Photo: Jason Ivester / Via GoFrogs.com
It wasn’t what most Arkansas fans expected, but it was what many Arkansas fans feared.
The “it” I’m talking about isn’t the super scary film adaptation of the 1986 Stephen King novel that made an estimated $117 million at the box office over the weekend.
No, for Hog fans this “it” is far more frightening. This “it” is a living nightmare that has been reoccurring, dating back to the final regular-season football game of last year.
This “it” is Bret Bielema’s underperforming Arkansas Razorbacks football program.
Under Bielema, the Razorbacks have lost three of their last four football games in a disturbing and alarming manner.
Enough has been said about the Hogs’ second-half collapses after holding double-digit leads against Missouri in last year’s regular-season finale and against Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl.
As bad as those games were, the Razorbacks’ performance might have been even worse last Saturday in a 28-7 loss to TCU. The Hogs at least had good starts in both of the previous games. That was not the case last Saturday, the Horned Frogs dominated Arkansas from start to finish.
For the longest, the Razorbacks stayed within 14-7 of the 2-0 Horned Frogs, which jumped up to No. 20 in the latest Associated Press Poll, but TCU was whipping Arkansas worse than the scoreboard showed.
TCU coach Gary Patterson’s super quick defense stymied the Hogs’ offense at every turn. The Razorbacks mustered just 267 yards of total offense — 129 on the ground and 138 through the air.
It could have been worse. Once Patterson knew his defense had control of the game, the Horned Frogs tried nothing risky the rest of the day. While talented, TCU quarterback Kenny Hill has been known to be his and his team’s worst enemy with turnovers. Patterson’s wasn’t going to let that happen with the game firmly in control. He orchestrated a conservative game plan that allowed TCU to dominate the time of possession 33:52 to 26:08, basically beating the Hogs at their own game.
While the Razorbacks technically weren’t out of the game until a fourth-quarter fumble deep in Arkansas territory by kick returner Deon Stewart set up the Horned Frogs fourth touchdown, it was clear that it was going to be a tough day for the Hogs from their first pass play when TCU pushed tackle Johnny Gibson nearly into quarterback Austin Allen’s lap disrupting his throw.
As much as Arkansas’ line had trouble protecting Allen, it also struggled with opening holes for Arkansas’ running backs. The story of the game in microcosm was TCU halting the Hogs on three consecutive plays from the Horned Frogs 3 yard line in the final seconds of the third quarter and the early seconds of the fourth.
The failure in the trenches convinced Bielema to call for a field goal to try and get some points out of the drive and to narrow the TCU lead to 14-10, but placekicker Cole Hedlund missed his second field goal of the day, a straight-on kick from 20 yards that coaxed a metallic doink when the ball rebounded off the left upright. His earlier miss was from just 23 yards.
However, Arkansas’ receivers played just as poorly. Case in point, senior receiver Jared Cornelius’ rustiness from missing all of preseason camp showed as the normally reliable receiver dropped two passes while only catching one for just two yards.
The rest of Arkansas’ receivers struggled to get open, dropped passes, and heard footsteps all day, too. Even on Jonathan Nance’ 49-yard touchdown reception from Allen, the JUCO transfer made a throat-slash gesture that eluded the attention of the officials but was clearly captured on television.
Though Nance was not on the team last year, I don’t know whether to classify his bush-league celebration as ironic or moronic, considering officials flagged TCU’s Hill for a similar move in the Hogs’ double-overtime, 31-28 victory last year at Fort Worth.
Arkansas got some output from tight ends Cheyenne O’Grady, who caught two passes for 24 yards, and Jeremy Patton, who gained 32 yards on one reception. However, Patton also had a drop and starter Austin Cantrell had a holding call that called back a first-down run by David Williams, and he also ran a pattern too deep in the end zone that left him two feet out of bounds for what could have touchdown catch.
Considering it didn’t get much help from the offense, Arkansas’ defense didn’t play horribly, but the tackling wasn’t sharp, particularly as TCU wore the Hogs down as the game progressed. Santos Ramirez made two great early plays, breaking up a catch in the red zone and later nabbing an interception. Junior linebacker Dre Greenlaw was in on an alarming 17 tackles. It’s alarming because successful defenses usually aren’t on the field enough for one player to make 17 stops.
Clearly Arkansas’ program is not where it needs or should be in the fifth year of a Bielema’s regime, but then again it was just one football game, and we don’t know how strong TCU is. The Horned Frogs might be a Top-10 team?
In many ways, the game reminded me of Arkansas’ loss to Toledo at War Memorial Stadium in 2015. The Hogs’ offense spit and sputtered in that game as well as in a loss to Texas Tech the following week before posting a strong 6-2 mark in SEC play.
Maybe, the Razorbacks can pull things together like that again and have a respectable season?
However, this year’s issues look worse to me. The Razorbacks will face more dominant offensive and defensive lines than TCU’s on several occasions in SEC play, and coaches with more confidence in their quarterbacks won’t call those games as conservatively as Patterson did.
The Razorbacks have an open date this week to try and sort things out before heading to Arlington, Texas, to face Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium on Sept. 23 in what appears to be a critical showdown for both squads and their coaches.
I joked last week that the game might be dubbed the Hot Seat Bowl if Arkansas lost to TCU.
That joke doesn’t sound all that funny to me at the moment.