Poor coaching, yet again.

Arkansas has failed yet again to win the big game. The Razorbacks, sitting at 6th in the BCS and an outside contender for a spot in the national title game had a chance to take the next step towards a big time goal, the first in Razorback history. No Razorback team in the modern era (read: the introduction of the BCS standings) has gone this late into the season with a legitimate chance to play for a national title. The only time the Razorbacks came close was in 1998 and, as we have come to realize, failed to win when it mattered.

Saturday was yet another loss in a long line of heartbreaking losses. But what makes this loss so heartbreaking is not that it involved a fluke play, a hail mary pass or a botched call by the referees.  Nope. This loss was purely a consequence of coaching. Arkansas was out coached and they failed to call the right plays when it mattered most.

Darren McFadden and Felix Jones ran all day on the LSU defense. It was as if we were playing a third-tier team – a Utah State or a Mississippi State. Oh wait, those teams were able to stop the running game. But not LSU, a team with a defense so beloved that many talking heads noted that there was no chance of McFadden getting loose for big yards, much less McFadden AND Jones.

But that’s exactly what happened. McFadden and Jones, time after time, broke through the LSU front seven for critical yards. With Arkansas backed into a corner, it was McFadden who stepped up with an 80+ yard touchdown run to bring the Razorbacks within striking distance with several minutes to play. 

If anyone had any doubts who the best player is in college football, they shouldn’t after Friday’s game with LSU. McFadden won’t win the Heisman this year, and it’s hard to fault voters who give the edge for that award to Troy Smith, the excellent senior quarterback at Ohio State, who has had a great year and led his team to an undefeated regular season. But he’s no McFadden. Just ask yourself this question, if you’re picking a team, who do you take with the first pick?  You take Number 5. 

But despite McFadden’s greatness, Arkansas blew it. First it was the kickoff return for a touchdown, a mental error no doubt. One has to wonder how Arkansas gives up a kickoff return at that moment to a team that hasn’t returned a kick for a touchdown in almost a decade. 

But even with the kick return, Arkansas marched back down the field to score with 4:53 remaining thanks to a Felix Jones touchdown (after an impressive Felix Jones kick return). With 2:04 to play and Arkansas on its own 27 yard line, Houston Nutt decides that rather than get the ball to the two guys that have taken him this far (at this point in the game, Casey Dick had thrown 13 passes, only 3 complete, for a total of 29 yards.  Darren McFadden, interestingly, was 2-2 for 33 yards in the air) he decides to let Dick air it out. Four pass plays resulted in four incompletions. The game was over. 

Look, we can understand the first down deep pass play call. Had the second down been a play for McFadden, it would have made perfect sense. But instead, it was atrocious play calling, so bad it’s hard to describe it as play calling at all. It was, “go deep and hope.”  Sure, that worked in 2002. But it had to then because Arkansas only had 30 seconds to work with.  Not so this time. Running plays could have been called, should have been called, but weren’t. And poor playcalling is something that has plagued the Arkansas Razorbacks for the duration of Nutt’s tenure.

But those last drive calls don’t hold a candle to the inexplicable decision to call a rollout pass to Marcus Monk on 4th and a short 3 deep in LSU territory at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Once again, your running game was dominant all day. Your identity is running the ball, and you have quarterback who has struggled. Nutt has a tendency to try to be too cute in his playcalls, trying to trick his opponents when just a simple play would work as well. It’s like watching a flashy basketball point guard try for the behind the back spectacular play when a simple bounce pass would get the job done. And what happens?  Monk is double covered, Dick gets sacked, and another promising drive is turned away.  

Don’t analyze this game any more than is necessary. Arkansas had a chance to win and it failed. It failed because the plays called in from the sidelines in the fourth quarter, especially in the in the final two minutes, were awful. They were low percentage plays which, in order to work, demanded precision from a quarterback who was anything but precise on Saturday.

What makes this even more remarkable is that Arkansas had already wrapped up an SEC title. History, not something to be taken lightly, was staring the coaching staff in the face.  Surely the coaching staff, including coach Nutt who has insisted that every play runs through him, was aware that Darren McFadden was the only player to rush for more than 100 yards against LSU this season. Surely the coaches, including coach Nutt, were aware that the probability of Casey Dick making any of those throws was remote. Surely, someone spoke up and suggested that another quarterback come into the game?  Unfortunately, none of that happened, and if it did, we’ll never know about it. What we do know is that it was the guys not in uniform on the sidelines, and not the players on the field, who had the ultimate impact on the outcome of the game.

As a result, Arkansas’ national title hopes, as distant as they may have been, disappeared.  The Hogs may win the SEC championship game on Saturday against Florida and play in the Sugar Bowl. That will be great.  But what we will always wonder is what could have been had Darren McFadden, Mitch Mustain, or Felix Jones gotten a chance to contribute on that final series.  

Sadly, we’ll never know.

                         *                                  *                                  *

A quick note about Stan Heath’s Arkansas Basketball team.  Congratulations on winning a the Old Spice Classic in Orlando.  The basketball team showed guts, heart, great free throw shooting, and, at long last, some basketball IQ in beating Southern Illinois, Marist, and West Virginia in a four day stretch.  For the first time in too long, it’s fun to watch Arkansas basketball again. 

JR and Henry blog their column here twice a week.