Arkansas redshirt freshman wide receiver Jordan Jones / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com
The Arkansas Razorbacks find themselves in an oddly similar situation as they prepare for Saturday’s game at South Carolina as the Hogs were going into its 2015 game at Tennessee.
Bret Bielema’s Razorbacks were 1-3 going into Knoxville, Tenn., and his Hogs will be 2-2 when they take the field at 3 p.m. in Williams-Brice Stadium to face coach Wil Muschamp’s Gamecocks in a SEC Network-televised game.
The Razorbacks turned their season around by upending Tennessee, 24-20, at Neyland Stadium, and if the Hogs can pull it all together on Saturday, there’s a chance that victory could be a similar elixir for what is ailing the Razorbacks this season.
However, to find the right medicine for the Hogs’ ills, there must be a proper diagnosis. Exactly what is the Razorbacks’ biggest problem?
Some would say it’s the defense and their tackling. Others would point to the play of the offensive line and the receivers. Team speed is another oft-mentioned deficit for Bielema’s Hogs.
A boisterous minority want to see a change at quarterback if only because they are tired of having an “Allen” guide the team.
While I totally disagree with the last assessment, there is validity in the other gripes and probably a half dozen more chinks could be pointed to in the Hogs’ armor.
However, when one considers the second-half collapses that have characterized the Razorbacks’ last four losses dating back to the Missouri game of last season, mental toughness seems to be part of the problem.
Mentally tough teams don’t make the mistakes it takes to blow leads like the Razorbacks have routinely done. Mentally tough teams have the killer instinct to choke out an opponent when it gains a lead rather than relaxing, Mentally tough teams know how to answer the bell with a knock-out punch of their own after picking themselves up off the canvas.
If the Hogs are going to turn their season around, they are going to have to resolve to find that “SEC strain” that the Hogs’ coaching staff speaks of regularly. The Razorbacks have to find a way to make the “one or two plays,” Bielema has mentioned of late to pull out a victory.
Dating back to the Broyles era, Arkansas’ best teams competed on grit, hustle, and tenacity as much or more than they did talent. It was the Hogs’ will, drive, and determination that propelled them to great seasons not just their athletic ability.
Arkansas rarely has and likely never will have the pure talent equal to the Texas teams of yesteryear or the Alabama teams of today and the recent past. However, the best Arkansas teams found ways to compete and even at times beat the big dogs of the college football world.
While it may be tough to imagine that they Hogs could do that again, they can. However, before it can happen, the Razorbacks have to find the confidence from within to believe they can make the crucial plays it takes to win those close games.
The Hogs must heal themselves of their own disbelief before they stride forward as a winning football team.
Like the Razorbacks, South Carolina has struggled this season. Their offense has averaged just 15.7 points in the past three games and have fallen to 11th in the SEC in yards per game (336) and 13th in the SEC in points per game (22.6). That’s probably why the Razorbacks are a 2.5-point favorite going into the road game.
Quarterback Jake Bentley is better than the talent around him, averaging 251.4 yards passing a game. He’s completed 98 of 157 passes for a 62.4 percent completion rate, and thrown 9 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Ty’Son Williams is the Gamecocks’ leading rusher with 41 carries for 246 yards. Bentley’s top targets are Bryan Edwards with 25 receptions for 337 yards, Deebo Samuel with 15 catches for 250 yards and 3 touchdowns, and Hayden Hurst with 17 catches for 221 yards and a touchdown.
The Hogs are ranked seventh in the SEC in total defense, but are 11th in the league in scoring offense, giving up 27.1 ppg. Arkansas gives up 142.8 yards rushing a game, and 205.3 yards passing a game.
The Razorbacks are ranked third in the SEC in scoring offense, averaging 35.2 ppg., and are eighth in total offense. The Hogs average 205.3 yards rushing a game and 203 yards passing a game.
The Gamecocks are ranked 12th in the SEC in total defense, giving up 153.6 yards rushing a game and 253.8 yards passing a game.
Saturday’s game stacks up to be a good one, but it likely will be another game that will be decided in the fourth quarter. Based on recent history, that doesn’t bode well for the Razorbacks.
If the Hogs are going to turn their season around, this would be a good week to do it. With games at Alabama (Oct. 14), against Auburn (Oct. 21), and at Ole Miss (Oct. 28), the South Carolina game is one of the best opportunities for a victory this month.