected to get anywhere downhill when the playcalling stubbornly asked them to go straight into the teeth of the country’s best and deepest defensive line? Note that Alabama ran an array of quick-pitch plays to receivers and backs in motion, utilized some misdirection, and never seemed fretful about long-yardage predicaments. The Tide could overcome mistakes through ingenuity; Arkansas, as has become custom in this game, played clean enough to compete but not creative enough to emerge on the right side of the score.
And it’s that frustration that probably causes more grumbling about Bret Bielema at this point than anything else. The team is clearly in better shape in a global analysis than it has been in a good bit, but still 2-4 overall, 1-2 in the SEC, and unusually punchless against higher-level competition. Even the shutouts of LSU and Ole Miss last fall were built upon modest performances by the biggest but by no means best offensive linemen in the free world. The Rebels, in fact, managed to outgain the Hogs despite being on the receiving end of a 30-0 score. Bielema is 3-16 in conference games, and arguably the best offensive performances by his teams in that ugly stretch have occurred in losses (namely, three games against Texas A&M, a pretty fine shootout in Baton Rouge in 2013, and a furious but ultimately meaningless comeback effort against Georgia last year). The team just doesn’t score much, and right now, this league does place a premium on points.
A week off could help from a health and wellness standpoint. Keon Hatcher and Jared Cornelius may not be coming back against Auburn on Oct. 24, or even against Tennessee-Martin the following weekend, but it is a window of time where those two receivers can perhaps accelerate their recovery, and it is a part of the schedule that may give the team a legitimate shot at evening up its overall and league records. Auburn has struggled mightily and is ripe for an overdue whipping; but then again, it is way past time for Arkansas to level somebody, anybody with style. Winning ugly, after all, only is appealing when you are also winning often.