I am a firm believer in what Bret Bielema is doing at Arkansas. There is no denying that today’s 14-13 loss to Alabama marks a dramatic improvement from the 52-0 thrashings Alabama has doled out each of the last two years. But despite the improvement, Arkansas is still a long way away from an SEC win. The conference schedule the rest of the way includes both Mississippi teams – we all know how good they are – a Georgia team that won 34-0 on the road today, the always tough LSU and a trip to Missouri. All of those will be similarly challenging.
There were certainly a lot of positives against Alabama today, mostly on the defensive side of the ball. Arkansas held Alabama to only 66 rushing yards, only 2.1 per carry. To this point, Arkansas’s defense has been shaky at best. But today, they shut down one of the very best receivers in the country – Amari Cooper was held to 2 catches for 22 yards and a carry for -6 yards – and made a vaunted Alabama offense look incredibly pedestrian. Trey Flowers and Darius Philon dominated up front and caused Blake Sims to appear lost and disoriented all game. Any defense that can make Alabama look well below average has done a spectacular job.
Aside from not catching two sure-interceptions, the secondary also had an outstanding game. I don’t think I’ve said that about an Arkansas secondary in years. They shut down Cooper, and didn’t allow anything over the top. Not one corner got burned one-on-one today. And they also played the run as well as I’ve seen them play. As soon as an Alabama running back got to the edge, there were always four or five Arkansas players swarming to the ball.
The other positive for me was the play of A.J. Derby. His transformation into a legitimate SEC tight end has thoroughly amazed me. Just a year ago, he was one of the worst backup quarterbacks I’ve seen. When he took over against Rutgers, he looked slow, unathletic and he lacked poise under center. But as he’s done all year, he proved today with a long touchdown catch that he is among the best athletes on the Razorback team. The stiff-arm and burst up the sideline was almost McFadden-esque. Who would have thought the player with the best hands on the team would have been Derby?
But despite those positives, this was an extremely disheartening loss. I got a few texts saying I should be proud of how close we’ve played all the good teams. But news flash. In the SEC West, everyone is good. You need to win games – not be close. And for the second game in a row, Arkansas found ways to lose the game when they on the whole outplayed their high-profile opponent. Against A&M it was penalties, today it was turnovers and the inability to capitalize on turnover opportunities on the other side of the ball.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Brandon Allen will not win a football game for you. He’s a much better quarterback than he was a year ago, and he’s an absolute fighter – I point to the 14 yard scramble he had on 3rd and 15. But he’s not somebody that can lead you 86 yards downfield when everybody knows he has to pass the ball. He needs to learn when to get rid of the ball so he doesn’t take so many hits. And he needs to be more accurate with his passes – too many passes today were thrown either a foot high or a foot low. His game-sealing interception came from a throw everyone knows never to make.
So with that in mind, I question the decision of the Arkansas coaching staff to abandon the run in the fourth quarter. I know they hadn’t been successful, but when you pound the ball all game, you should have an easier time running against tired defenders in the fourth quarter. Yet for the second straight game, Arkansas has abandoned the run game late. Why? Allen has consistently proved he can’t lead the team to a win in the fourth quarter.
Also, I would like to personally challenge Alex Collins to be better. He is one of the best backs in the league. But he hardly was involved today because of a fumble and general ineffectiveness. If he considers himself to be a Heisman-quality running back, he needs to step up in big games. Not hide. At Arkansas, it doesn’t matter if you can run for hundreds of yards against Texas Tech. It matters that you can pick up yards against the Alabamas and LSUs of the world. Collins must prove he can do that.
So here we are again. Arkansas is now looking at a 4-12 season if they can’t close games. Frankly, I don’t know how Arkansas will respond against a Georgia team riding a high next week. Hopefully, an appearance in Little Rock can inspire the Hogs, but I’m not sure. Today’s crowd was pretty awesome. Nothing is going to come easy this year. To win with this schedule, Arkansas needs to play an almost perfect game. But they can do that. I will not accept the notion that they can’t succeed. Being in the SEC West is not an excuse. Watch this team play and it’s clear they are among the best teams in the country. But they will not succeed unless they start treating the fourth quarter like the first. They have to believe.