Arkansas needed to beat Texas A&M. That’s it. Sometimes perfunctory is poetry.
The Hogs had lost four straight to the Aggies in this rekindled rivalry, the last two in Arlington in overtime after ceding fourth-quarter leads. They clamored for national recognition and a shot at flying further up the rankings with Alabama docking in Fayetteville in two weeks for a Game of the Century of the modern age.
It all came crashing down again, painfully, and generally around the damned Aggie end zone of all places. The Texas A&M goal line must have felt like an electrified invisible fence, and frankly it did a masterful job keeping the spirited Hogs from escaping with a win.
Rawleigh Williams III lost a fumble just before he plunged into the end zone. Before that, a bunch of unimaginative and fruitless bids to eke past the plane after Williams’ career-long 55-yard run staked the Hogs to first-and-goal meant that Cole Hedlund had the misfortune of attempting the most aggravating conceivable chip-shot field goal. (He made it.) Later, the Third Act revealed the great tragedy, a three-play death after 16 arduous snaps preceded it.
The Aggies (4-0) had in fact set themselves up to fail, turning it over inside the Razorback 5-yard line after a great burst to open the third quarter had them on the precipice of getting a lead in a sloppy but eventful game. Austin Allen, in the midst of what’s becoming the normative banner effort for him, shepherded the Hogs deftly upfield and by the time there was yet another first-and-goal, this time into the end populated by zealous Arkansas fans awaiting a momentum-building score.
Agonizing minutes later, Dan Enos made the worst of several befuddling play calls, trying to send a receiver of average speed (Keon Hatcher) on a wide end-around to be greeted by two unblocked safeties on fourth-and-atoms. That got consumed. Hog fans still lamenting a replay review of a presumptive Allen touchdown that appeared quite obvious on Jerry Jones’ big-ass hangin’ Teevee got an even nastier dose of salt in the wound two plays later when Trevor Knight lofted one past an inattentive D.J. Dean to his speedy wideout Josh Reynolds.
That 92-yard streak to six was part of a 28-7 surge over the final minutes that left the Aggies claiming a 45-24 win that merged the comedic and the tragic deftly. Arkansas provided all the laughter, namely when it let Knight — an adept scrambler taking third-and-short snaps from the gun — scorch the center of the field for two long touchdown runs that had him over 100 rushing by halftime. Knight was mediocre on most of his other throws, clearly having trouble against a reborn secondary, but he embarrassed the likes of Brooks Ellis and Dre Greenlaw repeatedly by exploiting a hole.
And that’s the other bit of comedy. For as big as Arkansas is up front, it is alarming to see the offensive line get abused by their counterparts on a night that A&M end Myles Garrett was actually well contained. Dan Skipper just isn’t very mobile and Jake Raulerson isn’t very effective, even as Hjalte Froholdt makes solid strides and Brian Wallace shows promise. Even more hilarious? Watching the Hogs’ heavily hyped defensive line get blown off the ball at will in the fourth quarter as the word “quit” reverberated through the Hog contingency in AT&T Stadium. All this coming after the Hogs’ 1,600-plus pounds of beef couldn’t manage to secure a few precious inches of ground for the fiery and all-everything leader behind them to squeeze through.
A&M is better than anyone likely thought after an offseason of turmoil with quarterbacks bailing, and the head coach looking suddenly incapacitated. Knight is a steadying force and the skill players are experienced. But the Aggies won the game squarely in the same trenches that Arkansas desperately wants and needs to control if it wants to elevate to another tier in this league. The recruiting of large and imposing guys is fine, but watching nondescript A&M backs blast through holes and Arkansas’s capable bellcows get racked in short-yardage matters gives you the distinct impression that player evolution is lacking. Kurt Anderson, being a new and late hire, does warrant time for his OL unit to come around, and the talent does exist there to make that an eventuality.
On the offensive side, the Aggies bottled up the run game save for Williams’ one long trot, and that’s not going to cut it. Arkansas cannot win games simply by a major time of possession disparity. In fact, the Razorbacks looked dusted and tired and got outgained by the Aggies despite having all those extra minutes of ball control. The special teams gives nothing remotely distinguished at this juncture other than the punts of senior Toby Baker, so accordingly this offense is literally going it alone, with Allen looking right now like the real best quarterback in the conference, as his brother was in 2015. The kid has moxie out the ying yang, a supremely strong and accurate arm on difficult routes, great sense and instincts in the pocket, and a balls-out attitude that hopefully is going to rub off on a bunch of his guys in bigger doses over the next several days. This was a gargantuan disappointment but Allen, a quick date with Alcorn State in the cap city, and healthy prep for Bama could mean that it’s a fleeting one too.