The best thing that can be said about the Arkansas Razorbacks 49-30 loss to No. 1 Alabama is that the Hogs’ offense went down fighting.
Alabama not only manhandled Arkansas but also mauled the Razorbacks along both lines of scrimmage, but junior quarterback Austin Allen and his group of receivers never quit. They went down throwing and catching to the exasperation of Alabama coach Nick Saban.
Despite being sacked six times and hit at least a dozen more, Allen kept chunking the football, completing 24 of 38 passes for 400 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.
The three interceptions, all made by Alabama defensive back Minka Fitzpatrick including one he returned 100 yards for a touchdown, and Allen’s fumble which Alabama pass rusher Tim Williams returned 23 yards for a touchdown obviously marred Allen’s performance.
However, those mistakes happened because too much responsibility fell on Allen’s shoulders to make plays. With the Hogs’ running game rendered ineffective, a net of 73 yards on 36 carries, passing the football was the Razorbacks only recourse. That severely stressed the Razorbacks’ struggling offensive line as it attempted to pass protect Allen to little avail.
While I would argue that the Razorbacks will not face a more talented defensive opponent the rest of the season, statistically, Florida’s defense is ranked second in the nation to Michigan, while Alabama registers at No. 12. LSU is ranked 21st and Auburn tied with Miami of Ohio at 30th. Saturday’s opponent Ole Miss boasts a very quick defensive unit, while Missouri and Mississippi State also boast salty defensive units.
Though Rawleigh Williams Jr. is the SEC’s third leading rusher on the season with 605 yards on 113 carries, the Razorbacks’ running game has not meshed. When the Hogs needed to punch in touchdowns against Texas A&M, they were denied, and Alabama virtually snuffed the Hogs’ running game.
With that said, the biggest problem Arkansas’ offense actually faces going forward is it’s defense. The Hogs, who ranked 12th last season against the run, gave up 286 rushing yards to Alabama, including first-quarter runs of 56 and 57 yards after surrendering 366 rushing yards to Texas A&M two weeks ago.
Tackling has been an issue with missed assignments and poor angles leading to arm tackles, which Alabama’s skilled players easily brushed off. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema openly questioned whether Arkansas’ defensive scheme was asking too much of its players. Bielema may backtrack on that statement, and there’s not enough time to install an entirely different defensive scheme in the middle of the season, but course corrections do have to be made.
Defensive coordinator Robb Smith worked wonders with his scheme in 2014 when the Hogs ranked 10th in the nation in defense. Last year the defense remained strong against the run, but weak against the pass. This season there are leaks in both areas.
Could it be that SEC defensive coordinators were a bit surprised by the Hogs’ scheme in 2014, but have made adjustments since? If so, it is time for the Razorbacks to adjust now and quickly.
The loss of sophomore weakside linebacker Dre Greenlaw is one the Razorbacks could ill afford. He was scheduled for surgery on Monday for a broken foot and is out for 4-6 weeks. Freshman De’Jon Harris and junior Dwayne Eugene filled in for Greenlaw Saturday.
For the time being, it appears the Razorbacks will once again have to attempt to outscore opponents like they did down the stretch last season when the Hogs outdueled Auburn, 54-46, in four overtimes and Ole Miss, 53-52, in overtime. Behind the outstanding play of Dak Prescott, Mississippi State nipped the Razorbacks, 51-50, in another track meet.
Allen and his receiving corps might be up for the challenge. The Fayetteville native made more than a few excellent throws, and while his receivers might not be quite as dynamic as the Petrino-era combination of Jarius Wright, Greg Childs and Joe Adams, this group is awfully good.
Jared Cornelius had already proven his value during his freshman and sophomore seasons, but he is having a breakout season thus far. He made five catches for 146 yards against the Crimson Tide. He’s made 19 caches for 408 yards and four touchdowns. His average of 21.5 yards per catch leads the SEC.
Drew Morgan is ranked 10th in the SEC with 33 catches for 344 yards and a touchdown. Morgan should have had his second touchdown against Alabama, but it was called back on a phantom holding call. Keon Hatcher, who may be the Hogs’ most talented receiver, is ranked 13th in the SEC with 18 catches for 320 yards and five touchdowns, which is tied for second in the conference in TD receptions with three other players. Tight end Jeremy Sprinkle is ranked 25th in the SEC with 18 receptions for 194 yards and four touchdowns.
Cody Hollister is improving week by week, and of course there is still Dominique Reed, who has played poorly this season, but who is talented enough to be a playmaker, if he will only do it.
Allen is ranked second in the SEC in passing yardage to Missouri’s Drew Lock (1,675 yards) with 1,632 yards. Allen’s completed 119 of 187 passes for a 63.6 completion percentage. He has the second-best quarterback rating in the league to Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly (163.19) at 158.1. Allen leads the league in passing touchdowns with 15, but he’s suffered 5 interceptions and 13 sacks. Only Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs has been sacked more this season with 14.
At the midway point of the regular season, the three big questions for the remainder of the season are can the defense stiffen up, can the running game improve enough to relive some pressure from the passing game, and can the pass protection improve enough to keep Allen upright for the rest of the season?
Those three questions are unanswerable at this juncture. With the Razorbacks sitting at 4-2 overall and 0-2 in SEC play, they need just two more wins to gain bowl eligibility.
One would think the Hogs would win at least two of their final six games; however, an ESPN statistical analysis last week predicted that the Razorbacks would not win again this year. Statistics and computer comparisons aren’t meaningless, but they absolutely aren’t the final word either. The games will be played on the field, beginning with Saturday’s 6 p.m. ESPN-televised game against Ole Miss.
Most picked this Razorbacks team to win between seven and nine football games this season. That kind of season is still in reach, but the Hogs are going to have to improve a great deal during the last half of the season to accomplish that.
A consolation for Hog fans is that Bielema’s Arkansas teams have generally played their best football in the back half of the season with their backs against the wall.