Two schools of thought may well emerge after Arkansas nipped a spirited Louisiana Tech team, 21-20, in the 2016 opener Saturday.
One is that the Hogs are going to battle a two-headed demon all year. The secondary, now bereft of Kevin Richardson’s services after a season-ending pectoral injury, is the familiar “old” head, the one that has basically bedeviled the Hogs for a good quarter-century off and on. That soft coverage you saw Henri Toliver, Ryan Pulley, Santos Ramirez and others employing against the Bulldogs? It’s not likely to change, because there’s an evident belief that the Razorbacks cannot afford to get beaten deep. Evidently Calvin Ridley’s decisive touchdown bomb in the waning stages of the third quarter at Tuscaloosa had Robb Smith fearful of what might happen again if press coverage was employed.
Second, more alarming head of the same beast: an offensive line that gave the second-worst showing a Razorback team has given in the Bret Bielema era (calling the pathetic effort at Florida in 2013 the worst, because there was no fairness in attempting to adjudge the Alabama game that year). Austin Allen’s going to catch hell for every pick he throws this year, to be sure, but the two against the Bulldogs were defensible under the circumstances. On third-and-18 on the opening drive, he was asked to squeeze in a 20-yard out to Jared Cornelius, and Tech safety Xavier Woods recovered to make the snag along the chalk. Later, with the Hogs trying to pad a 14-7 lead and sustain building momentum, Allen fired to his right and found the waiting arms of the Bulldogs’ Prince Sam instead. What looked like an apparent gaffe at first may have been a matter of Allen and Drew Morgan simply reading off different pages of the playbook.
At any rate, Allen was actually quite efficient and productive given that Tech popped him to the tune of four sacks and numerous well-laid licks after the throw. Left guard Hjalte Froholdt struggled mightily, which might have been anticipated for a converted defensive end making his first start on the O-line, but left tackle Dan Skipper was also outperformed, and their failures largely offset a fairly competent debut effort by freshman right tackle Colton Jackson of Conway. The erratic protection spells itself in the output: Arkansas’ pedestrian 297 total yards on almost 37 minutes of possession time and 69 offensive snaps is well behind Dan Enos’ curve.
The Hogs did not generate an offensive play longer than 18 yards, and Tech reeled off five plays of 20 yards or greater. It wasn’t that the Bulldogs were particularly electric offensively, though: Their first-time starter at quarterback, J’Mar Smith, settled into a minor groove early by throwing short, crisp slants and screens, and stayed in it because the Razorbacks simply permitted it.
I noted derisively on Saturday that Robb Smith’s work here is starting to look a bit more like flash-in-the-pan stuff, and the results bear that out. Take away the exceptional performance his unit gave during the meat of SEC play in 2014 — those back-to-back shutouts of LSU and Ole Miss will always endear him to us — and largely the Arkansas defense over the past 27 games resembles one of those cautious apertures that might inexplicably splay wide at any moment. Despite a solid second-half effort generally, the Hogs owe at least part of their good fortune against the Bulldogs to kicker Jonathan Barnes clanking away a field goal that would’ve given Tech a 23-14 second-half lead, and to the offense flashing just enough potency on its eventual game-winning drive to stave off trouble.
Arkansas will need more burst from Rawleigh Williams (24 rushes, 96 yards and a TD in his return to game action after last year’s harrowing neck injury) and more downhill outside running from Kody Walker. Devwah Whaley’s taste of action was too limited to extract anything meaningful, and that must change soon. Cornelius’ end-arounds continue to be a fair change of pace, but cannot be overused. The run game sorely missed Alex Collins’ tenacity and vision, due in part to the line’s decidedly mundane blocking schemes.
And that’s sort of how the other school of thought emerges. Arkansas has had a real nasty tendency to play down to lesser nonconference foes at times the past four years, losing to Rutgers after narrowly beating Southern Mississippi and Samford in 2013, tanking against Toledo and Texas Tech last year, and now this close shave. But maybe it’s something essential to the calculus at the moment: Would Arkansas have gained much by pasting the Bulldogs? Arguably not. This kind of slipshod mess may have function well over form with TCU looming ahead, and with those Horned Frogs having to fight like hell themselves to escape South Dakota State at home, Bielema has to feel like the game behind can’t dictate the path of the game ahead.