Photo: Walt Beazley / ArkansasRazorbacks.com
Truer words have rarely been spoken than how Bret Bielema summed up the outcome of the Arkansas Razorbacks’ 51-50 loss to Mississippi State last Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
“Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us,” Bielema said loss. “You can go back and look at the film and make corrections, but what’s done is done.”
That’s true, but as fans we aren’t going to let this one go for a long time because of the dramatics of the game.
Mississippi State linebacker Beniquez Brown cut inside of an attempted block by Razorback tight end Alex Voelzke on Cole Hedlund’s 28-yard field-goal attempt. Voelzke barely got a shoulder on Brown has he rushed inside to block the field goal with 00:38 left that left Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs a winner and the Hogs out in the cold.
Many have criticized Bielema for his decision to attempt the short-range field goal after the Razorbacks had moved the ball from their own 11-yard line to the Bulldogs’ 12 behind the crisp passing of senior quarterback Brandon Allen and his vastly improved array of receiving targets.
Allen, who has been red-hot since midseason, completed 30 of 43 passes for 406 yards and a school-record seven touchdowns in a game. The seventh TD throw made him the Hogs’ all-time leader in the category with 63, one more than Ryan Mallett.
Many have groused how dare Bielema take the ball away from the golden-armed quarterback in this situation. They opined that Allen deserved the right to finish off the game.
Mind you, some of these people are the very ones that have said Allen should not have been the starter the last three years. Some of them even labeled him a choke artist.
Ironic, isn’t it?
Honestly, I would have liked to have seen the Hogs throw to the end zone, too, but I understand why Bielema kept the ball on the ground and went for the field goal. He played the percentages. He did the safe thing. From a logical standpoint, it was the right thing even though it turned out wrong.
Had the Hogs put the ball in the air, there was the possibility of a sack, which would have made a field-goal attempt even longer or impossible.
“We ran a one-back run play that is actually the same play Alex [Collins] scored on last week, the long touchdown,” Bielema said about the first-down play. From there the Hogs ran up the middle to center the ball for the field-goal attempt.
“Any time you put the ball in the air you leave yourself vulnerable for a pick,” Bielema said. “We didn’t want to lose yardage, for sure.”
Remember the Ole Miss game. It took perhaps the most improbable play in Razorbacks history to bail the Hogs out in overtime after a couple of lost-yardage plays. On the extra-point conversion, the Hogs only avoided a disastrous sack on the 2-point conversion thanks to a facemask penalty.
A coach can’t count on that type of luck. That’s why he opted for the safe route.
No doubt, Bielema was also thinking of the Hogs’ final third-quarter drive, which ended on a 4th-and-1 play at the Bulldogs’ 26 when the pass rush forced an incompletion by Allen on an intended pass to Hunter Henry.
That would have been a much longer field-goal attempt. Certainly, those 3 points would have made the contest a different game. But chancing a block of a lower-trajectory kick was deemed too risky at that point in the game. The longer the field goal, the lower the trajectory on the kick to achieve the greater distance.
As a coach, you have to protect opportunities for a victory, and in both decisions, that’s what Bielema was intending to do.
Bielema made the call that he felt gave the Razorbacks the best and safest path to victory. That wasn’t the result because Brown made a great play, and Voelzke failed to execute. Great plays and breakdowns in execution win and lose games for teams every week.
At least, the Razorbacks have enough class and respect for their coach not to question him in postgame interviews like Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliot did Saturday following the Buckeyes’ 17-14 loss to Michigan State.
No doubt, if Bielema had known that the protection would break down on the field goal, he would have made a different call, but he’s not a psychic or an oracle. He’s a football coach.
“Going down to that last series, we said that we aren’t going to go two minutes until we got into the last two minutes,” Bielema said. “If we did find ourselves inside the 20, we felt really good about our field-goal opportunity from inside the 20 from the left to left-middle. That’s what kind of drove our thinking there at the end, and we obviously weren’t able to execute the most monumentally easy thing we have to be able to accomplish, which is as field goal inside the 20-yard line.”
And for those fans that always want a coach to take the blame for a loss, he did.
“It hurts, it stings, it bites,” Bielema said. “I told our players to put this one on me.”
Bielema, who has lived through several heartbreakers as Arkansas’ coach, said the loss to MSU, which dropped the Hogs to 6-5 on the season and 4-3 in SEC, might be the worst. His job now is to get his team up for their final regular season game against Missouri at Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Friday at 1:30 p.m. It will be televised by CBS.
“Now we’ll move ourselves into preparation mode for Missouri in a short week,” Bielema said. “We have to do a good job of getting our guys back mentally.”
Bielema knows how to pick his team back up after losses, but if he did want a bit of sage advice, he could do a lot worse than to call Frank Broyles.
The situation wasn’t quite the same, but in one of the biggest games of Broyles’ coaching career, he had his star quarterback Bill Montgomery pass into the end zone rather than set up for a short field goal.
Longtime Hog fans unfortunately know where I’m going with this. It was that infamous Dec. 6, 1969, game against Texas, dubbed the Big Shootout.
Texas defensive back Danny Lester intercepted Montgomery’s pass that was intended for All-American receiver Chuck Dicus.
A little later, the Longhorns in desperation mode went for a 4th-and-3 at the Arkansas 42. Darrell Royal took a risk and called on his quarterback James Street, who was known more for his flashy feet than his arm, to throw downfield to tight end Randy Peschel.
Street’s play-action fake sucked in the Hogs safeties, and Peschel got behind them for a 44-yard catch that set up winning touchdown two plays later.
Montgomery moved the Hogs to the Texas 39 late in the game, which was nearly in placekicker Bill McClard’s range. However, the Longhorns picked off Montgomery again to close out a 15-14 victory.
That loss still haunts some Hog fans today.
Luckily, this Razorbacks team can chase away a lot of the ghosts with a victory over Missouri. The Tigers (5-6, 1-6) do have a strong defense despite having struggled offensively all season.
Emotionally, it will be a huge game for Missouri as head coach Gary Pinkel coaches his final regular-season game for the program after 15 years of service. He recently announced his retirement due to his diagnosis of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. A victory over the Razorbacks would make Missouri bowl eligible.