Brandon Allen summed up the feelings of everyone involved with the Arkansas football program Saturday night with one succinct comment.
“We’re tired of being close; we’re done with being close,” the Razorbacks’ starting quarterback said minutes after Arkansas fell to 1-3 on the season following a 28-21 overtime loss to No. 14 Texas A&M.
The game ended when Aggie defensive back De’Vante Harris broke on Allen’s pass and swatted it away from receiver Drew Morgan. With Arkansas’ three starting receivers out with injuries, Morgan had been Allen’s go-to guy all night, catching a career-high eight passes for 135 yards and a touchdown.
Harris knew that, and he gambled when he cut in front of Morgan. Had Harris failed to break up the pass, Morgan likely would have scored and sent the game into a second overtime. But Harris made the play.
And that really was the story of the night. Kevin Sumlin’s Aggies made plays when necessary, and the Hogs held themselves back from being all they could be with mistake after mistake.
Along with Harris’ big break-up, Aggie defensive end and the nation’s leading pass rusher Myles Garrett, whom Arkansas neutralized most of the night, made a huge fourth-quarter blindside sack, forcing Allen to fumble. Splendid freshman receiver Christian Kirk looked like an All-American, catching 8 passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns, one being the game-winner, for Texas A&M.
While Arkansas coach Bret Bielema wasn’t reflecting on Harris’ pass break-up in particular, his postgame comment about the slim difference in winning and losing was apt.
“As a coach here and at my other place [Wisconsin], I’ve run the gamut of having huge success or not,” said Bielema, who is 0-10 in games decided by a touchdown or less in three season at Arkansas, while fighting back his emotions. “The difference is so small, a play here or a player there… Today we got better. I know it wasn’t good enough to win. And, God, I wish I could take it all on myself for all the players and the fans. It sucks! As we get tested, I think we learn more about ourselves, and I think our players will respond.”
Allen, who completed 20 of 25 passes for 225 yards, a touchdown and an interception, went even further, saying the loss was on him. He credited the other Razorbacks for playing great and added that he failed to execute when it mattered most.
That was an extreme example of leadership and speaks highly of Allen’s character. That’s why Bielema thinks Allen is putting too much pressure on himself, particularly with the rash of injuries the Hogs have suffered in the first quarter of the season.
“As we’ve lost more players — first J-Will [Jonathan Williams] and Keon [Hatcher] and on and on — I think he [Allen] has put the weight of the world on his shoulders,” Bielema said. “He just needs to do his job. Brandon’s the kind of kid who puts everything in it. We’ll continue to coach him up, and we’ll continue to make corrections.”
More than a few onlookers will agree with Allen’s self-assessment. Some have already suggested the Razorbacks should bench Allen to build for next season.
The easiest thing to do is to lay blame at the feet of the quarterback. He’s the guy with the ball. His name is on the tongue of even the most casual of fans. But a loss like Arkansas’ last Saturday, heck, any loss is more complicated than that. Football is not tennis. Victory is dependent upon the entirety of the team.
The sore thumb that continues to cripple the Razorbacks is penalties. The Razorbacks compiled 11 against the Aggies for 93 yards in losses.
“The tale of the tape today was probably a lot of different things, but the penalties were absolutely critical,” Bielema said. “We can’t commit pre-snap or post-snap penalties. Offensively, I think we had a great game plan. There in the fourth quarter, we’re going to be aggressive and go for it, but we jump off sides, and we never get a chance to run the play.”
The situation was a fourth-down and 3 at the Aggie 35 with Arkansas leading 21-13 with around five minutes to play. If Arkansas gets the first down, the Hogs can continue to burn clock and possibly add to the score. But with the penalty and facing a third and 8, the Hogs had to punt.
“I know [Arkansas offensive coordinator] Dan [Enos] felt real good about that fourth-down call,” Bielema said. “We jump off sides, and we don’t get to live that call. It’s not just one guy on one play. Guys jumped off sides all day. There’s more than enough blame to go around.”
The Razorbacks have a bundle of issues with penalties beyond that one play, but Bielema offered an idea of how to simplify the situation in conditions where crowd noise is an issue, which the Hogs are bound to face this Saturday when they meet Tennessee at 6 p.m. at the 100,000-plus seat Neyland Stadium.
“We really have to be hard on ourselves about what we’re doing, hard on myself as a head coach,” Bielema said. “[We have to] look at what we are doing to put ourselves in that position or to take ourselves out of it. Maybe we have to go on a quick count. Maybe we can’t just sit there and try to make the perfect call or make the perfect protection. When it gets loud, maybe we have to go with one count, one cadence.”
The penalties weren’t only on the offensive side of the ball.
“Defensively, we had a couple of personal fouls for hitting the quarterback, giving them free yardage after an incomplete or complete pass,” Bielema said. “We can’t win football games doing that. We can’t give it away with a blown call at the line of scrimmage. I think our kids need to hear that and need to hear that everyday. Unfortunately, you get in that rut where they [officials] are throwing it [flags] at will on us, and we are the only ones that can change that.”
As fans, we’ll pick this game apart all week. It’s what we do, but by this point the Razorbacks are diving deep into their preparation for the Vols.
“I’ve been in this for 10 years,” Bielema said of his head-coaching career, “and every win seems to be so incredibly high and every loss so incredibly low. It hurts, but we are lucky, the coaches and players. We have to go right into Tennessee prep. Fans have all week to think about it.”
Bielema said his team is not ready to call it a season with eight ball games left on the schedule.
“One thing I know about this crew is that we have recruited incredible character and fortitude,” Bielema said. “Outside, people will come up with a million different reasons, and we have a lot of haters and those who will express their short-term support. I think our guys are unwavering. Whatever doesn’t get us will make us stronger.
“I really expect them to come back with a great attitude. It hurts, but then again just because you’re hurt doesn’t solve the problem. We have to make corrections and move ourselves forward. I don’t have any reason to think this group won’t do it. If you are competitive, it truly makes you want to do that much better.”
Bielema still believes he has a good football team, but said he is tired of the mistakes keeping that fact a secret.
“I know our guys have really prepared, and I know the whole thing of winning games in the fourth quarter has been our point of emphasis in practice,” Bielema said. “But it’s come to a point where we have to do it. I told them we don’t have to wait until the last part of the season to win a conference game like last year. We need to take advantage of the opportunity against Tennessee.”
Butch Davis’ Vols (2-2) have much in common with Bielema’s Hogs. Both coaches are in their third seasons and have teams that were expected to be contenders in their respective divisions of the Southeastern Conference. Neither has lived up to their preseason build-up.
Tennessee’s losses aren’t as egregious as the Hogs’ to unheralded Toledo and Texas Tech, but they are no less disturbing to Vols fans. Tennessee led Florida, 20-7, in the third quarter, but the Gators scrambled to score three touchdowns to steal a 28-27 victory. Earlier in the season, the Vols surrendered the lead to Oklahoma in the fourth quarter to fall, 31-24.
Both squads need a victory to pull what their fans had hoped to be turnaround seasons out of a tailspin.